Jean Case, Author, ‘Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose’

February 27, 2019
Jean Case, Author, ‘Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose’

Jean Case is a woman on a mission. As the youngest child of a single mom working to raise a family in the small town of Normal, Illinois, and then in the Fort Lauderdale area, Case studied hard and dreamed big — of becoming a lawyer and maybe having a career in politics. But a few years out of college, something new called the Internet beckoned, and she found herself working at the one of the first pure-play online services. In short order, she took a similar position at General Electric and then, in her late twenties, landed a job at another startup, soon to become America Online (AOL), where over the next decade she and her colleagues helped usher in the Internet revolution.

In 1997, Case left AOL and not long after, with her husband Steve, then the chair and CEO of AOL, started the Case Foundation with an eye to "investing in people and ideas that can change the world." As the organization's founding CEO, Jean has helped guide its investments in online platforms like Network or Good, Causes, and MissionFish, and has spearheaded its forays into the still-nascent impact investing field. She currently serves on the boards of Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure (ABC2) and the White House Historical Association, and on the advisory boards of the Brain Trust Accelerator Fund, the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and Georgetown University's Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. In 2016, she was named chair of the National Geographic Society’s board of trustees, the first female chair in the society’s history.

Case attributes much of her success to her mother, her "first and most enduring role model" and the person who taught her "to take risks, to see possibility, and to be good to others." In her new book, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose, Case shares the stories of ordinary people who overcame their fear, took a bold risk, and did something extraordinary.

PND spoke with Case in January about the book and the lessons she has learned about success and the people who achieve it.

Philanthropy News Digest: Jean, I think a lot of people would like to know why you decided to write this book.

Jean Case:  Well, the book is premised on research the Case Foundation undertook a number of years ago, where we set out to investigate the core qualities of great entrepreneurs and change makers, past and present, from around the world. And what we discovered was really surprising. When you think about what vaults people to success, it wasn’t genius, or privilege, or wealth. Instead, it boiled down to five things that are present whenever a transformational breakthrough happens. We thought it was interesting research, and we wanted to share it. And we quickly learned that what we were sharing resonated with people in every sector, with leaders of organizations in every sector, from college students to CEOs, in terms of challenging them to think about how they might move something for­ward that might have been languishing, or that they didn’t think they could do.

PND:  The transformational breakthroughs you talk about in the book are almost always rooted in the willingness of an individual or an organization to make a big bet, take a risk, and let urgency conquer their fear. Urgency is key in that equation, isn't it?

JC:  It is. In fact, I think the role it plays is often underestimated. I like to say that there is no better time to do something than when your back is against the wall, because you have nowhere left to go. It's what Martin Luther King called the "fierce urgency of now," and sometimes it's exactly the motivation we need to get out there and try. 

That's really what the book is about. It's a call to people who have an idea about how to make the world better to get out there and try....

That's really what the book is about. It's a call to people who have an idea about how to make the world better to get out there and try. And it provides a playbook, based on five principles, to help get folks started and to give them a sense of what they need to think about as they try to execute on a big idea.

PND:  What do you say to young people who approach you and say, "Jean, I care, I really do, but I've got a lot of student debt, my parents aren't wealthy, housing costs are through the roof, and I just need to find a good job and make some money."

JC:  Well, you know, the first chapter of the book is titled "Start Right Where You Are." And it’s meant to push back against the idea that to do something transformational, something that represents a breakthrough, you've got to have everything planned in advance and a detailed roadmap pointing you to where you hope to end up. That's just not what our research shows. It turns out that a lot of people who've gone on to extraordinary success got started in small ways. Yes, they might have had a big idea, but they started right where they were. 

For example, I open the book by telling the story of Barbara Van Dahlen. Barbara was a family counselor, a sole practitioner, who was helping families deal with various mental health issues. But it began to dawn on her that the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had created a huge mental health crisis among returning vets, and that the country simply didn’t have the capacity to meet the mental healthcare needs of veterans and their families. So, Barbara started donating an hour a week of her time to these families. And then she started talking to her colleagues, many of whom responded in kind, which then led her to wonder whether she could scale the effort. And that’s what she did, ultimately building a national network of thou­sands and thousands of doctors willing to donate healthcare services — some $25 million worth to date — to veterans and their families. She didn't quit her job, and she didn't wait until she had earned an MBA; she just started where she was and, step by step, took a big idea and moved it forward. 

PND:  If you had to choose between betting big on a person or betting big on an idea, which would you choose?

JC:  I would always choose the person. You know, one of the things I point out in the book is that a lot of people who’ve seen success have had failures along the way. And often, the difference between people who find success and those who don’t is that the former are undaunted by their fears and failures. They've stared them in the eye, and they've pushed past them. It's not that they don't have them. We all have fears, and we all have had failures. But the person who learns to overcome them is more likely to be the person that finds suc­cess. 

When I invest in startup companies, for instance, I like to invest in entre­preneurs who may fail, because I know they will take to heart those lessons I talk about in the book and will keep going forward, applying lessons they learned to their next company or startup situation. You know, Einstein said failure is success in progress. Too many of us don't think about it that way, and we need to.

You know, Einstein said failure is success in progress. Too many of us don't think about it that way, and we need to....

PND:  Do you have a favorite big bet, one that grabbed you as you were researching the book and exemplifies the maxim you attribute to Jane Goodall, namely, that every person can make a difference every day.

JC:  It's interesting you mention Jane, because for me, she probably emerges as the truly iconic be-fearless story. Here she was, a young British woman with no education but who had a love and passion for animals. So, she gets herself to Africa, where she has the good fortune to meet Louis Leakey, who sends her out into the field, all by her­self, to do her chimpanzee research. She wasn't formally trained, so a lot of her methods were unconventional. But she ended up changing the field of primate research and today is considered to be one of the preeminent animal researchers in the world. She also likes to encourage others to act on their big bet and not be daunted by things they may not have or possess. In Jane's case, it was a degree. And that ultimately worked to her advantage.

PND:  There are a lot of great quotations in the book. One of my favorites, credited to Henry Ford, is: "If I’d asked people what they wanted, they'd have said faster horses." He was referring to the importance of not only having a great idea, but also being stubborn enough to ignore the naysayers. Where does that kind of confidence come from?

JC:  You know, you have to work at it, and hopefully people who are reading this have someone around them who encourages them when others are trying to rain on their parade. But even if they don't, if they have a big idea they probably also have a gut sense that they are on to something great. I talk in the book about moments in my own life where others were quick to tell me I was crazy and I just had to close my ears and do what I had to do. There are always going to be naysayers, but the person with a big idea knows in his or her gut that they’re on to something. They may have to pivot or change things along the way, but deep down they know that if they just keep going, they will achieve success. 

The other thing the Henry Ford quote alludes to is how people with a big idea often have a knack for seeing around corners. They see things coming that others don't, and that gives them the confidence to stick with what they're doing. You know, when we started AOL, only 3 percent of Americans were online, and they were only online for an average of an hour a week. We had many people say to us, Why would I ever need e-mail? Why would my business ever need a website? It's really that ability to see what others can't that helps keep you going.

It's really that ability to see what others can't that helps keep you going....

PND:  In terms of practical advice, I really like your idea of pursuing a big bet in "chunks," a step at a time. But I think a lot of people who are passionate about making a difference want to make things happen now and have a hard time accepting the idea that change is a process, that it's more evolutionary than revolutionary. Is that how you see it?

JC:  I definitely see it that way, and again I think this is one of those areas where people need to understand that there are small things they can do today, no matter their circumstance, to begin moving their idea forward. There are several tips and techniques in the book designed to help people get started from where they are, which is really key.

PND:  Is the framework you lay out in the book translatable to other fields? A lot of foundations were established in perpetuity, and that tends to make the people who run them risk-averse and predisposed to the status quo. Can the Be Fearless framework work in an institutional philanthropy context?

JC:  It most certainly can, and thanks to my role as chair of the National Geographic Society, a hundred-and-thirty-year-old organization, I can totally relate to the situation of larger, endowed, legacy organizations and the concern that trying new things can put all that at risk. I tell the story of National Geographic in the book, because it’s a great example of the need for organizations to constantly innovate and iterate if they want to stay relevant. Back when color photo­graphy was a new technology, the publisher and editors of National Geographic, the magazine, decided they wanted to include photographs in each issue, which led some members of the board to re­sign, because they felt that color photography was just a fad and not in keeping with the scientific mission of the National Geographic Society.

Fast forward to 2019 and look where we are — not only are we the most popular organization on Instagram, with over a hundred million followers, but our brand has become synonymous with high-quality color photography. And the society has been able to pull that rabbit out of the hat through each successive stage of technological disruption and change. When cable TV was the hot new medium, we introduced the National Geographic Channel in partnership with Fox. The same is true of social media more broadly, where we have the biggest footprint of any brand in the world. So, although we're an older, legacy organization — I mean, there are still mem­bers of the board related to the founding family — the one thing we are committed to is not settling for the status quo. We believe that if we don't continue to disrupt ourselves and find new ways to be relevant, we will lose our relevance altogether.

PND:  At the same time, lots of people, in the U.S. and around the world, feel technology is moving too fast, that it's too disruptive, that we've let the genie out of the bottle and someday, in the not-too-dis­tant future, we're going to regret it. Is that a valid concern?

JC:  I wouldn't necessarily say it's a valid concern or that we're going to regret it. But I do think it's accurate to say that the pace of tech­nological change is running faster than ever before in history, and that if we don’t have clear frameworks around ethics, around how to make sure all that change is in service to humanity, we could find ourselves in trouble. But, you know, I'm encouraged by all the people who are looking at this, and the very fact that we're having a dialogue about it. Things have happened quickly on the technology front and have taken us further than perhaps anyone would have guessed, and now we need to catch up and put some frameworks in place to make sure the future lives up to the promise.

Things have happened quickly on the technology front and have taken us further than perhaps anyone would have guessed, and now we need to catch up and put some frameworks in place to make sure the future lives up to the promise....

PND:  As you detail in the book, you didn't have a perfect Ozzie and Harriet upbringing. But you did have a very determined mother, wonderful grandparents, an excellent support system, and ended up living the American dream. Is that dream still achievable for most Americans?

JC:  I would like to believe it is, but part of the reason I wrote the book is to sound a sort of clarion call to anyone who is questioning that. I was the youngest child of a single mom. What I had in my early years came to us through the generosity of others. One of the stories I include in the book is the story of Madame C. J. Walker, who was born the daughter of a slave in Louisiana a few years after the end of the Civil War.  I mean, talk about starting life with challenges. And yet C.J. Walker built a hair care empire by herself, becoming the first self-made female millionaire and philanthropist in America. 

It's stories like Madame Walker's that should inspire everyone who thinks the world has counted them out to say, "I'm not counting myself out. I know there are still opportunities in America for someone like me to do something great." That's why I wrote the book.

PND:  What's the best piece of advice you ever received from a mentor?

JC:  I'd probably have to say it's, "Don't wait to find the time to do the thing that matters." Life is short, and it's really important to make the time to do the thing that matters. In the book, I talked about how I use my calendar to do that. If I'm really trying to move toward a goal, I want to make sure that this week, every week, I've done something to move me closer to that goal. That won't happen if I just sit around and hope it does. I liter­ally have to put on my calendar as a reminder that I need to work on it. I have to be intentional in writing down what it is I want to achieve this week. It's a great piece of life advice that was shared with me early on, and I swear by it. It's really made a difference for me, and I believe it can make a difference for other people as well.

PND:  A final question for you. Here we are a month or so into the new year. As you look ahead to 2019 and beyond, are you an optimist?

JC:  I'm a total optimist. I think there’s never been a better time for people who see a way to make a difference in the world to make a difference. They just need to get started. And I'm super-optimistic that more and more people will feel called to do that. Yes, we have challenges, but we also have opportunities, and lots of people who see those opportunities, and I think that's true not just in the United States, but in countries around the world. So, I'm optimistic. And I'm looking forward to what 2019, and the future, brings.

Mitch Nauffts spoke with Case in January. For information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at