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Marc Benioff of Salesforce: ‘Are We Not All Connected?’

A billionaire tech mogul with a spiritual side, Mr. Benioff riffs on his early days at Apple and Oracle, and what’s wrong with Facebook.

By David Gelles – June 15, 2018

Salesforce may not be a household name like Facebook or Twitter, but the software company and its chief executive, Marc Benioff, are hugely influential forces in the technology industry.

Salesforce is a cloud computing pioneer that helped popularize the software-as-a-service business model. And Mr. Benioff has fashioned himself as a benevolent chieftain who can make the world a better place while making hefty profits, too.

An entrepreneur at an early age, Mr. Benioff became a star executive at Oracle before leaving to co-found Salesforce nearly 20 years ago. Today, Salesforce is worth roughly $100 billion, and Mr. Benioff is a billionaire many times over.

Success has emboldened him. A fanof Buddhism, Mr. Benioff has installed meditation rooms throughout Salesforce offices and emerged as an outspoken voice on social issues including L.G.B.T.Q. rights, the gender pay gap and the deleterious effects of social media.

In January, Mr. Benioff made his mark on the San Francisco skyline, moving Salesforce into the tallest office building west of the Mississippi.

This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at Salesforce headquarters in San Francisco.

What was your childhood like?

Do you want me to lie down?

Yeah. Close your eyes and count backward from 100.

O.K., great. I’m happy to.

I was born an entrepreneur. When I was about 12 years old, I would go around to people’s homes and repair their antennas and their CB radios. Then I got a regular job at a jewelry store, cleaning the cases after school, which I did not really enjoy. But across the street there was a Radio Shack and that’s where I found a computer for the first time. I wrote my first piece of software, and sold it when I was about 15 years old.

In 1984, you interned at Apple. What was that like?

I was at the University of Southern California, putting myself through school with royalties of my software company. And I was writing a bunch of adventure games for the Atari 800, the Apple II, the Commodore 64. Then when the Macintosh was introduced in 1984, I sold my other computers and bought the Macintoshes.

The summer before my junior year, I worked for Apple. There was a pirate flag on the roof. There was a motorcycle in the lobby. Steve Jobs was running between the two Macintosh buildings. It was a big scene.

What did you do there?

No one was really paying attention exactly to what I was doing. I wrote this piece of software which was a game called “Raid on Armonk,” which was where IBM’s headquarters were at the time. And my manager said to me, “No, no. You cannot do this.”

What did you do after college?

I wrote a business plan for a network-type company based on something that Apple was working on called AppleLink. But U.S.C. was like, “No, no. You’re not going to create a company when you graduate from school. We want you to go get a real job in a real company, and we want you to go into sales.” So I asked around, and this person who I was working with at Apple mentioned this company called Oracle.

What did you learn while you were at Oracle?

The professors at U.S.C. said, “When you play with better tennis players, you’re going to get better. You need to go find the best salespeople possible.” And these were phenomenal salespeople at Oracle. They started to work with me and helped me understand how to be a better communicator.

Then Larry [Ellison, Oracle’s co-founder] took notice of me, and I started working directly for him. That was a very powerful moment, when he started to shape how I thought about business. Larry took the long view. He was like, “I want to think about this company over 50 years, not over 10 years or five years.” Now he’s been doing it for 40 years.

Why did you strike out on your own?

As I came into my 10th year at Oracle, I was really burning out, but I couldn’t exactly figure out why. I didn’t have a good feeling when I went in the building. I went into Larry’s office and said, “I need to take some time off.” And right away he said, “Yeah, why don’t you just take a sabbatical. You’ve worked really hard for 10 years.”

First I went to Hawaii for a few months and really, really worked on my meditation practice. Then I went to India for six weeks with a friend of mine who was also going through a similar life transformation. We had these amazing experiences going to all of these different ashrams and meeting all these different spiritual masters. It was almost like a guru tour. I definitely came back from that trip as a different person.

How so?

I came back with a clear vision of what the future of the internet was going to be in regards to software-as-a-service and cloud computing. I also had a much deeper sense of my spiritual self. So I said, “When I start a company, I will integrate culture with service.”

When I started Salesforce, on March 8, 1999, I said we’re going to put one percent of our equity, product and time into a foundation and create a culture of service within our company. We’ll be creating new technology, the cloud; we’ll be creating a new business model, subscription services; and we’ll create a culture built on philanthropy.

     “We need to have a more enlightened view about the role of companies.”

     — Marc Benioff

How do you make sure new Salesforce employees get what the company’s all about?

On their first day of work, we take everyone and we show them the kitchen and the bathroom and their office and their desk. Then we take them out and they do service in the afternoon. They’ll go to a homeless shelter or they’ll go to the hospital or go to a public school. This is a very core part of our culture.

I want a company where people are excited to come to work every day, where they feel good when they get here, where it doesn’t take from them, but it’s giving to them, it’s giving to others. Why do people want to be here? It’s not that we have more amenities than everybody else. We have less. We don’t have a cafeteria. But we have a stronger purpose and a stronger mission.

There’s a shift going on. When I went to U.S.C., it was all about maximizing value for shareholders. But we’re moving into a world of stakeholders. It’s not just about shareholders. Your employees are stakeholders, so are your customers, your partners, the communities that you’re in, the homeless that are nearby, your public schools. A company like ours can’t be successful in an unsuccessful economy or in an unsuccessful environment or where the school system doesn’t work. We have to take responsibility for all of those things.

This idea that somebody put into our heads — that companies are somehow these kind of individuated units that are separate from society and don’t have to be paying attention to the communities they’re in — that is incorrect. We need to have a more enlightened view about the role of companies. This company is not somehow separate from everything else. Are we not all connected? Are we not all one? Isn’t that the point?

So what is Salesforce doing about it?

Salesforce is the biggest tech company in San Francisco. We can unleash a power onto this city. All of these people can go into the public schools and volunteer, and they can work and make the city better. They can improve the state of the city, improve the state of the world. All I have to do is give them permission to do that.

As a C.E.O., if you’re not doing that in today’s world, you’re making a mistake. We are part of an integrated holistic system which is the global economy, and so Salesforce is part of that and we have to participate in that. Salesforce strongly believes that companies and C.E.O.s have to be activists.

You’ve been outspoken on issues like L.G.B.T.Q. rights and tougher gun laws. What issues are you focused on right now?

We’re working on the homeless programs here. We have a plan to get every homeless family off the streets within five years.

That’s a pretty ambitious goal. Are you setting yourself up for failure?

We’ve already moved hundreds of families back into society and into homes. But we cannot delegate these complex problems off to the government and say, “We’re not all part of it.” They’re part of the solution, but I believe that for $150 million, we can get every homeless person in San Francisco into homes.

Now when I say every single person, I actually don’t believe it. There are some people in San Francisco who are intentionally homeless. They just want to be homeless. San Francisco is kind of the Four Seasons of homelessness. They all say this is the best place in the world to be homeless.

You’ve been critical of Facebook lately, especially after the appearance of a memo by Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook vice president, that defended the social network’s growth at any cost.

His memo is very clear. He talks about putting growth above trust, and you can’t do that. Never put growth before trust. If you put growth above trust, then all of a sudden you create a toxic culture. People don’t want to work in that environment or use the product. Then you get these campaigns, #deleteuber, #deletefacebook. It’s a referendum on the culture, not the product.

Has your meditation practice influenced how you lead?

Having a beginner’s mind informs my management style. I’m trying to listen deeply, and the beginner’s mind is informing me to step back, so that I can create what wants to be, not what was. I know that the future does not equal the past. I know that I have to be here in the moment.

David Gelles is the Corner Office columnist and a business reporter. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter. @dgelles

 

Startup Feature: Handstand

WHO THEY ARE

“Handstand is a trainer/instructor on-demand app that makes it easy for even the busiest of people to workout effectively. Our trainers provide all the equipment if you choose to workout at home or a park, or you can visit a partner gym on our app. Some people even use their apartment gym. We’re any time and any place. We have session types that range from Pilates, Yoga, Boxing, Tone Up Butt, Legs, & Core classes. It’s your workout on demand from the best trainers in your city.”

HOW HANDSTAND WAS BORN  aa2

I was a workout addict and played sports for years, but when you enter the real world, your time for fitness and other things becomes limited. To make it short, I just wanted a workout when I wanted it – and I wanted results. I didn’t have time to make it to a lot of classes that I wanted, and even if I did, it was stressful, not working. So I hired my first trainer, learned about the industry, and when the idea hit me, I was paranoid, quit my job, launched a website, joined Science Inc., a tech incubator in Santa Monica, and got started.”

MOST REWARDING STARTUP EXPERIENCE  

All of the texts, emails, calls, notes, reviews, everything from your customers and for us, our trainers, about how much our product has changed their lives. They’re changing their health, which changes lives. We’re making it efficient, convenient, affordable, accessible, and therefore, possible for anyone.”

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

There are lots of obstacles daily, hourly, weekly – and they’ll never stop, because we’ll keep pushing the envelope. Take a look at Uber – they face obstacles to this day. I keep pushing – some great advice from my dad. If someone says no, ask again, ask someone else, do it yourself. Just find a way to do it.”

ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS aa3

If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, I’d say – don’t be scared to get your idea out there. Pitch it, ask questions and get criticism. No one is going to steal your idea. And if you’re scared they will, then you had better get started, right? Make a website tomorrow. Squarespace is awesome.”

Startup Feature: Speakeasy Briefs

WHO THEY ARE

Speakeasy Briefs is premium men’s boxer-briefs with a secret pocket.  This pocket is ideal for carrying a passport, money or a hip flask.”

HOW SPEAKEASY WAS BORN

“Speakeasy Briefs was launched on Kickstarter in May of 2013.  It raised $32,616 in a 30 day campaign, which was one of the 30 most funded fashion campaigns in the history of Kickstarter at the time of its funding.”

RECENT SUCCESS

“Speakeasy Briefs has been featured in several prominent media outlets, including Forbes, NPR and Fox News.”

MOST REWARDING STARTUP EXPERIENCE  

“Entrepreneurship activates a part of your brain that you didn’t even know existed.  Bringing your ideas into real products that customers love is incredibly fulfilling.”

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

“Too many to count.  Our supply chain fell through with 5 days left in our Kickstarter campaign.  We had to figure out how to create the product all over again, after we’d sold 1,500 pairs of briefs.  I was literally running around San Francisco knocking on factory doors to find someone who could create our product.”

ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS

“It is not the entrepreneur’s job to do every job, it is the entrepreneur’s job to build the company.  At first, you will have to do every job, but this will not scale.  Focus on replacing yourself at every level you can, and empowering others to own their aspect of the business.  It takes years to be able to pay yourself what you are worth, so align your expectations accordingly.  If you aren’t ready for 1,000 days of poverty, ask yourself if this is really what you want to pursue.”

 

 

Startup Feature: Fulfilling Catering

WHAT THEY DO

“Fulfilling is revolutionizing how food is consumed in America—for every meal purchased, we donate one meal to someone in need. Operating in every major US Market, Fulfilling books food trucks for private events and schedules trucks at corporate office parks that lack food amenities.”

HOW FULFILLING WAS BORN  

“After studying entrepreneurship at USC, I spent several years in the food truck industry managing events, attending food truck festivals and sampling various cuisines. While the food truck industry temporarily satisfied my palate for an exciting, innovative career, I again grew hungry. Looking to fill this void, I sought to develop a business built on a sense of purpose.

It was during this time that I met the founder of ‘Mary’s Meals’ and learned about their mission to solve world hunger as documented in Child 31. I was struck by the staggering problem of childhood hunger against the backdrop of plenty that surrounded me. Inspired by the vision, I devised the foundation for a new business venture: one meal donated for each meal sold.”

RECENT SUCCESSES

“Fulfilling recently donated our 75,000th meal, and reached a milestone of managing 50 events per week.”

MOST REWARDING PART OF BUILDING A STARTUP  Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 2.36.20 PM

“Creating a culture.

Having experienced the confinement of working for organizations that lack a clearly defined purpose or direction, I have a thorough understanding of the importance of company culture.

Combining this passion with my natural disposition as big picture thinker has made engineering the culture, vision and purpose of Fulfilling very enjoyable.”

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES 

“Our website application took much longer to build than expected.

About 1 year after launching the business, we were growing quickly and didn’t have the infrastructure to handle the amount of events we were managing. I mapped out an application that organizes the data and automates the processes involved in scheduling events. I was anxious to get the application built and jumped the gun on hiring a development team. Unfortunately, “It takes twice as long as costs twice as much” held true. The company I hired overpromised and under delivered, and 4 months after the expected delivery date, we were still without a functional product.

We ended up hiring a new developer to pick up where to old one left. In the meanwhile I improvised, hiring an admin assistant to help with the overload in work.”

ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS

“Build a team of people who share your vision and start window-shopping immediately. Anticipate potential needs and start talking with potential partners—marketing companies, web development companies, business partners, etc—long before you’re ready to bring them aboard. Finding the right people to work with takes longer than expected. Get the conversations going early so that when the time comes to utilize their services, the research phase is already handled and you just need to pull the trigger. startupsecrets_share

Careers are too short to learn everything through trial and error, which is why it’s important to surround yourself with a team of mentors. This is as true for business as it is for life. In terms of business, develop a network of advisors with diverse backgrounds. Ideally, have a separate mentor for each of the following areas—marketing strategy, technology/logistics management, tax/accounting, law, fundraising, and management. Obviously that won’t be possible when you’re first starting off, but as your network grows, the variety of industries you’re tied to will follow.”

 

 

 

 

Startup Feature: 121C Boards

WHAT THEY DO

“121C collects waste carbon fiber from companies in the aerospace industry and upcycles the material to make the highest quality skateboards on the market. Our boards are light, incredibly strong and a blast to  ride.”

HOW 121C WAS BORN

“At first I wanted to make carbon fiber skateboards with the scrap that the rocket lab was generating, and when I realized how big of a problem carbon waste was for the industry, I knew I had to start a business.”

MOST REWARDING STARTUP EXPERIENCE

“We recently had a successful Kickstarter campaign for $44,000 and have been signing on new companies to collect material from. We’ve also been featured in articles on USC’s website.”

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

“Half way through our kickstarter campaign, our manufacturer bailed on us and we had to lease a facility and bring everything in house. At first, this was a challenge, but it ended up being a blessing. “

ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS

“Be prepared to work a ton.”

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Startup Feature: Y Athletics

WHAT THEY DO

“Y Athletics is a men’s premium activewear brand. We spend most of our time on developing new products by incorporating the latest technology and innovations in material sciences. Once we’re satisfied with our products, we usually kick off a crowdfunding campaign to bring the products to life. This helps us gauge the demand for the products and of course also provides us with the funding to manufacture them.”

HOW Y ATHLETICS WAS BORN

“My partner, Sam, who also happens to be a trojan alum, came up with the idea when he was trying to buy a new workout shirt. He was confused by all the options provided by the existing retailers and no single product seemed to stand out from the crowd in terms of quality and functionality. So, that’s what led him to start exploring different avenues to build the best workout shirt himself.”

RECENT SUCCESSES

“In our first crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, we raised $250k in pre-orders for our shirts. Since then, we’ve launched our own online store and launched two more campaigns on Kickstarter. In total, we’ve sold about $1.3 million worth of activewear over the past 24 months.”

MOST REWARDING STARTUP EXPERIENCE

“The fact that people genuinely love the products we make. The satisfaction of running into someone wearing a Y Athletics product and talking about how much they love it… or a friend telling me how much his father loves his YA gear. Our core community of backers on Kickstarter usually write back to us to tell us how much they love our products. So that experience overall has been amazing.”

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES 

“We’ve faced obstacles in the past where larger manufacturers have tried to cut off our supply chain. That led to a few months of confusion, legal battles and of course letting our customers down since our shipments were delayed. Our current obstacles are mainly around trying to scale the current operations. Unlike something that’s purely software, it’s much harder to scale the physical infrastructure required to scale our operations.”

ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS

“Amongst students, you usually run into two types of people – people who think that they’d never be able to pull off starting their own business because “they’re just not the type,” and then those that are so in love with their ideas that they lose touch with reality and refuse to test out whether there’s actually a market, need or demand for the product they’re building. So, the only advice I would give is to think from a problem-first mentality, and then work backwards to figure out the best solution. Most of the time, people fall in love with a solution rather than a problem.”

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Startup Feature: Cropsticks


Cropsticks

Interview with co-founder Jay Chang


WHAT THEY DO

“Cropsticks are eco-friendly, “mind-blowing” disposable chopsticks. It’s the utensil you’ve always known, made better.”

CROP PRIMARY

c2HOW CROPSTICKS WAS BORN

“Chopsticks were invented in ancient China as early as the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BCE) and possibly even earlier during the Xia dynasty. In nearly 4000 years, no one has truly innovated the way we use chopsticks. The idea for Cropsticks first came to inventor Mylen Fe Yamamoto as she was on a flight to Asia in April 2015 and her chopsticks kept rolling off the dirty tray table. She thought that there must be an easier way to keep her chopsticks in place.

Then the horizontal breakaway holder was born! After doing more research, she found out that over 20 millions trees go into production to create the wooden disposable utensil. So it became a goal to produce it sustainably from fast growing bamboo. Mylen and Jay met in 2013 when Jay was producing the DiscoverMe conference. Jay’s family background has been in manufacturing bamboo housewares for the past 15+ years through TotallyBamboo.”

MOST REWARDING STARTUP EXPERIENCE

“Seeing thoughts become reality and it helps when you like the people you work with.”

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

“We’ve been working on Cropsticks since April last year. So when the chopstick meme of our similar idea went viral last month and challenged our product, we knew it was important to launch fast.”

ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS

“Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid to get out there and talk to your first customers. Don’t be afraid that people will steal your idea. Don’t be afraid someone else is better than you or will beat you to market. Be cognizant of all of those things and use them to your advantage to clearly articulate your unique value proposition, and build the best product you can to solve your customer’s pain.”

c1SUCCESS STORIES

 

 

– Kickstarter at 40% in 5 days

– Interest from angel investors potential distribution partners and major restaurant chains

– Featured on NBC, NextShark, Hawaii Magazine, KITV4 ABC, Hawaii News Now and Folic Hawaii 

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Startup Feature: Stunt Players


Stunt Players

Interview with CEO Hunter Crowder


WHAT THEY DO

“Stunt Players allows stunt performers to promote themselves to coordinators, directors, and producers to be hired for work in the film and television industry.  By signing up for the service, members are placed in an online database made easily accessible and searchable by industry professionals.  Many of the stunt performers seen in films like Fast and the Furious and Pirates of the Caribbean have been hired through Stunt Players.”INC

HOW STUNT PLAYERS WAS BORN

“My father, Wally Crowder, a stunt coordinator and director, originally founded the company two decades ago.  He helped advance the stunt industry by providing coordinators with a hardcopy directory allowing them to browse through stunt performers and hire them based on stats and abilities.

This altered the way stunt people would go about getting work – typically crashing sets and hustling coordinators with their headshots and resumes.  However, due to the work my father was taking on as a coordinator, he decided to shut down the business.  As an actor, I was lucky enough to score a national commercial campaign and purchase the company from him.  I took over as CEO to revitalize Stunt Players as a contemporary web platform.”

MOST REWARDING STARTUP EXPERIENCESPD_STICKER

“Contributing to an industry that has become my life.  I am obsessed with the film industry and find it my duty to give back in any way I can.  I grew up around stunt people and it only made sense that I help build something useful for those I believe to be the hardest working, most under-appreciated heroes in entertainment.”

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

“I am a film-lover and cinephile more so than I am an entrepreneur.  While I have a sharp focus on what Stunt Players must innovate and execute, the biggest obstacles are technical ones.  Fortunately, I work with an incredible development team that has become my “pit crew.”  No production succeeds without a reliable cast and crew, even behind the scenes.”

ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS

Build something that you are passionate about, something that you are obsessed with.  If you aren’t obsessed, don’t waste the time.  And then you must love it more than anything else.  I get to work with performers who crash cars, light themselves on fire, and jump from buildings.  It’s full throttle… but I love it.

stunt_players_shareSTARTUP VICTORIES

“The launch of our new website: stuntplayers.com
I won 1st Place in the Regional Los Angeles GSEA (Global Student Entrepreneur Awards) Competition.  We are also proud to have hosted two events in the past year that have brought together a total of over one-thousand stunt performers to mix, mingle, and make connections with working coordinators.  Many of which have gone on to book work on movies and television shows.”

Startup Feature: ElemenTerra


ElemenTerra

Interview with CEO Max Pittsley and CCO Camille Kanengiser


What they do: 

“ElemenTerra is a virtual reality game that empowers the imagination. Using the Oculus Rift, users are immersed into a universe
where they play as nature spirits who create matter and fly through a planet of their own.” ElemenTerra

How ElemenTerra was born: 

Pittsley: “It definitely was a long process, and it evolved very slowly over time. It really started out with a client of mine that I did web development for. He was sort of an eccentric guy, so he bought himself an Oculus DK1 just to check it out and said, “hey, you know how to program. You should do something with this.”

I was super skeptical about VR. I thought it was a gimmick, but I all of a sudden had this kit that was super hard to come by. We started brainstorming what could be done in VR that could not have been done without VR. We realized that feeling like you’re somewhere else is really significant, so how do we take advantage of that?”

SOGAL2

Best Advice to Entrepreneurs: 
Pittsley: “I think it comes down to life advice and maintaining relationships in general, which is to be honest and to be able to accept criticism.”

Kanengiser: “Yes, being able to take critique about what you’ve done or an idea that you have objectively. You have to be able to logically justify it’s not just about feelings. I know a lot of business is about the feeling, be it with title, or with the direction of the product, or the direction of the company, but being able to take a step back and cool down and really look at where it’s going is super important.”

ElemenTerra_share

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Startup Feature: AIO Robotics


AIO Robotics

Interview with CEO Jens Windau


WHAT THEY DO

“We make the only stand alone 3D printing machine on the market — Zeus. If you think about Xerox copy machines, they’re completely standalone. They can scan, copy and print without being hooked up to a computer. We’re the only machine in the market that can do that in 3D and with a beautiful touchscreen and a powerful processor. There are machines that try to do the same thing but they’re not stand alone, so they’re not machines that you can put somewhere without an external computer. Since December 2014, we have shipped around 500 machines at about $2,500 each to customers worldwide.”

HOW AIO ROBOTICS WAS BORNhqdefault

“We secured angel investment funding the year after and with that capital, we were able to finish the development process. At the end of 2014, we started manufacturing our machines with a huge team of engineers and a partner in Taiwan. We finally grew to a team of seven people and moved to an office in Santa Monica.”

MOST REWARDING EXPERIENCE

“As an entrepreneur, you pretty much have to do everything by yourself first and then hand over tasks, and I think that’s one of the most rewarding things. Then the fun part in between was, for example, the Secret Service called and said “we need a machine.” The FBI called. Those kinds of things you don’t really expect.

We build prosthetic hands for kids and they’re incredible. It’s like $10 to print them and they’re super light. You can print them in 24 hours and kids can have instant prosthetic hands. We donate them to hospitals and kids here doing the special olympics. There was one little kid who came to our booth who was missing a few fingers, and the moment where you can help was very rewarding. It’s about opportunities to help people and give something back, and I think those moments are also moments when you realize it’s not always about competition or profit.”

aiorobotics_share

BEST ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS

“Be prepared for a roller coaster. When you’re in the field of tech, often your product development cycle takes a lot of patience. When you get your product up and running is not necessarily when it’s ready for the customer, so you definitely need a strong team that hauls together and sustains a long product development phase until it’s ready for the market.

You will still experience a lot of ups and downs, both financially as well as making sure the team gets along. You just have to be persistent, and think about what the end game is going to be and where you want to go.”

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