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This woman is behind Salesforce's global expansion

Elizabeth Pinkham can point to the moment when her job at Salesforce.com took its latest dramatic turn.

As one of the software company's top 12 leaders and possessor of by far the longest title — executive vice president, global real estate, global strategic events, Dreamforce and executive briefing centers — Pinkham is a trusted confidant of CEO Marc Benioff.

At last year's Dreamforce, the company's annual mega-gala for cloud businesses and app developers, Benioff and Pinkham were looking over the event's expansive presence in downtown San Francisco. On the makeshift plaza, where lounge furniture is spread across artificial grass covering a normally busy street, a thought came to Benioff.

"He stood there and said — this is what we need in our offices,'" said Pinkham, in an interview earlier this month at a newly designed events space in one of Salesforce's offices. "That's where we all started thinking differently."

Pinkham, a 16-year veteran of Salesforce, spends much of her time traveling the globe, visiting the 28 countries where the company has operations and attending events that are collectively known as the Salesforce World Tour.

Salesforce EVP Elizabeth Pinkham at the Salesforce tower.
Source: Salesforce
Salesforce EVP Elizabeth Pinkham at the Salesforce tower.

When not in transit, Pinkham sits at the intersection of San Francisco's hyper-growth tech market and its booming real estate industry. She's overseeing the development of Salesforce Tower, the second tallest building west of the Mississippi River as it prepares to open for business in mid-2017. She's also working on designs for new offices in New York, Indianapolis, London and Hyderabad, India.

If that's not enough, Pinkham is in charge of constructing next week's Dreamforce, filling out four days of programming and entertainment for about 170,000 attendees. Speakers include Melinda Gates, General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Congressman John Lewis from Georgia. There's also a start-up pitch session called Dreampitch, with Marc Cuban and Chris Sacca from "Shark Tank" joining will.i.am as judges.

Festivities run from Tuesday through Friday, highlighted by a U2 concert Wednesday night.

The conference, which comes two weeks after Oracle OpenWorld, is the marquee annual event not just for Salesforce but also for scores of software developers who've built cloud businesses on top of Salesforce's platform. Some of the biggest participants like Apttus, Appirio and FinancialForce spend $1.5 million each for top sponsorships.

Venture capitalist Jeff Richards of Silicon Valley firm GGV Capital has been attending Dreamforce for about a dozen years, and remembers when it was a niche event for 1,000 or so people. Now he calls it the Woodstock or Lollapalooza of cloud technology.

"Marc Benioff and his team have made it into a rally for the cloud economy," said Richards, whose investments include Appirio, a strategic partner of Salesforce. "You've got tens of thousands of people showing up, doing deals, investing in companies, looking to recruit talent and obviously pitching customers. It's a can't-miss event for anybody who's in enterprise tech around the world."

Dreamforce 2016 swag
Ari Levy | CNBC
Dreamforce 2016 swag

Dreamforce sits a half-mile from Salesforce's rapidly expanding urban campus at the corner of Fremont Street and Mission Street. The Salesforce Tower is across from the company's main office and kitty-corner from 350 Mission Street, a 30-story building that Salesforce is using as a testing ground of sorts for new floor plans and designs.

The fourth building on that corner is the now infamous Millennium Tower, a 58-story residential skyscraper that's created a political firestorm in the city. Since its completion eight years ago, the building has sunk 16 inches and is tilting at least two inches to the northwest.

While its neighboring condo tower is in crisis, Salesforce is promoting peace and tranquility.

As much as Benioff touts Salesforce's path to becoming the fastest software company to reach $10 billion in annual revenue, he's trying to create a model for keeping 19,000 employees happy and healthy.

That helps explain his latest obsession: mindfulness.

According to a Dreamforce memo sent to employees this week, 25 monks from Plum Village in southwest France will be attending the conference, leading "on-demand meditation" at two mindfulness zones. About two-dozen sessions on the topic are scheduled, and over 800 people have signed up.

Friday is billed as the "Day of Compassion" and features keynotes from Nadine Burke Harris, CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, and Elizabeth Gilbert, author of bestselling book "Eat, Pray, Love." Zen monks and nuns will also be speaking.

A rendering of the mindfulness zone at Dreamforce
Source: Salesforce
A rendering of the mindfulness zone at Dreamforce

When Pinkham says that Benioff wants to infuse the energy of Dreamforce into Salesforce offices, the monastic theme provides perhaps the most vivid example.

Last year, some 30 monks from Plum Village, including Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, stayed at Benioff's house in San Francisco.

Pretty soon, the monks started joining Benioff at executive team events around the Bay Area and leading mindfulness exercises.

"It's very interesting when you show up at a management offsite and it's not PowerPoint and Excel for the first half-hour," Pinkham said. "But you're actually sitting with monks and you're learning how to be mindful."

The monks then started consulting Pinkham on office design, a process that led to a significant change in the company's buildout plans. Now, every new floor in Salesforce's buildings is being drawn up to include a mindfulness zone, where employees drop their devices and meditate in a secluded, curtained-off area.

Classes are even being offered on mindfulness, meditation and general wellness.

"We're piloting this stuff and now it's starting to roll out," said Pinkham.

Salesforce Tower - facts and figures

  • 61 floors, 1,070 feet tall
  • 1.4 million square feet
  • $1.1 billion estimated building cost
  • 368 million pounds - total weight
  • March 2013 - groundbreaking
  • 2018 - expected completion

It's a costly experiment and part of a hugely capital intensive expansion.

In addition to the more than 2 million square feet that Salesforce will occupy in San Francisco by next year, the company committed in early 2016 to a $288 million sublease over 12 years for a building in midtown-Manhattan that will be known as Salesforce Tower New York. In Indianapolis, where Salesforce is taking over and renaming the Chase Tower, the company agreed in May to spend $77 million over 13 years beginning in 2018.

Boston Properties, the owner of the 61-floor, 1.4 million square foot Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, estimated that the total cost of the project — the real estate company's biggest ever — would reach $1.1 billion. Salesforce agreed to pay $690 million for the naming rights and a 15-year lease.

About half of the floors will be occupied by Salesforce, and the rest by a combination of other businesses, said Peter Back, senior vice president of construction at Boston Properties.

The tower's structure has risen at a pace of two floors a week, nearing its peak of 1,070 feet in height just ahead of Dreamforce. Some 480 contractors and subcontractors are there daily, with 250 working at night, Back said in an interview prior to leading CNBC on a private tour of the tower.

"It's getting a little more frantic because you've got so many trades," he said. Starting in the first quarter, "you'll have another phase coming in that does the carpets, ceilings and lights and office furniture to get ready for move in."

Salesforce EVP Elizabeth Pinkham during Dreamforce planning meeting.
Ari Levy | CNBC
Salesforce EVP Elizabeth Pinkham during Dreamforce planning meeting.

It's the interior that gets Pinkham particularly excited. For every floor, she's helping design a large social space that looks more like a residential living and dining room than anything that belongs in a corporate environment.

Pinkham said that when scoping out new space, she looks for the prime corner with the best views and lighting to create an open room with comfortable couches, customized walls, commissioned pieces of art and, of course, a snack bar.

"Instead of putting a big executive office in that corner with the big view, we decided let's make this our social corner for employees to gather," she said, while walking through one such space at 350 Mission Street. "This space gets used for town halls, team meetings, new hire welcome receptions, and team celebrations after they deliver a big project."

There's currently no bigger project for Pinkham than Dreamforce.

Following our interview, we walked across the street to Salesforce's main building at 50 Fremont for the weekly Dreamforce planning meeting. Pinkham calls it the "war room — where the team does its best thinking."

It was a Thursday morning, 26 days before the conference's kick-off.

For an hour, a half-dozen employees responsible for sweating every last detail of Dreamforce, pour over renderings, concentrating as much on style as substance. The design of the mobile app's map, the placement of the logo on the conference program and the layout of the stage for the U2 show are just a few of the topics on the table.

This close to Dreamforce, it's Pinkham's main event. The others in the room have been building toward this moment for a full year. Pinkham says all that behind-the-scenes work is Dreamforce's "secret sauce."

Just how much effort goes into it for the team of insiders?

"They're already working on next year's Dreamforce," she said.