Be Fearless!

Be Fearless!

Photo credit: Bruce V. Boyajian

“Let me be clear,” said co-host Kara Swisher at a party for Jean Case at the home of Hilary Rosen on the occasion of her new book: Be Fearless “He created the legislation that created the commercial internet. We were there when Al Gore invented it, and in fact he did. We were there when the internet started. We were there way early, way before Google, way before Uber, way before Facebook and probably will be here long after Facebook is gone. Sorry Facebook, I had to make a Facebook joke.”

Co-hosts Tammy Haddad, Kara Swisher and Hilary Rosen (right) with Jean Case

Kara is an American technology business journalist who first met Jean when she was at The Washington Post and Jean was at AOL……a long time ago as noted by Jean who headed up communications and was the top ranking female executive at the company and one of the few women executives there. She had left GE, which was a big deal to join the AOL start up.  “Nobody did start-ups then,” Kara noted.  “It was not a trendy thing. In Washington, DC it certainly wasn’t.”

Kara Swisher and Jean Case

Jean’s story: “I actually started in technology at the first peer-planned online service which no one remembers called the Source and Claim (?) and Kara recruited me to build an online service for them. And I got this call from this company down the road that was a start-up, nobody had heard of it. It wasn’t called AOL then and I jumped.  Steve (Case) and I have had sort of a front-row seat to Kara’s fearless journey so I know what that’s like to make a decision to leave something good in the hope of something great. That’s what she had done and that’s what I did.”

So what was it that got Jean to do that?  “My journey through life really was kind of meandering if you look at it from sort of the outside looking in,” said Jean. “But the constant theme was that I really cared a lot about empowering others. In fact, the reason I wrote this book is because I have had the privilege of traveling around the country and traveling around the world and seeing first hand that people everywhere have great ideas – about how to make the world better, about things they can do to improve their community or their world. But they have this idea sometimes that they can’t be the one [to do it]. They think it takes something special – a special genius or going to the right school or having wealth or connections or whatever. So the book is based on some research we did six years ago looking at exactly that. What are the core qualities of change makers, innovators, entrepreneurs who have broken through? And it turns out these five simple principles map the frame work for the book. We were able to debunk this idea that it takes some special super human quality to find success and to do something extraordinary. So for me, I really cared about empowering people. It was the most successful American company, GE. But they were stuck, they wouldn’t take risks. They were so comfortable in their strong market positions. They weren’t interested in putting all of that at risk for this new idea. And I could see the DNA of this company that would become AOL was all about really driving forward and getting the masses out. We were democratizing access and you were there to give ideas and information and communication and that’s what Walt (Mossberg) made clear when he first saw the map of his first column. I had a better chance over there than at this sort of established company.”

Steve Case, Jean Case, Walt Mossberg (American Technology Journalist), Kara Swisher

“So the book profiles ordinary people that do extraordinary things,” explained Jean. “We were hungry. We were passionate. We were on a mission to use this powerful new technology to empower people and I think that was the mission of the company. You could feel it in the hallways and you could breathe that air, so it was less about what was said to me, I think, than what I saw playing out in the passion and the focus that everybody had. But, just to put that in perspective, because it’s old history now, I think at the time we had $10 million that had been invested in AOL and some of our competitors had a billion invested in them. And we bested them. As you know, we carried 50% of the nation’s internet traffic. So that was an important lesson of fearlessness for me that you can start without what people normally think you need and really go far.”

Kara Swisher and Jean Case

Kara noted that technology didn’t fair too well last year in Silicon Valley and everywhere. “There is this feeling that tech has kind of ruined our society and made it awful. How do you look at that and stay fearless in this country? You know that the trust levels are down and everything else. Has that changed and where do we go from here because innovation is so important to this country and other countries likes China and others are really moving forward quickly in this area?”

“Well, I talk about this in the book,” replied Jean, “And for those of you who don’t know, we should all be concerned because in the United States we’re at a 30 year loan in terms of startups. More companies are dying everyday then being started. But the secret sauce of America are these new companies, new ideas coming forward. So, I’m optimistic. I still believe there is so much good that does come from technology and will come from technology. But one of the principles in the book is reach beyond your bubble. And that idea is we are better together. And we are actually even better better if we bring people around us that’s different than us.”

José Andrés, Tammy Haddad, Steve Case

Jean’s husband Steve wrote a book called The Third Wave talking about the different waves of the internet that we’ve seen. “The wave that we came into, the first wave, everybody needed each other. We had to work together. Computers needed modems, modems needed something to connect to so we were AOL. You couldn’t do anything without the software. So it sort of kept us all a little more honest, but it also brought a broad perspective of views and we covered each others blind-spots. Today, as you know too well, there is this idea that all the smart people are in California, New York or Boston. And part of the reason I wrote the book is to point out there is talent across the United States. The vast majority of Fortune 500 companies were started between the coasts. So we just need to give back and invest and mentor and get all the players on the field with their ideas and with things, ideas they have to make a better world, a new company, a new movement, whatever.”

“I love every story in this book. And the first one, the first chapter is called, ‘Start right away, Laura.’ And it’s a local woman who is a sole practitioner providing mental health counseling and when the war was ragging in Iraq and Afghanistan and families were facing multiple tours. So she started donating one hour a week and she came up with this idea, ‘Wow, if I could do that, maybe I could get doctors around the nation to do it.’ And she started something called ‘Give an Hour.’ And today she has thousands and thousands of doctors around the United States giving one hour a week, they’ve done $25 million in mental healthcare services. She was sole practitioner. She didn’t even have an assistant. She answered her own phone and look what she did. So, you know the stories are really meant so that anyone can find hopefully, something of himself or herself and say wow, maybe I can push myself further and get out of my comfort zone to go do something even bigger.”

Lawyer and literary agent Bob Barnett and Jean Case

Kara has concerns about the future and pointed to China and other countries where innovation right now is going….China…France…India putting other countries in the lead, not a US lead era due to not much help from the government. A solution to this problem was offered by Jean: “I think it is an economic and innovation imperative to get all the players on the field. What we have let happen in this most recent wave is its kind of people from the same schools who really look all the same and have the same ideas and we have let them have enormous power in some places. So, I think if we could all make a commitment to bring our ideas forward and we would back others, particularly women and people of color, it could be transformative and what I try to really point out in the book, you know, okay, your heart doesn’t get you there, let’s say doing the right thing is going to move you, jump through diversity together. I provide tons of date from Mackenzie, from the number of really respected research firms who point out that today, diverse teams out-perform non-diverse teams. And as we know in China, there is less diversity. A secret sauce here might be really putting all the players on the field and finding a way to make that a reality. And that’s not the reality of tech today.”

Jean Case Suzanne and David Chavern

Silicon Valley is a meritocracy Kara pointed out…..a lot of the same people with the same ideas. So what of all the things to be fearless of do people fear, especially in Washington? “I’m not sure it a problem that Washington by itself can solve,” answered Jean. “I think it can definitely do some things to make it better in terms of monitoring these companies, holding them to standards, etc. But it really is something that if we all believe in, either we bring our ideas forward and decide to jump in the game or we mentor, we invest in, we buy the products of the players that are doing the right things and to bring more people on to the field. I have no doubt that across the country and truly around the world we have all kinds of ideas, like the most remote villages in Africa. There is brilliance out there. We like to say: ‘Talent is equally distributed. It is an opportunity.’ So if you don’t have that idea to take forward and I think everybody does, find someone who does and get behind them and that will change the world. I really mean that.”

Steve Case, Tammy Haddad, Jean Case, Kara Swisher,  Hilary Rosen, José Andrés

Parting words: “Let urgency conquer fear, which is the fifth principle I talk about in the book. It’s quite remarkable. We are living in a time today where many people are gripped for this solution. But frankly, anger. And guess what? That is the best form around for innovation because that is when people say I am going to move out of my comfort zone and I am going to do something that before I didn’t have the ability to do. I was just in Puerto Rico with Steve last weekend, there was Chef José Andrés. We witnessed on the ground what he built there after Hurricane Maria when it hit Puerto Rico. I think a lot of you know this story. He went down there and set up an operation as a chef. What did he know how to do? How did he start right where he was? He knew how to cook. So he went down there and provided emergency food and ended up serving 3.7 million meals. He has been nominated for a Noble Peace Prize for his efforts. He’s still going there and he’s going to make Puerto Rico more prepared before the next disasters come. But there was urgency conquering fear, right Jose? I mean, if you had over-thought it, what would have happened? One of the chapters is ‘Don’t over think and over analyze, Do.’ And that’s what you did down there. And we were blown away to go around the island with Jose last weekend and see what he has done on the ground.”

Steve Case and José Andrés

“So I guess I just want to add one more thing before I close. I open the book by telling my own story. So I was in the town called Normal – Normal, Illinois. I was the youngest of four kids raised by a single mom. I was a recipient of philanthropy as a child. I was on full scholarship at the local private school. What an American story where you can go from that to be in a position today where now I get to spend my full time empowering others.I am using our resources to do just that with Steve. I like to say, no one would have looked at my early life and never imagined that I have the opportunities I’ve had, and the only reason I did, is because of generosity of others. Their time, their resources. Mentors. People who cared about sort of this latch-key kids whose mom is a waitress and works every night. And so you know just pay attention to anyone around you that maybe you can lift up. I am only here because others did that for me.”