Salesforce Executive Leads With a Beginner’s Mind

Clara Shih of Salesforce AI is the leader behind the company’s artificial intelligence efforts.
Salesforce Executive Leads With a Beginner’s Mind

This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that coincides with global events in March celebrating the accomplishments of women. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Clara Shih, 42, is among a handful of women worldwide leading the development and deployment of generative artificial intelligence for business. (Generative A.I. “learns” patterns from training data and then creates something new and original). As chief executive of Salesforce AI, she leads research, development and market introduction of the company’s A.I. products.

Salesforce is the world’s largest provider of customer relationship management software, which enables businesses to track and manage customer information and interactions. Yet despite its dominance in the market, the company has had some recent turmoil. During 2023 and 2024 Salesforce laid off more than 10 percent of its employees and underwent a series of management changes, including the departure of its co-chief executive, Bret Taylor.

Ms. Shih has been at the forefront of society’s digital transformations for the last two decades. She has two master’s degrees, one in computer science from Stanford University and the other in internet studies from Oxford University.

In 2006, she joined Salesforce as a product manager on its newly created AppExchange team and a year later created a social business application on Facebook (Face-Force, later renamed Faceconnecter), which allowed Salesforce users to integrate their Facebook network with their C.R.M. contacts. The company decided not to develop it as a product, but Ms. Shih recognized that social media was transforming business.

She published a best-selling book, “The Facebook Era,” in 2009 and left Salesforce to co-found Hearsay Social — now Hearsay Systems — with a friend from Stanford. Hearsay allows financial services and insurance companies to use social media and text messaging in a way that complies with industry regulations. In mid-2020 she stepped down as chief executive to become Hearsay’s board chair and in January 2021 rejoined Salesforce as chief executive of Service Cloud. In May 2023, Ms. Shih was named head of Salesforce AI.