Jean Case is a businesswoman, investor, philanthropist, and impact investing pioneer who believes in the power of business to do good. Chair of the National Geographic Society and CEO of the Case Impact Network, Case spent nearly two decades in the private sector, including as a senior executive at AOL, before co-founding the Case Foundation in 1997. She launched For What It’s Worth (FWIW) in 2021 to create a source for new investors looking to confidently invest for both profit and purpose. She is also author of the national bestseller Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose.
Case recently joined Katherine Klein, vice dean for the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, for an episode of the Dollars and Change podcast to talk about her work and the lessons she’s learned from her long career. (Find more episodes here.) Listen to the podcast at the top of this page or read an edited transcript of the conversation below.
Katherine Klein: I’m curious about who you were as you reflect back on your early college years or maybe high school. Do you look back and say, “Yes, I saw this path,” or, “I never saw where this would go and where I would end up”?
Jean Case: I would say it’s some combination. I have lived a life, and it continues to this day, where I kind of have had a leg in different worlds. I was raised the youngest of four children by a single mom, so there wasn’t a tremendous amount of economic security in our lives. But I had the privilege of going to a private school on full scholarship. The families that I was surrounded with and my friends were in a very different place in the world and societal status than I was. I am so grateful for that because I think that I could see things through a different lens, and I had the benefit of hearing from some of them through life. Many of them still are close friends today. They might have seen the world a little differently through the lens I brought, as well.
I definitely was very aspirational as a young person. My single mom probably told me every day of my life that she expected me to do something meaningful in life and that she believed I could do anything I set out to do. That set a pretty high bar. But looking back, I do feel like there are bits and pieces of where I am now that, in some ways, no one looking at my young life would imagine that I would have the opportunities I’ve been humbled to have.
Klein: A few years ago, you published this very successful and influential book called Be Fearless. The five principles you outlined were: 1. Make big bets and make history. 2. Be bold. Take risks. 3. Make failure matter. 4. Reach beyond your bubble. 5. Let urgency conquer fear.
If you had to pick one, which one of them is resonating and inspiring you today?
Case: I’m highly influenced by this moment that we’re in, and I think by far it’s, “Let urgency conquer fear.” When I see what bold, transformational acts are going forward — whether those be in business, whether those be on the NGO front, activism, or whatever — that is many people letting the urgency of the moment conquer their fears and actually get out of their comfort zone and really commit to a path with that sense of urgency, that burning inside. Whether it’s anger, whether it’s fear, whether it’s an opportunity driving them, I don’t think we’d see some of the things we’re seeing today were it not for that sense of urgency.
I’ve always been super passionate about working closely with the next gen. As people are poised to look at their future as they’re coming out of college or whatever, they might have in mind that one path is set for them. But really the message out of Be Fearless is keep your mind open. Keep peeking around corners. Don’t feel like because you’ve started down one path that’s necessarily where you’re going to end up.
The example I used in the “Let urgency conquer fear” [principle] is someone I feel really privileged to call a dear friend, José Andrés. He’s a celebrity chef, but that really is not his known identity today. I think that he is seen as a great humanitarian. He’s on the front lines in Ukraine, feeding refugees, feeding people who are cut off from resources. But he was someone who was schooled in the world of being a chef. He likes to say he’s a cook; he rejects that chef title. But what he did was see a great need. It was first in Haiti following the earthquakes, and he let that urgency conquer his fear that he had of, “What could I, as a simple chef, go and do to make a difference?”
“Every day, I wake up to new stories and people of all ages who just see a different future and want to build companies to have that social impact.”
Fast-forward the tape and literally tens of millions of people have benefitted from him and his team going to the front lines of wildfires, earthquakes, natural disasters of every kind, and now war. I think if you would have asked that question of a young José Andrés, he couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams that he would be having the global impact he’s having today.
Klein: Another one of your principles that intrigues me is, “Make failure matter.” I wonder if you could talk about what this means and describe a time in your life where you made failure matter.
Case: You’re at a great institution, and I have no doubt you routinely see young people paralyzed by fear of failure. Failure looms large in our lives, and I think it looms larger if you have some sense that you’re on a unique or privileged path. You don’t want to screw it up, right? I think the big message out of Be Fearless is that most of the extraordinary things that have taken place and most of the extraordinary people who are responsible for those things are truly a result of failures along the way. Instead of stopping in their tracks and saying, “It’s curtains. It’s over for me,” they dug deep, really tried to learn the lessons of those failures, apply them, and move on.
My favorite saying is Thomas Edison’s, which is, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 things that won’t work.” In some lines of work, like a lab, we really get the importance of failure because that’s how we perfect an idea or make something even stronger or better. But for too many people in their personal lives, they don’t understand that that is absolutely as relevant as it is in a lab, that it’s often out of failures where we find new strengths and can be even stronger on a path that we’re on.
In my own life — and I wrote extensively about my failures — I feel like most of the great opportunities I had, or any time I felt I had the opportunity to break out, it was truly following a moment of failure. But it’s hard to pick yourself up and to go through that discipline. There’s a chapter in there, “Fail in the Footsteps of Giants,” where I talk about Oprah being fired from TV and told she’s not right for TV, or Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team. He went and cried in the closet. Steve Jobs, who many of us revere for what he contributed to our world and the technology we enjoy today, was fired from the very company he founded and built.
Klein: You are often described as an impact investing pioneer, and we can debate how old impact investing is. I think the term is usually dated to 2007, which would make impact investing 15 years old. If you look back at the past 10 or 15 years in the field of impact investing, are you pleased from where it has come? Do you see opportunities that have yet to be achieved?
Case: I guess I have to fully disclose that how I spend a lot of my days is in the presence of entrepreneurs building the next great companies. They are innovators, and so many of them are embracing an impact focus, so I’m exceedingly encouraged about the future. I think we still suffer somewhat from some things that I was hoping would be in the market today that aren’t. And they apply to ESG [environmental, social, and corporate governance] and sustainable investing, as well, which is standards, measurement, and transparency. I think in the earliest days of impact investing, many of us were [saying] you have to have measurement, you have to have standards, and you have to be transparent around what impact you or your company or your product is bringing.
“I fundamentally believe…that E, S, and G don’t necessarily belong together. They are three distinct things — environmental, social, and governance.”
We’re still not where we need to be on that front with impact investing. Obviously, it’s well understood now that ESG is facing the same challenges. I would have guessed there might have been a little bit more order in the impact investing world, if you will. But that doesn’t in any way diminish my excitement for what it can bring. Every day, I wake up to new stories and people of all ages who just see a different future and want to build companies to have that social impact. And I see it in the investing patterns of the next generation. Ninety-five percent of them have said they’re interested in socially responsible investing. About 63% have said they want to invest in a way that is tied to social issues that they care about. This generation can have such a powerful impact on the development of both impact investing and ESG, and I’m very encouraged by that.
Klein: I want to discuss some of the measurement challenges that you’ve alluded to with regard to impact investing and ESG. As a researcher and a professor, I have a very intimate, close-up understanding of how incredibly difficult the measurement challenges are. Different fields, different scopes, different geographies. ESG is probably even worse because we’re often trying to describe multiple dimensions of publicly traded companies that do not share so much information. These are huge challenges of the complexity of measurement that we’d like to distill into a meaningful, small set of standards and avoid impact-washing and greenwashing.
Case: You’re not alone in thinking, “Can we really get there?” There are a number of measurement platforms out there. I fundamentally believe, and I have written about this, that E, S, and G don’t necessarily belong together. They are three distinct things — environmental, social, and governance. And there has been some recent research that showed that some of the companies that score the highest on the environmental front have terrible labor practices. Some of that gets into the S, which is the social. In too many places, what we’ve seen is a company get glow for a high ESG rating, when in fact it’s really one element of those three dimensions where they’re strong.
Some of the most important work that I see going forward today is being done by George Serafeim at Harvard, with all respect to all the really great stuff Wharton is doing, too. George has this plus/minus algorithm that he uses. Yes, you can get glow if you’re really off the charts on environment. But if your governance really stinks, that’s going to count against you.
It is tricky. Let’s just take electric vehicles, for instance. I think most of us want to embrace an electric vehicle future, but many of the minerals that we need to supply the batteries at scale come from places where it’s almost the equivalent of slavery. You can peel back the onion and it might look like a really cool, sustainable company. And then you look at their board. This happened to me as an investor. There was a wind company that my advisors recommended, and when I took a look at their board, there was no diversity whatsoever. I peeled back the onion one step further and said, “What’s in the C-suite?” Very little diversity there. The answer from the company was, “Well, we’re an engineering-based company, and as you know, that’s mostly white males.” And it’s like, “I know. That needs to change.” It’s a great example of how, on the one hand, I want to embrace renewables. On the other hand, if I look at a balance of these dimensions we’re talking about, it can steer me away from some of the investments.
“It’s too easy to get caught up in our bubble and not even realize it’s a bubble.”
Klein: One of your new projects is a weekly newsletter, For What It’s Worth (FWIW). Who are you trying to reach?
Case: For us, it’s a lot more than a project. It’s truly a startup business, and I’m exceedingly committed to it. I’ll tell you what’s behind it. We did the largest study of millennials, a 10-year study, and their attitudes and behaviors towards social good. And what we saw very early was what most of us know now — very conscious consumers, very conscious workers wanting to go to companies that were better actors. We learned they’d take a pay cut to do that. What became clear in the earliest days, as that generation was beginning to mature, was they were idealistic like all young people, but they were very serious about turning their idealism into action. Of course, we see this today with millennials and Gen Z.
What’s happened since we started that study is they have grown to emerge as the largest workforce in American history. They are making more and saving more than any young generation before them. They are investing more, and they are investing earlier. But here’s the rub: They have made it very clear they want to use their capital for good, as they now have assets that they are starting to deploy. But they lack the knowledge and confidence to jump into this phase.
What I love about the next generation is they’ll be authentic enough to say, “I lack the knowledge, the competence.” But it turns out people my age lack in knowledge and competence in this new space, too. They’re just not so quick to own up to that. I really saw a great need in the marketplace, and we decided to fill that gap. It is a free weekly newsletter. For those who want to keep it light, it’s a 5-minute read, but it’s chock-full with resources and links if you want to go deeper. Katherine, I can’t tell you how great it has felt to get the feedback we’ve received from young people saying, “Gosh, I wish I would have had this before I invested my first dollar.” Because it is a complex marketplace, and as you pointed out. I’ve spent a long time in my career on this, too. This stuff is hard. Our commitment is to make it easy to understand. We use a little sass. We try to keep it light and conversational. I don’t like this term, but there’s no other better term for it than “dumb it down a little bit.” No matter where you’re coming from, you can grasp it.
The world of finance is filled with way too much complicated language, and we don’t do anyone a service when they’re getting started to fill them with acronyms and complicated terms. We need to make it real, and that’s what we try to do every week. We’d just love any of your listeners to check it out. And I would invite them to send us word about what they think. Are we hitting the mark?
Klein: There’s a lot going on in the world, whether we look at Ukraine or the economy. At the time of this recording, we’re two days after the Buffalo racially motivated hate crime and mass killing. How do these events in the larger world impact your thinking?
Case: One of the principles in Be Fearless is, “Reach beyond your bubble.” And the principle of that is embrace people who are different than you are. It’s easy to understand how this might be applied in a business context. People with different backgrounds and perspectives will bring different ideas to the table. But the truth is, even in a personal life, if you make sure to make time for people who come from a different background, who think differently, it really is quite amazing. The idea of it is that it would broaden your perspective and maybe help you avoid those blind spots that can get you in trouble in life because you just don’t understand.
I said earlier in our conversation, I keep a leg in a couple of worlds. I have a number of people in my life who work in jobs that I would normally not have a lens on, and it has helped me tremendously. Sometimes, after at least mentally walking in their shoes for a little bit, I have to step back and say, “Well, wait a minute here. I get that now.” It’s too easy to get caught up in our bubble and not even realize it’s a bubble.
“I’ve really tried to embrace a way of living that isn’t daunted by what I don’t know.”
I spent a couple of decades early in my career working in tech and bringing the first internet company forward, AOL. At one time, we carried 50% of the nation’s internet traffic. I’m horrified to see what we thought was really a technology that could democratize and bring people together has now become a big part of what is dividing people. I look at Twitter every day. I’ve been having real conversations about maybe just getting off the platform because it’s discouraging to me. As much as I try not to have a bubble, I think it’s hard not to. It’s not consistent with my desire to hear from a lot of different sides.
Klein: All of what you’re describing really resonates with me, and it’s interesting as you bring up Twitter. When I think diversity and reaching beyond your bubble, we’ll often think of gender diversity, racial diversity, ethnic diversity. But political diversity, thought diversity, can be the most difficult barrier to overcome for many of us.
Case: No question. There’s even the role of place. When we work on ESG or diversity, we refer to it more broadly as “race, place, and gender” because there definitely is a view now in America that if you live in one part of the country and you’re looking at people in a different part, you bring all kinds of bias. And in many cases, it’s really unfair.
My husband and I set out routinely in our RV, and we specifically travel to areas where we assume how people are looking at the world or how they’re living life is going to be quite different than ours. It probably is our favorite way to spend time out of work because we always come back feeling so enriched by it. But I think people aren’t making time for those kinds of investments, specifically to have a civil conversation with someone that you know.
Klein: Looking at you and all that you’ve done and are doing, I just think, “Wow, she gets an incredible amount done.” Obviously, you have a team, you have resources, but you still get a lot done. Do you have advice for others on getting things done?
Case: I’m really influenced by a couple of things. I serve as chairman of National Geographic Society. There’s such fearlessness in the DNA of that 134-year-old organization. We call ourselves a 134-year-old startup because we’re willing to disrupt ourselves and pivot and embrace new things and take risks. I just feel very fortunate as a student of history to get it, that actually it’s OK to pursue some things you don’t know well.
Brian Chesky, one of the founders of Airbnb, has said that his strategic advantage when they got started was precisely what he did not know. I’ve really tried to embrace a way of living that isn’t daunted by what I don’t know. I don’t mean that arrogantly in any way. It is just much more a willingness to jump in and to learn and to try new things. That’s what we’ve been doing at National Geographic for 134 years. I would encourage anyone listening to think about this: Chances are, there are some things you’ve seen or witnessed, and something inside of you said, “Somebody should do something about that.” Well, what if that somebody is you? Don’t be daunted by what you don’t necessarily understand. Jump in. Get started. Try things. That’s really the story of my life, and I’ve just been very, very fortunate that in some cases things have worked well.