Before Gmail, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Skype or any other way you wanted to get online and get in touch with people, you probably used AOL at some point in your life — if you’re over 35.
It might be hard to imagine now, but in its time AOL was revolutionary and helped bring the internet and connectivity to the mainstream public. Jean Case is one of the key people behind that. While at a secure job at GE, she was invited to go to new startup AOL as a senior executive in marketing and branding. Her job? To introduce AOL to the masses. And that they did.
Today, Case and her husband Steve run the Case Foundation, their group that invests in people and ideas that focus on doing social good through entrepreneurship and technology. An avid traveler, she also is the first female chairperson of the National Geographic Society. The intro and blurbs to her latest book, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose, read like a Who’s Who of power players and influencers: Jane Goodall wrote the foreword, and Melinda Gates, Eric Schmidt and Tory Burch all give her kudos for her tenacity.
Be Fearless is part business how-to, part cheerleader on how to get stuff done. If you’re stuck, need inspiration, or some ideas on how to move any part of an idea or enterprise forward, it’s filled with stories from real people doing incredibly difficult things — from philanthropy to enterprise — and Case’s own tough-love advice on making progress. Through her experience and research, she says that they’ve found five universal principles that separate the doers from the talkers: They’re able to bet big, be bold and take risks, fail and get up again, go beyond their comfort zones, and let urgency for change conquer fear.
“Many people have great ideas for innovations, breakthroughs, and how to make the world a better place,” Case says about her inspiration to write the book. “They’re often stuck, they don’t think they’re ‘the one,’ or have the core qualities to break through with success. They may think that they need to be a special genius, or have connections, or go to the right school.
“It’s not these superhuman special qualities that define success. Instead, it’s these five principles where transformational change takes place.”
When someone is presenting an idea or pitch to you, what sparks your interest? How do you know that they possess those five principles of action to make change?
I can actually use that prism to consider whether this is someone who has the potential to merit an investment from the Case Foundation or me personally, whether it’s a startup, or if it’s just a good idea.
Are they reaching beyond their bubble taking the idea forward? Are they going to school on the topic, or reaching out to people who are different than them? People who put together unlikely partnerships can advance further and faster.
Generally speaking, there’s this debate about whether you invest in the person or the idea. The idea has to be great, but ultimately, it’s the person and the qualities of fearlessness, and let me be clear that it’s not a lack of fear, but the ability to look at fear and keep going. And I pick up on that in conversations.
The next generation of entrepreneurs: What do you see being the next great innovations, or truly great things, not just toys for the wealthy?
I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time for innovation. There are whole sectors that haven’t yet been disrupted. Education for one. You walk into a schoolroom, and it looks exactly the same. I’m very excited about EdTech disrupting this traditional method of teaching.
Food is another sector, and that spans everything from agriculture and better ways to protect the environment, to even new definitions of food and new kinds of food that we never would have imagined. The Impossible Burger comes to mind, which I happen to love.
In these impact sectors, but I would even go so far as Fintech. We have a fair number of citizens who don’t have bank accounts or a credit record. Some solutions in Fintech are to grow a credit rating slowly, or open a nontraditional bank account for savings, a digit that helps them round up every day on purchases. These can be transformational.
Women and people of color are especially still under-represented in tech as founders and executives. Tell us more about the work you’re doing at the Case Foundation to level the playing field.
Frankly, the data is stark, and particularly stark in venture capital. I know it’s a tech problem, but it’s much more of a problem in venture capital, no matter the sector. Last year, 90 percent of venture capital went to men, and only 1 percent went to startups with an African American founder. And 75 percent went to just three places: California, New York and Boston. We are not reaching beyond our bubble when deploying venture capital in the U.S.
It’s an economic imperative, and the data is showing that startups are at a low in 30 years, we need everyone in the field and everyone bringing their ideas and more equal backing as we deploy our venture dollars.
When it comes to women in the C Suites, I’m encouraged by the data that diverse teams outperform those that aren’t diverse. A Boston Consulting Group study shows that those companies with diverse senior teams’ performance at driving innovation revenue is 19 percent better than companies without diverse teams. And a McKinsey report shows that companies can be underperforming as much as 27 percent if they don’t have diverse teams.
If we want top performance, we have to invest in more diverse teams.
Let’s talk about pushing past fear and failure. How do you differentiate between what is a calculated risk and being reckless? How did great entrepreneurs know when something isn’t working and to quit or refocus.
I write a lot about this under the “Make Failure Matter” section, and start out with making people know that while they hear about great success stories, they’re lined with failures along the way that aren’t talked about. Iconic leader Steve Jobs was fired from the very company he founded, and he later said that may be the best thing that ever happened to him.
Pay attention. Sometimes when failure happens, that’s the moment that will introduce a significant opportunity down the road.
Long before you get to that dramatic failure, there are small failures that will happen when you go through this. In R&D, we understand that there will be trial and error, and it’s where we learn from the failures to make us stronger to go forward.
I often say if I’m looking at investments, if I’m meeting with an entrepreneur who has one or two failures under her belt, I would always be more inclined to invest in that person than someone taking her very first startup forward. I know that first entrepreneur has learned lessons about failure that will help her move forward.
What do you consider your greatest failure?
I wrote about one of our very public failures, the clean water initiative which we launched at the Clinton Global Initiative with President Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush. We picked 10 sub-Saharan countries to install a child’s merry-go-round, which is basically a windmill on its side, and as they play, it draws up clean water from the ground.
We undertook this with partners, started execution, and we began to hear that the quality in the field is not up to level we wanted to see it, the scale was not happening at the pace we’d hoped for. We looked at the system and the execution of it, and tried to make improvements and course-correct. It wasn’t going to fix itself, and the things we were doing weren’t working.
We had a tough decision, we had to pivot or walk away. And do we hide or talk about it? I wrote a blog about it, and it was a painful acknowledgment of coming up short. It was a significant undertaking, and we’d given it our all, and decided we needed to turn to another alternative.
After I wrote that, we heard from a number of people who said, “Wow, not so many people talk so transparently about failure.” And we started bringing these failed innovations forward in “fail fests,” and that was probably really the beginning of our global work.
You were at AOL during what I call, “happier, simpler internet times.” What should social-sharing platforms, like Facebook, be doing to ensure a better internet for all?
I do want to remind people that the birth of the internet was really about the democratization of ideas, and that sharing information and communication was shared with a strong belief it would benefit humanity. What became clear over time is that there could be a dark side.
Where we are today is that tech has moved so fast and change has come so fast, frankly, we didn’t have the ethical frameworks in place to deal with that. We are having, in real time, to go back and catch up. And this is what we believe, and what we’re going to do.
It’s a really messy time right now. Trying to do that after the service is out there is so much more challenging than making those early decisions. One wouldn’t anticipate that tech would be used not for good.
It’s over 30 years ago when I went to AOL, so a lot of time has passed and there have been different chapters. We are in a new wave of a tech chapter, and now is the time to really commit to ethical policies and practices so that it’s used for the good of humanity.
You chair the National Geographic Society and are an enthusiastic traveler. Why should everyone try to travel and how can it help you become a better entrepreneur?
As you might imagine, I’m quite passionate on this topic. National Geographic is a great example of something that has brought people virtually to the front lines of the unknown and widened their perspective of the world.
Nothing replaces going out there on your own, seeing different lands, meeting people, seeing animals, seeing the planet. I’m a huge fan of this, and that is the mission of what National Geographic is.
It’s no question that you bring back different ideas. Some of the earliest signs of that were Peace Corps workers, and when they came back, they were some of the most civic-minded citizens we have. I’m encouraged. Today, the new generation is getting passports and traveling outside at a higher rate than ever before. We need more and more of that. All our perspectives are broadened by that.
You also spend time traveling the country in an RV with your husband, learning more about what’s in between the coasts. Why should companies look to diversify their offices and talent around the country?
We like to say that talent is universal, opportunity is not. It’s important to go outside the U.S., but quite honestly, people on the coasts would be well-served to spend time between the coasts. In the past, that’s actually where most Fortune 500 companies were founded, and that’s where most innovations have come from. Silicon Valley was a peach orchard not long ago, and Detroit was a center of innovation.
Tap and invest in talent that exists between the coasts as well. We take these trips, and it’s very intentional on our part. We’re trying to go into places where we’re not as familiar, and we always come away enlightened with the diversity of the U.S. If you don’t go there, you can get caught in this bubble of belief.
Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose by Jean Case is out now.