On the latest episode of Recode Decode, Case Foundation CEO Jean Case spoke with Recode’s Kara Swisher about her new book, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose. In it, she draws advice from the stories of several successful people, including Jeff Bezos, Michael Jordan, and Thomas Edison; she also reflects on her own time as an early marketing and communications executive at America Online.
“The opportunities in my life were made available by people who reached back and helped me,” Case said. “When I’d come home to my working-class neighborhood, I’d see people who were just as smart and just as talented and passionate about things, but what they often lacked was an opportunity or a door opening for them. I knew if I had had that benefit, I wanted to spend my time trying to give that benefit to others.”
To make “transformational change” in the world, she explained, people don’t start out as geniuses. Instead, Case said, ordinary people do extraordinary things when given the right opportunities — and the encouragement to take risks.
“Through every one of these experiences in life, I could see that people everywhere had ideas about how to make the world better, about new companies, products, whatever, movements they wanted to build, but they get stuck in this idea that ‘It can’t be me. I don’t have what it takes,’” she said. “They buy into an idea that it’s like a special human quality of genius or connections or whatever.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Jean.
Kara Swisher: Hi. I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as someone who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “fear.” Maybe I should’ve paid more attention in school. But in my spare time, I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is a very old friend of mine, Jean Case, who I have known, I mean, forever, right?
Jean Case: Forever.
Wasn’t sure what you meant when you said “very old friend.”
Well, two of us are now very old. We were young when we met. She was a marketing and communications executive in the early days of AOL, but today she’s the CEO of the nonprofit Case Foundation. She’s also the author of a new book, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose. Jean, welcome to Recode Decode. I’m so thrilled to have you here.
Thanks, Kara. Thanks.
Instead of your irritating husband, Steve Case. No, I’m kidding. He came here on his last book.
He did. Yeah, The Third Wave.
Yes, The Third Wave, which is very prescient, as it turns out, for what’s going on now with regulations.
That’s right. I think we’ll talk about some of that, yeah.
Yeah, absolutely. Let’s start off talking about ... I want to talk about the book, but I want to talk about your background because I think you have a really fascinating journey through tech into what you’ve been doing today, and it all sort of knits together really well. I’d love for people to get a sense of how you moved from what you were doing — which was a very traditional job — to the internet — where you were one of the very early people, you were one of the very early women.
I mean, there weren’t that many. Still aren’t enough, not enough at all. Just give people your background because I think it’s a really interesting ... It goes into the idea of “be fearless.” You shifted your career.
I did. I did more than once, actually, yeah.
Well, my background was I was the youngest of four kids being raised by a single mom, and I really had the opportunity in that experience to see sort of the unequal access to opportunity that people had. I was on a full scholarship at a private school, and I’d come home to my work ...
And this was where?
This was in South Florida. I was raised, actually, in a small town in Illinois called Normal, Illinois, with the cornfield in my backyard.
You’re so not normal. You appear normal.
I am trying to get back to normal, let’s just say that.
Okay. All right. Whatever. Okay.
Anyway, but then my parents divorced when I was pretty young, and my mom moved us down to South Florida, and the public school system there was not like it was in Illinois. She got my enrolled in this private school where I received a full scholarship.
I thought I was going to be a lawyer, so the school arranged for me to intern with a local mayor who later became a congressman. Then when he became a congressman, I went to work for him and went to college at night. That led to an opportunity to bring me to DC. So here I am thinking I’m going to be a lawyer in the public sector, and I ...
So did you go to law school or did you apply to law school?
Wait. Wait for it!
Okay. All right. Okay. All right.
All right, so I come to DC on this ... I haven’t graduated from college yet, and I get this appointment in the Reagan administration, which was unbelievable that a young person could have that opportunity. Well, I fully intended to go back and finish my degree, but I never even went back and finished my undergraduate degree.
Oh. Wow. You’re a college dropout.
I’m a total college dropout.
You and Mark Zuckerberg.
Total college dropout.
You got an honorary degree, I’m guessing.
You have one or two, right?
But what’s funny about that is it’s a story of a lot of what are called “dropouts.” Nobody necessarily intended not to graduate. My career took off and I always thought I’d go back and finish, but I didn’t.
All right, so here’s what happened. I had this great job working in the Reagan administration, and for me, it was like a dream come true given my background, right? But one day they walk in and they say, “The funding for your role, we’re going to have a gap of a month or two. You’ve got to go chill.” I’m like, “Go chill? I’ve got a car payment and a rent payment. No way.” So I found ...
What was this job? This was doing ...?
It was at the Office of Personnel Management and Public Affairs. It was during the Reagan administration, so at that time, the federal government was shrinking, and so it was a big part of where the action was.
Okay, so I hop over to this temporary job for the nation’s first pure play online services, called The Source. A lot of people don’t remember it. And boy, once I was there, I realized, “Wow. Talk about an opportunity to empower and make equal opportunity.”
I want you to take that apart. Why did you think that? I thought that, you thought that, not a lot of people did. The Source was a social network, essentially.
It was really an early, clunky, all-text online service that was delivered at 300 baud. I write about this in the book. The book is not a biography, as you know, but I put vignettes in there. What’s kind of funny about that is at 300 baud, it would take 40 hours to download one song. We are talking super early.
Okay. Well, anyway, GE decided that they wanted to start an online service, so they recruited me to do that, and I was at GE for about three years and then I ...
How did they find you? What was the ... and why did they decide to do this?
Well, it was a pretty tiny little industry then, Kara. There were maybe 100 of us all around the United States working on this stuff. They called, and they were down the road. All of these were outside where we are today, Washington, DC, and the burbs.
Because there’s a hub here.
Because the network and the presence of the military and Arpanet and all of that that was ...
And MAY-EAST is here.
Yeah, I do, I do. So it turns out that a lot of early technology spun out of this area. But anyway, so I was at GE and I figured, “Oh, man. Talk about a brand and budget. This is really going to drive to mainstream at GE.” Well, it turns out the company was pretty risk-averse. They had a really good gig going. They were the most valuable company in the world, and I think they really weren’t interested in taking a lot of risks.
So right about the time this is coming to be clear to me ...
This is the Jack Welch era.
... I get another call, and this is from the company that was going to become AOL, so I ended up going to AOL. My friends thought I was insane, truly nuts. They were shrill. “What are you doing?” Because I had a good gig at GE. I was on the management track. I’d done the management training that was world-renowned.
What were you doing at GE?
I was marketing manager for basically creating this new online service. I moved over to AOL as an officer of the company, part of the executive staff and never looked back here. As you know, at its peak, it carried more than 50 percent of the nation’s internet traffic.
Yes, it did.
I like to say we got to our first million customers in 1995, and by 1996, we had 5 million. So it was one of these 10-year uphill climb, but then once it took off, it really took off.
Right. Now I asked you this the other night when I did that short interview with you, but what was the thing that convinced you to move? Because GE is a big name. You’re a college dropout, so you didn’t have the degree to go back on.
Yeah. Right, right. Well, I’ll tell you, I really did care about empowering people. I cared about that from a very young age.
Because I knew that my life, the opportunities in my life were made available by people who reached back and helped me. When I’d come home to my working-class neighborhood, I’d see people who were just as smart and just as talented and passionate about things, but what they often lacked was an opportunity or a door opening for them. I knew if I had had that benefit, I wanted to spend my time trying to give that benefit to others.
But you asked a question about what did I see, because you and I both saw the same potential in this business. My mom is a single mom. Had spent two years making monthly payments to buy me a hard-copy volume of encyclopedias. When I first went to The Source, which was the first online service, there was an electronic encyclopedia included in the membership.
So it’s like, “Wow. The vast volumes of knowledge of the world, we could equalize access to that? That is powerful.” Really, I would say both at The Source and at GE, but really where it came to life was at AOL. We were on a mission to democratize access to ideas, information, and communication, and that’s just what we did.
Right, and so you get there and your job was to sell it, right? To get people to use it.
Yes, I was chief of marketing.
Right, and you guys did some novel methods. One of the things I remember you told me a story about is there were two other services that happened at the time, CompuServe and Prodigy.
Prodigy was Sears and IBM.
IBM and CBS, believe it or not.
And CBS. I used to say that Prodigy was everything Sears knew about technology and IBM knew about retail. It was terrible. And CompuServe, which was another big ...
That’s right, and they were started about the same time as the first online service that I worked for. The difference was they were what we used to call a time-sharing business. They had been selling access to their computers to businesses, and they were just looking for something to use, make the computers hum at night and get some revenue off of the off hours.
So people using them, right?
Yeah, exactly, exactly.
The service itself wasn’t thought of as that, but one of the things you did is you bought ads on them, right? Is that correct?
We did on Prodigy.
Here’s the deal. AOL is a startup. We had 10 million invested in us early.
And it had been through iterations before.
Lots of iterations. There had been two previous ... Both in terms of the kind of products, but also a company that sort of spun out of an old company.
Right. It was around Atari. It was around all kinds of things.
Exactly. Commodore Computers.
Most listeners won’t even know what we’re talking about.
You didn’t get there until it was America Online, right?
No, it wasn’t America Online when I got there.
Oh, what was it?
We didn’t have the service yet. That’s what I came to help do.
Was it Quantum?
It was called Quantum Computer Services.
That’s right, that’s right.
We were then building a service that we thought was going to keep us in business with Apple called AppleLink.
Right. That’s right.
And with IBM called PCLink.
It’s a great failure story. Before I jump into the failure story, though, let me tell you: We’re talking because of the book.
The real reason I wrote the book is through every one of these experiences in life, I could see that people everywhere had ideas about how to make the world better, about new companies, products, whatever, movements they wanted to build, but they get stuck in this idea that “It can’t be me. I don’t have what it takes.”
They buy into an idea that it’s like a special human quality of genius or connections or whatever.
Right, and most people are average.
Right. The Case Foundation that I run, we did some research six years ago to look at, “What is behind successful change-makers, innovators, entrepreneurs?” and we found five simple principles that were present wherever transformational change takes place. That’s really the premise of the book is to bring forward these principles, but how I do it is storytelling.
Mostly stories of other people who found success many people will have heard of, but most people will not have ever before heard their story.
Right, but I want to finish with yours. You bought ads. So what caused you to ...
We bought ads. Yeah, here’s what I was ... Our competitor, Prodigy, had invested a billion dollars at the time we had invested 10 million. So we approached them.
That’s a big ...
I talk about this in my book, and I say, “You can actually leverage competition for your own growth sometimes.”
Right. Exactly. Many people have done that.
Right. So I went to them and said, “Can we buy ads on your online service?”
Yeah, Google, Yahoo.
And they said, “Yes.”
I remember you saying you ran out of there.
I remember the day I came back from New York and said, “You guys aren’t going to believe this. We’ve got a huge deal with Prodigy.” Well, that almost immediately became our leading source of new subscribers. To me, it’s just a reminder that don’t ever underestimate who can help you grow, and I do talk about building unlikely partnerships. If you remember, Kara, we did this with Microsoft.
Right, you did.
Where Microsoft was threatening us as Windows ... I don’t mean they were ...
That’s a kind way of putting it.
Well, I’m saying they’re the ... What was happening in the market was a threat.
I remember you being quite upset by it.
Right. So they had owned the market of operating services, and they were building their own online service. If they had shut us out of access from that operating, it could’ve shut down our company. It could’ve been existential.
We went to them and we worked out a deal where we carried their new browser, which was Explorer, in trade for being part of the hard drives, wherever their operate.
The great Netscape betrayal.
Hey, hey. But it was existential for our company. Then with Google, of course, we saw they had a better search engine than we did, so we went to them and said, “Can we partner?” and we invested and got 5 percent of the company, and they became our search engine.
So they’re great examples, and again, I talk about this a lot, the importance of building unlikely partnerships in the book.
Right. One of the things that was interesting, then, besides the Netscape part, is that you guys kept shifting and shifting your business.
Iterating and pivoting. Yes. I know those are overused words, but they’re really important.
You really did, yeah.
They really are important words because where I was going on the AppleLink story is we really built the whole business on this business for Apple. One day they call and say, “We’ve decided no one else can carry our brand. We’re basically divorcing you.”
We thought the world was ending.
Right, right, right.
Because we had no other means to take the business forward. We got together, I’ll never forget, in a conference room that afternoon, and it was very dark and it was not a good moment in the history of the company, but looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to us because we decided we’d go it alone, and we went back to Apple and asked for sort of a divorce settlement, and they gave us a few million dollars, which today would be like nothing, but back then could keep our company alive long enough that we built America Online.
Right. Right, exactly.
That’s how AOL was born.
Again, I remember when you all were terrified of Microsoft.
And I hadn’t seen it yet, and then I got a copy of it and showed it to you, and we all thought it was a fake. You don’t remember that?
I do, I do!
And you and I were like, “This can’t be it. This is terrible!”
Correct. I think we were pretty happy, but I will say the other thing we should talk about is, iteration is such an important thing. Anyone in tech knows this, but we have fun at one level, sad at another, watching folks like Facebook — because Mark basically hacked AOL. That’s kind of how he learned to do what he did, right?
Yes. I’d said that in my column.
You know, the Twitter guys will tell you they just took AOL member pages and made it better, or instant messaging. So we could go right across some of the new technologies, and what they did, and again, it’s something I write extensively about, Thomas Edison was brilliant at this, too. They looked at what others didn’t get right where they might’ve made some bits and starts, but it wasn’t very good, and they just picked up and made it better.
Thomas Edison said, “I should correctly be called a great sponge,” because there were 18 patents before Edison, for the better part of a century. What he did was went to school on that and said, “Okay, if I pick it up from here, I think I can take it to the finish line.”
Obviously, that’s what he did.
Right. I want to finish up with your background. You worked at AOL and then you left.
You were integral. You and Jan Brandt and Ted and a whole bunch of you.
Yes, I left in 1997, yeah. We had a fabulous team at AOL, and we created the Case Foundation.
Right, which you’ve been doing, and it does what since then?
We invest in people and ideas that can change the world. Steve and I founded it together, and it really has been a living laboratory where we’re really trying to find the best people and ideas out there that can really make a social impact in a really big way. So it’s really fun. It’s a little unusual in that a lot of foundations will be more cause-oriented.
Right, like the Gates Foundation.
Like, “We’re about cancer,” or, “We’re about education.” We’re not. We’re agnostic on the cause. We just ask, “Where can we uniquely make a really big difference?” And we pivot our areas of focus and investment every few years.
Yeah. Right now, for instance, we’re deeply engaged in this new realm of impact investing. I don’t know how you ...
Explain that one, what that is.
Yeah, sure. There’s a new generation of entrepreneurs and a new generation of investors. Some of the new generation of investors aren’t so new generation, but a new class of investors is probably a better way to say it, who want more than just a financial return for their capital. They realize that capital invested is a powerful tool.
If you can invest to get more than just a financial return, it’s really a big win. Many of these young companies are chasing after social impact as well as a financial return to shareholders, and they give equal value. Warby Parker is a great example of a really ... a brand that’s a tech brand in the eyeglass retail industry now, and totally disrupted the eyeglass sector, Fast Company has named it the most innovative company in America.
But you know, when they sell a pair of glasses, something good happens somewhere else, and that’s a person who otherwise couldn’t afford a pair gets one. To date, they’ve made over 4 million pairs of glasses available, but it’s based off of just buying a really cool, hip brand in a more convenient and competitive price that something good happens.
It’s not just giving away money.
It’s not giving away money. It’s baked in the business model that when the business does well, there’s some effective social impact that happens.
Right, and that’s how you all think at the Case Foundation and what you’re doing.
We do, we do, but it’s also the business ... We saw AOL, really, in some ways as an impact business that with every new member we would get, we were increasing access to the internet, but I’ve traveled around the world, and in places like Africa, there’s really exciting young companies like M-Kopa, who are providing solar access to small villages that will never be on the grid, or certainly not anytime soon. They pay for it through a mobile payment, it’s called M-Pesa, and literally they pay by the day, so you can load 25 cents into M-Pesa and get as much power as 25 cents buys.
This sharing economy for the poor is a really powerful idea. I loved the sharing economy when it became a thing, but it really was more convenience and control for people who already had plenty of ...
Yes, I told you. You know my big joke. San Francisco is assisted living for millennials.
Right. What I’m excited by is I’m starting to see some sharing economy things reach down to where it’s needed most. Another example is a company called Hello Tractor in Africa for small-hold farmers who can’t afford tractors, but they need them, so they have a network now where you can order a tractor on Saturday and have it for four hours and only pay for four hours. We’re starting to see those kinds of truly innovative startups taking shape around the world in places where they’re needed most.
You and I have joked a lot about ... Look, I think Silicon Valley is great, and it’s brought us so much we should celebrate, but the elites on the coast are never going to think about a small-hold farmer and how he only needs a tractor a few hours a day. Or maybe like my mom, a single mom, who probably didn’t need to buy a lawnmower. Why didn’t we have one that we could just call when we needed it?
Right, right, right.
Because when it’d break, we could never afford to fix it.
Those kind of things.
Right, absolutely. That’s actually an interesting topic. Very briefly — and the next thing I want to talk about the book itself — it got you to write this book because … of these kind of ideas.
It’s really a playbook. It’s a clarion call, as I said. I think people everywhere have ideas, and we’ve seen them. I have as I’ve traveled around the world. You know, Kara, my other role is as chairman of the National Geographic Society.
Even in that space, it blows me away what we’re seeing coming along as new startups and technologies that enable more science and exploration.
And a really cool new class of companies are being built there, too.
Now you’re on the nonprofit side, right? Correct?
The parent company is National Geographic Society, and we do have a subsidiary company that I also sit on the board of.
That is in partnership with 21st Century Fox.
Well, that’ll be Disney now, right?
It’ll be Disney now, yes. In fact, I’m heading out to Disney this week to meet with the team out there. But there what’s really cool is when we did that deal, it created a $1.2 billion endowment for National Geographic, and about $100 million a year comes over the transom from our businesses. And we have the No. 1 social media footprint of any brand in the world. We’re coming up on 100 million Instagram followers. It’s crazy exciting, and it’s a lot of fun.
Right. This is the Society, not just the Channel, and things like that.
Correct, correct. Yeah.
Right, right. Absolutely. I want to ask you about Valley of the Boom later, because you guys put that out. That’s still under the umbrella?
Yeah, so the National Geographic society is the parent, and the venture with Fox sits under the National Geographic Society.
Right, right. They’re created. It was a lot of people we knew.
We’re here with Jean Case. Her new book is called Be Fearless. Jean, you have five principles. Why don’t you talk about ... You decided to write this book because?
Because I think people everywhere have ideas ...
And you found them over the ...
And they need a playbook to get started.
Totally. Our research validated this. So let me run through them quickly with you. The first is make a big bet, and we like to say make a big bet and make history. The idea is don’t aim for incremental change. Now, you will take incremental steps getting to your big bet, but everybody that’s broken through has started with a much bigger idea.
The second is take risks, be bold. Look, if you’re trying something new, you’re taking risks. There’s just no way to try something new without taking risks. But I try to go into detail in the book particularly in that part about understanding your own risk tolerance, understanding the risk tolerance of people who have taken other successful things forward. And I encourage people to think about risk taking more as R&D, as trial and error, which then leads into the third principle.
Well, let me just get that. People aren’t trained to be risk takers in this country.
They’re not. In fact, our brains if anything are wired to really give us big caution lights against risk. And that’s important, right, because when we started life here on the planet whenever back when, our brains were telling us to flee or to fight.
Right. Well, we were low down on the totem pole.
Until we figured stuff out with our brains.
Yeah, we had big old things coming after us. But today, unfortunately, a lot of that sort of guard against risk is still very much in our DNA. And one of the things that I recommend is, really think about what is the risk of not taking a risk, because our brains always go first to all the problems with taking the risk. We sometimes don’t give enough thought to, “If I don’t take the risk, what happens then?” And for some people that answer will be a reason to take the risk. Right?
Jeff Bezos — I put this in Be Fearless, in the book — Jeff Bezos said when he was thinking about quitting his Wall Street job ...
At D.E. Shaw?
Yeah, and starting Amazon, he said, “The one thing I knew was that when I was 80, I wasn’t going to be thinking about my quarterly bonus, but I would think if I had passed up on the greatest opportunity and revolution of my lifetime and not been part of it, I could never forgive myself.” And that gave him sort of the extra boldness to start Amazon.
So that’s take risk, be bold. So the next is “make failure matter.” Obviously, if you are out there taking risks, it is trial and error. It is R&D. The error part is often forgot, but you know most success stories have a failure story along the way. And I have a chapter in there called “Fail in the Footsteps of Giants.” And I talk about how Oprah was fired from a news program and told that she just wasn’t right for TV. Steven Spielberg, not accepted to film school. Michael Jordan, cut from his high school basketball team, went home and cried in his closet. So story after story, and that chapter are better-known stories, but we sometimes sanitize the failures along the way. They’re so important to share with people because the bottom line is you just can’t do innovative new things unless you’re willing to take risks, and I don’t know anyone who bats 1,000 on risk-taking. I just don’t.
Right, right. Well, that’s something that’s being told ... I was told I couldn’t write by a teacher in English.
You were ... Oh my gosh.
I said she was an idiot, though I still had an A.
I hope you send her stuff routinely now.
No. She’s dead. She’s dead now. But ...
I had the opposite from my teachers and I’m grateful for it. I write about some of them in the book because they’re life-long friends to this day. So that can really make a difference.
I had great teachers, too. But I’ll never forget this one.
Yeah, right. That’s just not cool.
Okay so that, make failure matter. And I just want to say before I leave that, that Einstein said, “Failure is success in progress,” but that’s not really how we think about it. And if we could actually encourage young people or others we know to think about it that way. And when I stand — I teach a lot of MBA classes — and whenever I’m in front of students I try to read my failure resume to point out that it was actually all the low points that ultimately made me better, stronger, or teed up new opportunities down the road.
That’s probably true. Yeah.
That’s how you perfect ideas.
Although Silicon Valley does take it to a ridiculous extreme.
It does. We shouldn’t celebrate failure, by any means.
Yeah. They love to celebrate ... I’m like, “You just lost money there so ...”
Correct. And I totally agree, and there is a difference between just sort of screwing up and failure that’s meant to teach. But make failure matter is: Understand the lessons of failure and apply them going forward.
So the next is “reach beyond your bubble.” And that’s build on likely partnerships that we talked about, but what we didn’t spend enough time talking about is, the real idea is spend time with people who think differently than you do, have different backgrounds, broaden your perspective and they can broaden yours. They can cover your blind spots. They can see things you can’t. We need a lot more of that today.
Well, tell me why doesn’t that happen?
Boy, do we need it in tech, man. I mean, you and I have talked about this extensively.
And why doesn’t it happen? What is the ...
You know, I think it’s human nature that we all have biases and those biases ...
Yeah. But that’s an excuse. Come on.
No. I don’t think it is, Kara. I think it’s very real. I think we all have blind spots and we all have biases, and I don’t believe they’re intentional. But what I do think is when you know you have them — which today, if you don’t know you have them you’re not listening — you’ve got to be intentional in doing something to make sure you’re changing that. To be the best that you can be. So you know, I think the data is overwhelming. I put it in Be Fearless. It’s throughout the book that diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams. McKinsey, Deloitte.
They’re all these days. That’s why I’m fascinated that you can’t even appeal to people’s greed and still kind of like, “But you’ll be richer!” And I find it ... There was just a story today, I forget what thing it ... Someone tweeted, it was a man at Davos, this group was like, “We’re really sensitive now to meet you, so we don’t really want to help women again.” And I’m like, “Oh, are you ...”
Yeah, I heard that too.
”Are you insanely sensitive people?”
Yeah. That’s crazy stuff. But you know, it’s important to recognize that Silicon Valley is not the center of the earth.
No. I got that.
That a lot of great things can happen. And you know, the Fortune 500 companies, the majority of them, were born starting between the coasts, not on the coast. But I just got the data this morning that the new data says 79 percent of venture capital last year went to California, New York, and Massachusetts. We know that ...
This is something Steve has zeroed in.
Yeah. But let’s talk about it further. So like with women, just a little over 2 percent of all the venture capital went to firms with a female founder. Yet what I see is I see remarkable female founders. I’ve been mentoring one for a long time, actually. She’s a Hoya like you, Kara.
She has a startup in New York called Real World Playbook, and she says it’s the Warby Parker for adulthood. She realizes, she’s a privileged person. She went to Princeton. She got a JD/MBA from Georgetown, and when she got out of school, she didn’t really know what to do about her taxes. She didn’t know how to pick a health care plan. No one had ever really taught her that. So she’s got this really great platform that now universities all over the United States are embracing and putting their kids through to teach them how to go into adulthood. I mean, who would think we would have to disrupt that industry? But it’s greatly needed. She’s a young female entrepreneur that’s just killing it out there.
You just interviewed Susan Tynan at Framebridge. That was a great interview. Another one. And then I just spent the weekend with my dear friend Sarah Blakely who’s the founder and CEO of Spanx. And another friend I just spent time with is the new head, Ellen Stofan, of Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. She was chief scientist at NASA. So as I look around, women really are killing it. The women who have before us, their stories often don’t get told. And so I try to tell many of them in my book. But I think we all really have to double down and get all the players on the field. You and I talked about this.
Yeah. But why doesn’t it happen? I get that. I think most people who are intelligent think that’s the case, but it doesn’t occur.
Yeah. Well, it feels really slow and it’s been a really long time, but I’m telling you there’s been dramatic progress even though we continue to feel like there’s so much that we have to do. And we do. I mean, we’re seeing roles filled by women today that traditionally we never did. Look at our Supreme Court. Look at who’s been Secretary of State. In fact, I have a friend, it’s very cute, that when a white man became Secretary of State again her kid said, “Oh I didn’t think that could happen.” Because we’d had two females and an African American male serve as Secretary of State. So there really is progress on a lot of fronts. It’s just not coming fast enough.
And that’s just fact.
Yeah. So here’s what I think can hopefully, potentially drive it a little bit forward, and that is these will be new innovations, as we’ve discussed. I mean, what do entrepreneurs do at the end of the day? They solve problems. And it’s usually tied to a problem they’ve had some experience with. So at some point, if we just keep pushing those Ivy League kids out in Silicon Valley, we’re like, it’s enough already. That’s not where all the new exciting next wave of innovation will come from. It will come from different places and different people. I think that will be a draw to many people.
But we’re passionate about this, so we lead or help lead something called the Entrepreneur’s Funding Network that is very much focused on putting capital and mentorship to inclusive entrepreneurs. And you know, I’m pretty happy with what I’m seeing there in terms of the ecosystem filling out around the United States.
There’s an accelerator in Atlanta called Digital Undivided. It is specifically for women of color that are entrepreneurs, and they’re killing it. I helped invest in a platform called Alice that’s an online platform. And why is that important for entrepreneurs when they’re growing? Because a lot of women don’t have daycare or don’t have kids ... You know, like if they’re working a job and they want to do this. They’re doing it at night on their computer or whatever. So we’re trying to tap all the different areas that can bring forward lots of new talent and get all the players on the field that quite frankly have been left too much on the sidelines as we’ve been building companies here.
But again, why is that? Because you have to identify the problem. What happens in the system as it is? Because I don’t see a lot of changes. I see you and I see a couple more, but they’re peripheral. They’re still peripheral today.
Yeah. I see a lot of changes, but I want to be super clear that by no means are we anywhere close to mission accomplished. But we sort of felt this way, Kara, it’s kind of like what I said about AOL’s growth, it took us 10 years to get to the first million and then a year later we had four million more. I do think at some point a flywheel will take place.
I have a friend in New York who has worked with the Canadian Prime Minister and some other women and we’ve worked together to do this initiative called Just Add One. And the idea is, if things start to really change when you put a female on the board, that sounds crazy but it’s very true, you know, she widens the perspective, she widens the network of likely candidates. Things change when a woman goes into the C suite. Things change when a woman becomes a partner in a law firm. So I think that there are some who want to see a regulated percentage and I can see a strong argument for that, but there’s others who are saying, “Well I’ll just add one this year.” Could we eventually get a flywheel effect going so there are enough women helping to bring other women in?
Well, the only reason those regulatory things come in is because it just doesn’t move.
Yeah. I agree.
It just doesn’t. So let’s just make them.
Yes, exactly. Because self-regulation often doesn’t work.
Always with these people. I’m sorry, I just don’t ... I don’t see ... Look at ... Microsoft would have kept their vicious ways, until they were stopped.
Yeah, sure. And I absolutely believe there’s a place for regulation. A lot of the stuff you’re talking about in Silicon Valley as well. I think we can believe in the philosophy maybe of like free market, self-regulation, but at some point you have to say “enough” and find a better way forward.
Because these numbers don’t move. So that was number four. You have one more. Right?
Oh yeah. Thanks.
It’s my favorite one, the last one.
No problem. All right, okay.
Let urgency conquer fear.
Okay. Talk about that.
Actually, this is a pretty powerful principle.
I believe in urgency, Jean.
I’m an urgent person.
You act with urgency.
You talk with urgency.
I do, Jean. So get moving! I’ve got things to do today.
You want me to go a little faster now, Kara? Is that what you’re saying?
Yeah, yeah, right now. Mm-hmm.
So let urgency conquer fear, it really is this awareness that basically when your back is against the wall, maybe when you’re mad as heck, maybe when you’re gripped with fear, whatever. The moment is calling to you. Sometimes that will get you out of your comfort zone. And what I write in the book is, “Nothing great comes from the comfort zone.” We all love being there. That’s a comfortable place. But that’s not where great stuff comes from. So sometimes urgency is that extra piece.
We’re here in Washington, DC, our dear friend Chef José Andrés, a great entrepreneur who has restaurants all over the world, saw that hurricane was hitting in Puerto Rico and went down there and set up a food station on an emergency basis, ends up feeding 3.7 million people. Has just recently, as you know, in the last 35 days while the governments been shut down, been feeding federal workers. Look, he doesn’t have a nonprofit background. He doesn’t have an organizational business. He’s an entrepreneur who knows how to cook. And he is a world-celebrated chef, but the urgency that he felt in the moment pushed him past his fears of giving it a try. And look at the impact that he’s had. He’s been at wildfires, tsunamis, earthquakes. He’s been all over the world now.
And that’s because he ...
He really, he’s driven by the urgency that he feels. The Washington Post called him the new face of disaster relief. When disasters are about to strike, what he’s realized is that we don’t really have a system in place often in relief that takes care of basic food security. And so that what he’s gone to do.
Which it’s supposed to. FEMA is supposed to do that.
FEMA’s supposed to, but we’ve had a failure, as you know, in many cases of disaster response when it comes to food support. So another great story on that is the story that I open the book with. The first chapter of the book is called “Start Right Where You Are.” I really am making the point that it’s ordinary people that do extraordinary things, Kara. And so the first story is a woman here in Washington, DC, a mental health counselor, sole practitioner, who saw that there was a tremendous need for military and their families to get mental health support during the Afghan and Iraq wars. And so she was giving one hour a week free. And then she came up with this idea, what if I asked a whole national network of doctors to do this?
She did it. Thousands and thousands of doctors joined her. It’s called Give An Hour. They’ve given away $25 million in health care services. She didn’t even have an assistant. She didn’t have an MBA. She was like one person who was ... She used her answering phone to man ... But look at what she built. And Time called her among the 100 most influential people in the world for what she was able to do.
I use that story on purpose, because anyone looking at her would say she didn’t really have any of those sort of special qualities that we think ... She was one person feeling the urgency and making a really big bet.
When you say everyone’s an average person, why is there this mythology that grows up around tech leaders, for example, or any leaders that they are special and geniuses and everything like that? How do you resist that? Because I think part of fearfulness is, “I’m not smart enough. I’m not good enough.”
That’s right. That’s right. Well, you know, as any position I have of leadership, I try to make sure and let people know that it wasn’t all rosy and that there certainly ... No one would have looked at my early life and said I’d have the opportunities that I eventually had. I do think sometimes, we used to have a term at AOL, “They’re drinking the bath water.” And it means they’re just getting caught up in that whole ...
Yeah. Drinking the Kool Aid or whatever.
Yeah. I’m here now. I’m different. I’m special. And they don’t want to talk about maybe things that didn’t go so right in their life or whatever. And I do think there’s a glorification of Silicon Valley today that’s super unhelpful.
Well no longer, by the way. It’s done. I mean, come on.
I don’t know.
That bloom is off the rose over there.
So when I tell people that startups are at a 30-year low in the United States ...
Right. Talk about this.
They are shocked. They are shocked. Why? Because all they see are these glorious stories coming out of Silicon Valley and they think that’s happening all over the country. And they don’t understand that in some cases those really big companies that are those great success stories are crowding out new competition that would normally enter to unseat them in different ways.
We saw this with AOL, as you talked about, with Facebook and Twitter and Google, and that is how our economy is built, is new players coming in, iterating off of what they see. Or taking advantage as big companies get too confident and don’t continue to put consumers front and center. And I write about that in the book.
I just think it’s a dangerous time in some ways for Silicon Valley because at one level these companies are getting really big and feel in many cases removed from a need to answer to others. Or even to respect governments, to be honest with you. At another level, they’re crowding out companies that could come along and do a better job.
So why are we at a 30-year low? And then in the next section we’re going to talk about where we’re going to go with these and try to recover for your listeners.
You know, I really can’t speak to that. I can tell you that the tech industry that I came into in the early 1980s was geographically diverse, was diverse gender-wise, and was diverse in other ways. We all needed each other and we brought with us some humility that made space for a lot of people different than us. That’s not the ethos of the tech world today, and the tech world is driving so much of ... I mean, every company is a tech company any more.
So what do you think the ethos is?
I think even the tech industry itself has gotten caught up in this idea that it has to be the right school, that it has to be right test score, that it has to be, you name it, that it has to look a certain way, maybe in a hoodie or whatever. And that’s really unhealthy for our economy. We have an innovation and economic imperative to get all the players on the field with their ideas and their companies and all the great things they can do for America. And we’ve got to make an environment that is accessible now more than ever before, because more companies are dying every day than being started in America.
I have noticed that the ideas are sort of not there right now. And sometimes these tech companies in general go through cycles, right? There is the cycle of innovation followed by a fallowness. But it feels real fallow now.
Does it to you?
So maybe the difference between us ...
Can you name a company ... like the last ones were the Airbnb, Lyft, Groupon.
Oh sure, well, we just talked about two that have come out since the financial crisis.
Right, I’m talking about big companies that capture imagination, but go ahead.
Well, actually how you get big companies is, you start with small ones, right?
That’s right, yeah.
And I think where I’m spending more of my time ...
Is on the new entrepreneurs who have new firms that they’re bringing forward, new ideas. And there, I really don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time for new innovation. Think about it, Kara, you talk about this a lot in your interviews that you do. There are still so many segments that haven’t really been disrupted by technology or in some cases touched much, right?
Edtech, fintech, I mean we could ... agriculture, food.
There’s so much innovation to come, but it’s not good news for Silicon Valley because Silicon Valley isn’t worried about the unbanked of this world — like the founder of Tallo, which is a very successful new ... Or some of the leading plant scientists in the world. There are more plant scientists between, like, Illinois and Missouri and Kansas than there are in the rest of the country. Food innovation.
Food innovation, yeah.
Is going to come from there, you know? So I just think some of these ...
Jean, they’re doing intermittent fasting in Silicon Valley. That’s their big idea. Are you doing that?
Although I do like the Impossible Burger, I gotta tell you.
That’s not intermittent fasting.
I hadn’t heard of the intermittent ...
Do you not follow Jack Dorsey on Twitter? He talks about his fasting.
Yeah, that’s what I’m sayin’. That’s where we are right now. That’s what it feels like.
Yeah, but I mean like, you know, we’re sitting here. It’s a world of 3-D printing, right? And I have really uncomfortable shoes while I’m talking to you.
And I was with Sarah Blakely, young founder of Spanx, this weekend, and we’re like, “Heck, why are shoes still uncomfortable?” Why hasn’t the shoe industry been more disrupted? We have lots of new shoes, but women still are ...
I was at Union Market this weekend. There’s a shoe company there, a pop-up, I’m blanking on...
Are they? I mean, on one level I’m joking. At another level I’m not at all.
Every day I go, like, “Should I just start a company to make shoes comfortable?” Like, what do we have to do?
Are you still fearless, entrepreneurially? Obviously, you’ve made a fortune.
You have a very comfortable life.
How do you remain that? Because one of the things I see in Silicon Valley is they’re too friggin’ rich.
They’re just comfortable. They get on the plane.
The plane to this and this, and it’s hard even to talk to them. And when you say something fairly critical, that’s fair, it’s like, “How dare you call me ...” Like, “You’re mean.” I’m like, “Really? What? Like, what happened to you?” type of thing.
Yeah, well, you know, there’s a line in Hamilton that says, “I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy, and hungry.”
That’s how we built America, never forgetting that, you know, we were the ones trying to work our way trying to get to the top. And you gotta worry today about whether, you know, people in Silicon Valley are feeling young, scrappy, and hungry, ‘cause that’s what builds great companies. And, yes, I still feel that. I mean, we have a Virginia winery, I’m trying to establish for Virginia.
The wine was delicious.
Thank you, and it’s been recognized by remarkable wine critics.
It’s called Early Rise?
Rise it’s called, yeah, but we’re trying to establish ... It’s a big idea, it’s our big bet ... Virginia’s world-renowned winery, and we’re making good progress towards it. So I always have my hands or my feet or whatever in some new enterprise, and I sit on startup boards, as well.
But how do you get that, because I do think when you get to a certain level of wealth and influence, you lose ...
I think for both Steve and I, he’s talked about this, so I feel like I can represent him on this one, too. I think we both would say the most rewarding years of AOL was when we were just building it. Once it became the big success, that’s just, for real entrepreneurs, sort of not what you want. You always want to be building and striving and risking.
And trying and, you know, I think sometimes when you say, “Okay, it’s done now,” you’re not in the best possible position to do something great. It’s like that comfort zone thing we were talking about.
Right, right. How do you look at it now? Where is it? It’s now ...
What are we talking about?
AOL. How do you ...
I’m sad. I’m sad. Yeah, I mean I think it was, you know, the absolute right strategy to acquire Time Warner for $164 billion. It’s still the largest merger in US history, and we’re completely saddened that the great company that we built ... What I say is, that’s a really great example of culture eats strategy for breakfast, okay, because what happened is those two — and I was gone from the company at this time — but those two cultures really had trouble merging.
And that meant a total failed execution. And, as I said, what happened is some fast followers came in like Facebook, like Twitter, like ...
Oh, it’s all AOL. It’s so funny.
Yeah, it is. I mean it really is, and I don’t mean ... they tell us that. That’s not my words.
Music services, Spotify.
We had pieces of that, but we just didn’t keep iterating and staying young and scrappy and hungry ourselves as a company. We got a big, fat company with teams that, you know, just couldn’t merge in the way that we had dreamed they would.
I will say, though, for AOL shareholders it worked out. It was the best-performing stock of the 1990s. When we took the company public, I think the valuation was like $70 million, and when we acquired Time Warner that deal was $164 billion, and that was like seven years later.
That was the top, Jean. That was the top.
That was the top, and then it started. Yes, I mean, but it should be a cautionary tale. I write, you know, about Blockbuster and Kodak. I mean, Kodak invented digital photography. Invented it. But they were making so much money off of their traditional film that they were unwilling to shift over, and what happened? Right? It completely took the company down.
So, why don’t we finish talking about the advice you give to people? Some people aren’t fearless, for example. Some people are not comfortable being certain ways. There’s a lot of books like Sheryl’s Lean In. It’s easy to say, “Be fearless.” It’s hard to do.
Yeah, but I’m really honest in the book with saying being fearless is not the absence of fear. It’s the ability to look it in the eye, stare it down, and push past it.
A lot of people still can’t do that.
I go out of my way to explain, not just me, but so many people I write about in the book had their moments of fear and failure and still do on their journey. But it is digging deep and, you know, I truly try to provide tips and techniques for how to push back that what can sometimes be paralyzing fear.
Now, the good news for all of us is, I do think today a lot of people are gripped with fear. It’s a divided nation. It’s a divided world in many sense. But it’s often in those dark — like what we were saying earlier about urgency conquering fear — it’s in those dark moments of frustration or fear that sometimes it can be just enough to push you out of your comfort zone and say, “Darn it. I’m gonna do it now.”
And, really, some of the best things have come from some of the darkest hours, and I’m hoping that’s the case now. I really feel if more people understood that fear and failure are common and, in some cases, necessary as part of the journey, but they can make you stronger in the end. Even though the book is titled Be Fearless, by no means do I claim to be fearless. I’m just good at pushing past fear.
Uh huh. And give a tip for that. How do people do that?
I tell a very personal story, which was — and again, it’s not a biography, I only have small vignettes to try to bring my own voice into the stories I tell. But I did this Outward Bound-like experience, and I had to climb a telephone pole 30 feet in the air — I’m belayed, so if I fall, I’m going to be caught — to climb it 30 feet in the air and walk across another telephone pole laid on its side. Then come back and come down. I froze at the top. I didn’t think I could do it, and I looked down. And I was a part of a team of five. And I was kind of teary, I was so mortified, and I said to the guide, “I don’t think I can do this. I want to. I don’t think I can do this.” And my throat was cracking, the whole thing. She looked at me. She said, “Okay, Jean, but you could try.”
Oh. Power down, people.
I’m telling you. I know it seems at one level such a simple thing, but then it really made me think, “Okay, if I do try and I fall, so what?” What I don’t want to be is a person that climbed the pole and then fearfully climbed down without getting it done.
I was successful in getting across, and when I came back, she said ... We all came down, and you know how they do these almost kumbaya things in a circle. And she said, “So, is there a chance, Jean, that you’ve mostly been doing stuff you knew you’d be good at, that you’re comfortable with?” And I was like, huh. In recent years, I had. Things had gotten pretty comfortable. So I made a list of a number of things that I thought I could never do, and I really want to pause on this because for anyone who’s struggling with this, this is powerful for me. And I took them on, and I learned.
What did you do?
I wanted to become a black belt in TaeKwonDo, and I’d never taken a day of martial arts.
What? Why? Are you a black belt?
I’m a black belt in TaeKwonDo now, and by the way, I got my black belt when I was in my mid-40s.
Oh, good heavens. Good to know. Right.
If you had told me I would someday do flying kicks or ... I would have said, that’s never gonna be me.
Are you a crouching dragon or ...?
Yeah. But I would have looked at myself and said exactly what people say to themselves every day, “That can’t be me.” But it turns out, with small steps, do one thing every week, if you can, do one thing every day to get yourself a little closer. Work it like a muscle, and eventually, you’ll find you have small successes which can lead to bigger successes, which can eventually make you a little more fearless.
Have you become an assassin or something also? Is that one of your things?
No, but Steve seems to be a lot nicer to me ever since I became a black belt.
Oh my god. I had no idea. That’s one crazy fact I didn’t know about you.
But that’s only one thing. You know, I mean, it’s everything from I said I want to read 52 books in a year. But if I hadn’t been intentional about it and tried, and I did. So, I mean, hard things, small things. But what I was doing was ...
What didn’t you do that you wanted to?
Oh, I failed. I failed at a number of things.
Snake charming? What?
Never with snakes. I know I’m chairman of National Geographic, but I’m still workin’ on the love of snakes.
You would like to be a snake charmer. That’s what I would do. You know, it’s interesting. You did a you can try, that type of thing. You didn’t want to be the person ... I have a book in me, but you’re going to not like it because it’s a curse. If I was on the top of there and I didn’t want to do it, and someone’s like, “Give it a try,” I’d be like “fuck you” and I’d walk across ...
See, I knew we wouldn’t get through the podcast without the f-bomb.
My book should be called “Fuck Them.” That’s my book’s name.
Well, there is a best-seller, unfortunately, with that word.
“Unfortunately,” oh Jean.
Yeah, yeah. You know I don’t like that stuff.
Jean, you’re such a proper girl in that regard.
Yeah, yeah. The children are listening.
Oh no they’re not. They’re not. There’s no children listening, and if they are, they’re smart children. They’re smart, and they’re here to learn about life as it really is.
That word’s going to teach them a lot!
Exactly. So, lastly, when you think about that idea of doing things first, are you positive about our country in that way? Because I’m not right now because I feel like we have lost. Like when you see China with all this innovation going on. You see France, India, and everything else, and this country is in such a tailspin of imagination and also polarization and everything else. It feels like the Russians did a great job with us, using our own faults and fears.
So, I think two things can be true. I’m saddened and hopeful.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say, “We got this!” but I do believe ... I’m so inspired by the ideas people have everywhere and what they lack is a way to get in there and take those ideas forward. That’s why I wrote the book, Kara. If I wasn’t hopeful, I probably wouldn’t have written the book. And, again, this is not my advice. This is what, you know, a study of history and contemporary times teaches us about what it takes to break through and find more purpose to make a better world.
And do you feel like the people who have all the money and power have the commitment to it? You see all these very exciting politicians and others talking about more taxes, getting more involved because they don’t seem to do it themselves. They just don’t. It doesn’t seem to be trickling down.
Yeah. I just don’t really necessarily believe that all the best ideas come from government.
I don’t believe they do, either, but I just don’t see ...
Well, you know, we did something. I’ll give you an example. It’s a story in the book. We did something with the Obama White House around contests and grand challenges and basically trying to tap the wisdom of citizens across the nation for really big challenges.
So the Ebola suit was one of them, believe it or not, because there were 22 places where the Ebola suit could be compromised and infect the care workers. So these competitions were set up around the nation, and at Johns Hopkins here in Baltimore, a wedding dress designer signed up for one of the teams. Now, she’s sitting there, right, with like rocket scientists and, like, mega-doctors and all this, and she’s a wedding dress designer.
Well, that was the winning design. Why? Because she had lived the issue of how to get someone in and out of a suit. She knew how to listen and say, “Well, what works for you and what doesn’t?” as you do this and then find ways forward in a very practical manner. To me, that’s such a powerful story because it’s another example of start right where you are. She was a wedding dress designer, and she helped design the new Ebola suit. She was fearless enough to put herself in that situation of sitting at the table and speak up about her ideas. And look at what she was able to do.
So, lastly, one of the things you said the other night when we were talking was that it’s not a question of talent. It’s a question of opportunity.
That really does strike me because I do think there are, especially women, people of color, stuck in places that ... who could have solutions to all kinds of problems we have. Like really brilliant people.
They never can get out of wherever they are.
Yeah, although I know that like a lot of times we talk about the downside of tech, but I actually believe what I believed the first day I went into the tech industry, that it is an incredibly empowering tool. I just have this rare opportunity, given the work I’ve done between National Geographic, the Case Foundation, and technology, to have traveled all over the world to the farthest reaches, okay, and small villages. People everywhere have brilliant ideas. We just need to empower them and give them tools and a way to think about taking those ideas forward. We say, “Talent is universal. Opportunity is not.” We’ve just got to make more opportunity.
All right. In that vein, if you had to change one thing right now, what would it be?
Um, who gets the opportunity. No question.
Well, that’s what I’m doing every day, Kara. I mean, I’m so passionate. If you look at what we’re doing at the Case Foundation between what we call our inclusive entrepreneurship work where we’re really trying to build the ecosystem and encourage people to mentor and give capital to. Impact investing, build companies that will change the world, really have major societal impact.
And not just say they do.
And not just say they do, but I mean you can measure it. I think that even just those two things alone could be remarkably powerful, certainly in the near term, but maybe for all time.
And with the kind of stuff that’s been going on this year in tech, where the neg ... you know, they’ve done some things.
Yeah, they have.
How do they recover from that? You’re a marketing person.
Yeah, well, as you and I have talked, I think they’re trying to grab a tiger by the tail. This thing has grown really, really big, and they didn’t do the right work of defining the ethos and the ethics and then turning that into action.
So I think companies like Facebook have been saying a lot of the right things. I think most recently they’re trying to talk a little more about the actions they’re taking. But it’s probably going to be a combination of things — including, by the way, regulation.
I think privacy and democracy and freedom and even impacts on children of different things that we do, we have to look at this honestly and make sure ... a lot of us got into this business because we believed it would benefit humanity. And I think, as Steve wrote in The Third Wave, in that second wave, which is kind of what we’re seeing right now, out in Silicon Valley, it was really more about drive to value and growth.
Growth, growth, growth. And not consumer empowerment-focused, and we’ve got to get back to that.
Well, that’s a very good thing to end on. Jean Case, thank you so much. Her book is called Be Fearless, and it’s available now. Is that correct?
It is. It came out January 8th, and it’s a national bestseller.
National bestseller, that’s great. It’s 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose. She knows what my new book is going to be called, but we’ll see how that works.
I’ll wait for it, Kara. Thanks so much for today. It’s so fun to be with you.
You wait for it. Thank you so much for being on.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.