C.J. Walker, the daughter of slaves, would not have become the first self-made female millionaire in America had she not traveled around the country training thousands of black women how to apply and sell her hair concoction. Anthropologists would never have had the insights we now know about primates had not a young British woman named Jane Goodall ventured to Africa to develop her own system of communicating with chimpanzees, despite being scoffed at by academics. And Spanx wouldn't be a staple of millions of women's wardrobes had Sara Blakely--who sold fax machines door to door at the time--not tried to mass produce a pair of pantyhose she hacked on her way to a party.
These and other iconic stories of fearlessness are chronicled by Jean Case in her new book Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose (Simon & Schuster, 2019). On Saturday, during a lively discussion at the Inc. Founders House in Austin, Case--the chairman of the National Geographic Society and CEO of the Case Foundation, which she started in 1997 with her husband, AOL co-founder Steve Case--discussed why facing fear is critical for anyone looking to make a difference in the world. The Founders House is the inaugural event of Inc.'s Founders Project, an initiative pairing prominent mentors with early-stage entrepreneurs.
The findings revealed in Be Fearless, Case explained, are a result of research her foundation commissioned six years ago to examine the core qualities of change-makers and entrepreneurs. "I've traveled to remote villages and big cities, and something you find in all these places is that they have great ideas about how to make the world a better place," she told interviewer Elizabeth Gore, who runs Alice, an entrepreneur platform in which Case is an investor. "We wondered why some people take those ideas and do something breakthrough, and other people don't."
In her remarks, Case outlined the principles entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, or anyone trying to effect change needs to embrace:
1. Make a big bet
"Don't aim for incremental change, aim high," said Case, who joined AOL when only 3 percent of people were online, typically for only one hour a week. "Our goal was to democratize access to ideas and information and communication for everyone."
2. Be bold, take risks
"It's impossible to do a breakthrough idea without talking risks," Case said. "The bottom line is, it never stops." National Geographic, she explained, is a 131-year-old nonprofit, but "we constantly have to look at where do we go next." The organization is constantly reinventing itself, she said, pointing to its now 100 million-plus Instagram followers and recent Oscar win for the documentary Free Solo.
3. Make your failures matter
Case revealed that AOL was born out of failure. In its first iteration, she explained, it was a startup that built a brand called AppleLink for Apple. "We weren't scaling, and Apple called up and said, 'We want a divorce. We're ending our partnership,'" she said. "It was an existential moment--a dark, dark moment." But what emerged from that failure? The small team managed to get a $3 million "divorce settlement" from Apple, which they then used to start building AOL into what it would eventually become.
4. Reach beyond your bubble
"I think we get caught up in a myth in America. We're enthralled with the idea of the lone genius in the garage," Case said. "But the fact of the matter is that that's not how stuff has broken through. It's broken through with teams." She pointed to the early days of the tech industry when talent was dispersed around the country, and collaboration between people from all walks of life was necessary. She encouraged new tech founders to return to those roots. "Reaching beyond your bubble means diverse teams break through," she said. "People with different backgrounds and skill sets. If you're looking at an opportunity or challenge and you have five ways to look at it versus one, you'll see each other's blind spots."
5. Let urgency conquer fear
"With the pace of change, you constantly have to disrupt yourselves," Case said, offering Kodak as a cautionary example of a company that neglected to do so. Kodak's engineers discovered digital photography, she explained, yet the company was too worried it would cannibalize its own film business, which at the time dominated 80 percent of the market. Instead, "others discovered the same thing, ate up their market share, digital totally overtook film, and they filed Chapter 11." She urged entrepreneurs to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to them, especially when they get pressure from their boards. "Too much board conversation is based on risk mitigation, not [asking], 'What risks should we take?'"