How Salesforce Became a Champion for Accessibility & Inclusion

Illustration of Salesforce characters standing in front of a circular cityscape at night. Several are wearing shirts or holding a sign that says a11y.

Image Description: Illustration of Salesforce characters standing in front of a circular cityscape at night. Several are wearing shirts or holding a sign that says a11y.

How Salesforce Became a Champion for Accessibility & Inclusion

Through a combination of grassroots affinity groups and committed leadership, Salesforce has become a major advocate for greater accessibility and inclusion in the tech industry and wider professional world.

Nov 16, 2023

For the fifth consecutive year, InclusionHub founding partner Salesforce has been named among the “Best Places to Work for Disability Inclusion,” an annual list by global inclusion and equality nonprofit Disability:IN ranking companies’ equality practices. Salesforce earned the top score of 100 on Disability:IN’s comprehensive benchmarking tool every time.

Much of this is owed to the company’s “shift left mentality,” an accessibility-focused design approach that permeates throughout the entire organization. In fact, Salesforce may be tending to the largest crop of accessibility-focused digital products in the tech industry.

But this wasn’t always the case for the cloud-based software leader.

InclusionHub spoke with Mike Raabe, president of Salesforce business resource group Abilityforce Global, to learn more about the beginnings of the movement to turn the company (and its professional ecosystem) into a place rooted in the principles of accessibility, inclusion, and belonging.

He also articulates the role businesses must play in bringing about continued meaningful social change.

Origins of Abilityforce & the Office of Accessibility

It’s taken Salesforce several years to become the industry-leading accessibility and inclusion champion it is today. Overall, the evolution has been an organic process that genuinely began in a grassroots fashion.

“We started as affinity groups,” explains Raabe, also a pricing and product operations manager at Salesforce. “We were just coming together as a community with a shared identity or vision, and then we moved into an employee resource group.”

Also called business resource groups (BRGs), employee resource groups (ERGs) give employees a profound way to connect with others around common experiences or personal backgrounds. This enables them to discuss challenging issues they face in the workplace—especially as they relate to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

These formal collectives are designed, ultimately, to influence corporate policies and practices at Salesforce in authentic ways.

“Upon becoming an ERG the company starts offering additional resources,” he says. “There will be money, which is always helpful, but also access to leaders that allows us to continue to grow as an equality group.”

While central to creating company-wide changes, he acknowledges these groups can be “very energy investing because we're trying to change perceptions. We're trying to really put an empathetic lens on every decision that we're making, and that can take a little bit more when you don't have as much to give emotionally.”

Fortunately, the customer relationship management software company amped up its equality efforts around 2019 when Chief Financial Officer Amy Weaver guided Salesforce toward creation of its Office of Accessibility. Now president of Abilityforce, a BRG centered around professionals with disabilities, Raabe says these efforts have been transformative for Salesforce.

“From an employee's standpoint,” he continues, “it ensures that we're receiving all employees in need of accommodations and providing them with resources. We have a fund that helps support that directly. It's making sure the real estate is accessible for not only the employees but our customers and partners, anyone that comes into our ecosystem. We want them to have a good experience.”

Groundswell efforts are important, but having the backing of leadership is invaluable, as well. Raabe believes much of the company's transformation has been possible because Weaver is “such a big believer and proponent of accessibility and disability inclusion in the workplace.”

Several years later, these egalitarian values have become fused throughout the entire company culture.

For instance, during Salesforce’s annual event, Dreamforce, which usually features a major musical artist, a stage is “dedicated specifically for people with disabilities,” he explains. It’s provided to ensure everyone has “an equitable concert going experience without having to worry about the crowds or being able to see. We have space for wheelchairs and feature captions, whatever it is that people need to fully participate, regardless of their disability.”

Accessibility Goes Global

In his 10 years since joining Salesforce, Raabe has both contributed to and observed incredible growth related to accessibility and inclusion. He’s been a part of Abilityforce since its inception and knows its history well.

“It's been really awesome to see it blossom from just one hub out in San Francisco to now over 30 locations across the planet,” he says. “We got started in 2016 and it was only a few months later that myself and a few others here started the Indianapolis charter of Abilityforce.”

Reflecting on what inspired his activism as an accessibility and inclusion advocate, he’s been motivated by his own experiences with disabilities.

Already diagnosed with ADHD, his campaign for greater accessibility started with “being very mindful of how depression and anxiety were showing up for me in the workplace,” he says. “I’m a big proponent of therapy, I think it’s very helpful, especially for men like me. It's really just about developing the tools to be able to handle the complexities of life. They're not necessarily taught in school and there's all the different things that impact our ability to be resilient in life and in the workplace.”

But his accessibility work, as it is for others, also stems from his family life. His father experienced a serious stroke in 2002, followed by a couple of accidents that left him paralyzed on one side of his body. His father is now primarily dependent on a wheelchair and relies on Raabe’s mother as a caretaker.

Yet despite the hardships, all of these experiences have invigorated his resolve and amplified the work his team has done at Salesforce.

“We have hubs in at least 15 to 20 different countries right now,” he says. “That is creating the conditions for us to learn about each of these countries and how our identities manifest, what that looks like in their culture better informs our global culture. You continue to get that input and feedback and bring it to the decision makers. You're now making more informed choices on behalf of all people.”

Businesses Can Be Vehicles for Social Change

The way companies do business shapes the cultures and communities in which they operate, over time either harming people and the natural environment or becoming vehicles for social change.

Raabe believes that Salesforce has genuinely prioritized being, well, a force for good.

Money is obviously a major incentive for people, but he understands that businesses don’t have to only care about the bottom line. While a persistent factor for enterprises, he argues this motive can also be used to advance greater accessibility and inclusion.

“We talk a lot about the company being one of the best platforms for change,” he says. “I'm a firm believer in it because I think that it offers this interesting bridge for the folks where money is their primary motivator. A lot of the progress that we can continue to make as a company, as a society, is meeting people where they are. I think most people are reasonable.”

Abilityforce and Salesforce’s other equality efforts include helping companies within their ecosystem focus more on accessibility, inclusion, and belonging.

“This is game changing to me,” he says. “This is the real value of what a BRG can bring to a company and what it means when you think about enterprise from an equitability lens, making DEI central to everything that we do.”

In his view, there’s certainly a business case to be made for accessibility, although he remains rather critical of the current economic system. Raabe wants more dramatic systemic changes than others, but he understands that business can still impact the positive trajectory of progress. But they can’t keep going on the same way they have.

“For anyone that is a capitalist out there,” he says, “and I know there's a number of them living in this country and elsewhere. I'm not really one of them. I participate to a degree that is required. It's nice to have a good livelihood and all that. But there's a point. When is enough enough?”

If companies commit themselves to accessibility and inclusion, or other social initiatives, such as sustainability, they’re going to see promising dividends, he believes.

“If you invest in BRGs or ERGs in your company, you're going to become a much more informed decision maker and you're gonna be making better decisions on behalf of everyone that you're responsible for.”

Despite persistent problems in the professional world or economic landscape, Raabe remains undaunted.

“I am an optimist,” he says. “I do believe in an ideal world but I am also a realist. There’s always more to be done, right? But as long as we continue to think about progress, not perfection, we'll continue to make headway. We went from a number that I can put on one hand to over 13 BRGs. That's progress. We went from well under half the company being active in a BRG to having over half of us being involved. That's progress. We went from not having a dedicated resource team to one that supports accessibility across the internal terms and the external ecosystem. That's progress.”

He realizes that progress isn’t a guarantee, though. It depends on the many small choices we make to embrace digital inclusion. Which is why Raabe may be better described as a meliorist—someone who believes the world is only made better through concerted human effort.

“When you create more accessible products, you create an offering that more people want because they now see themselves in it,” he says. “I think it's a unique position that Salesforce has. This is our technology. We decide how it's going to be built. We're fortunate enough that our technology can be pretty configurable and buildable.

“We can be a little bit more agile,” he continues. “We can be a little more flexible meeting people where they are, meeting their needs as individuals with disabilities. The more people you meet as individuals, the more inclusive your product is going to be for everyone.”

For Raabe, while the work can be difficult, the moral imperative to build a more accessible and inclusive society continues to be the focus at Salesforce.

“You have to create a space where people feel comfortable participating and feel included,” he says, “and then have that sense of belonging. When you empower people to do their best work, you get the best product. You get the best business. You get the best teams.”

Salesforce is a founding partner of InclusionHub, a resource for digital accessibility, committed to helping businesses and organizations prioritize digital inclusion. To learn more about how to foster a more accessible and inclusive company culture, visit Salesforce’s a11y website.

Written by Jeffrey Howard

Jeffrey Howard is a senior inbound content developer at Hypha HubSpot Development and regular contributor at InclusionHub.

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