The Case Foundation's bold mission is to invest in "people and ideas that change the world." So its CEO, Jean Case, has a vested interest in thinking and acting big. Her new book, Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose (Simon & Schuster, 2019), seeks to prod aspiring entrepreneurs through the plane door--wearing parachutes of course--and out into blue skies of possibility. Case treats fearlessness not as lack of fear, but rather as the ability to dig deep and push past it.
The book draws on examples from business, science, philanthropy, and other realms, as well as from Case's own experience leading the National Geographic Society and the Case Foundation, which she co-founded in 1997 with her husband, Steve Case, the former CEO of America Online. Case spoke with Inc. about just doing it.
Starting something--especially something audacious--is daunting and exhausting. How do you prevent yourself from getting overwhelmed?
I was training one summer to run a three- or five-mile loop in the mountains. My trainer, who was a triathlete, never had me focus on the finish line. Instead she told me to chunk it down. She said for any great feats in athletics, like feats in life, you might be aiming for something pretty far down the road. But you get there in small, incremental steps.
When I work with entrepreneurs, I encourage them to write down the next incremental steps they need to take. Many people who have broken through schedule these things on their calendars or keep running lists of the one person they can contact or the one thing they can do today to push further and faster.
Can anyone get comfortable with risk? Should you approach fearlessness differently if you have low risk tolerance?
I encourage people to start by understanding their own risk tolerance. But I think people can get a little more comfortable with risk if they think of it as an R&D effort. In science or tech or medicine, it is well understood that R&D is trial and error. So you may trip up or have failures along the way. But the best companies, the best leaders, the best entrepreneurs know how to let those failures shape them so they or their products are better down the line.
How do you balance the imperative to get outside your comfort zone with the instinct to play to your strengths?
It is important to understand your strengths. But the best entrepreneurs I know understand their weaknesses and build teams and partnerships that complement them. Back when cable television was the disrupter, National Geographic said, yes, we have a great magazine and great stories to tell. But we have to have a cable channel. They reached out to 21st Century Fox, a huge media company. And out of that was born the National Geographic Channel. That partnership continues, and today we are the number one social media brand. I encourage anyone pursuing a big idea to ask, "What don't I have? What do I need? And who has got it that I can form a partnership with?"
Should you think differently about risk as your organization scales and you become responsible for more people?
You should. But there is a risk in not taking a risk. All companies were started by entrepreneurs. But as they get bigger and begin to age, it is so important to constantly look at how they can disrupt themselves. Kodak invented digital photography. But because they were such a big, successful company making most of their profits from rolls of film, they were unwilling to fully leverage that innovation, which would have led to a decline in sales of their traditional product. Other companies pushed the technology forward, and ultimately Kodak ended up in Chapter 11. It could not take the risk. And it became a victim of not taking the risk.
The last recession produced a surge of entrepreneurship among people who had lost jobs. Given that another economic downturn is inevitable at some point, should people now be thinking about businesses they might start then?
Yes. Sometimes our best periods of innovation follow dark times. That can be a good formula to push someone out of their comfort zone. Also, while we now have a strong economy there is a cautionary wind blowing. We are at a 30-year low in terms of startups in the nation. That should concern us all. It is new firms that drive job growth. Part of the issue is too much capital is going to too few people and too few places. So last year only 2 percent of venture capital went to companies with women founders. Less than 1 percent went to companies with an African-American founder. And 75 percent went to just three places in the United States: California, New York, and Massachusetts. We must bring more equality to where money and mentoring produce new ideas and talent.
How did your experience at a startup influence your conclusions in the book?
The most important lesson I took away was actually from working at General Electric. GE, at that time, was the most valuable company in the world. So when they recruited me to come build an online service for them, I was excited thinking about the big budget and the big brand, and what that could do to build a movement for the internet. What I discovered, though, was that GE was too big and comfortable in the businesses they already had to take the risks to create a revolution. So when the startup down the road called and said would you come here and build something for us, I could see that risk-taking was in their DNA. Of course that company was AOL. And I never looked back.
Your book is full of inspiring stories. If you had to pick just one to illustrate fearlessness in its purest form, who would it be?
Madame C. J. Walker. More than 100 years ago, she was a young woman who was having issues with her hair. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, she tried to solve the problem for herself. She made some hair care concoctions and was really happy with the results. So she started a company and traveled around the United States training people like herself how to use the product. It was an early door-to-door kind of thing. It caught fire and was a very, very successful company. Madame C. J. Walker was the daughter of slaves. And she became what we believe was the first self-made millionaire in the United States.
Not every entrepreneur, social or otherwise, is out to change the world. How do your principles apply to those with more humble goals?
A big bet is going to look different for everyone. My mother was a single mom who raised four kids while working full-time as a waitress. For her, I was a big bet.
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