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Jean Case shares the radical principles that took her from college dropout to AOL executive

AP Photo/Axel Heimken
That little guy sure did go far.
  • Jean Case
By Jean Case


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.


On Dec. 19th, Jean Case gave the winter commencement address at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Below is an excerpt:

As I prepared to be with you this morning, I thought a LOT about the world you are about to enter. We live in extraordinary times. The world around you is in a serious state of disruption. Significant challenges dog us in society:

  • we have constant threats to the peace and security we enjoy;
  • religious, racial and political tensions divide us;
  • a significant opportunity gap defines our world;
  • and our very planet is in a fragile state from the ever-widening human footprint.

In my work at the Case Foundation, I have the privilege of working with many changemakers and innovators across sectors. In almost all cases when someone brings us an idea for a new nonprofit or a new social enterprise, we ask one question: What is the problem you are trying to solve? Because any student of history can easily identify that most great breakthroughs that have changed the world, started with a really thorny problem someone was trying to solve.

The bottom line is that while it is easy to look at our world and see problems, I urge YOU in this moment to see a world that is filled with opportunities to seize. And THAT is what I want to talk to you about this morning.

I want to share with you a set of principles that if followed, perhaps could serve as a guiding light in the midst of what sometimes feels like stormy seas. These principles have proven to be the difference in whether you will simply float along or truly take the helm and commit yourself to using your talents, your skills and all that you’ve been given to make a better world.

So let’s get started.

Principle #1: The safest path isn’t always the best path.

Principle #2: Count on the fact that you will fail.

Principle #3: Don’t always listen to those who know best.

Principle #4: Your intelligence and your credentials won’t get you to where you want to go.

Why would I spend my time this morning sharing this somewhat radical advice? Because these things proved true in my own journey and it turns out they are equally true for those who have broken through, achieved greatness or changed the world.

Many years – in fact decades ago – I was in your shoes, contemplating what was next on life’s path and how to live up to what was expected of me. I was a second generation American and the youngest of four children being raised by a single Mom. No one in my family had ever graduated from college and my Mom worked long hours as a waitress to provide for our family.

Maybe it was our family’s immigrant roots, or maybe it was just this amazing woman I had the privilege to call my Mom, but the message was clear from a young age: This is America – you can do anything you put your mind to. (And trust me, the unspoken finish to that sentence went something like, “AND IT SHOULD BE GREAT!”)

As I moved through my early years, I felt an undeniable “calling” developing inside of me – to choose a career that would enable ME to empower others, and particularly help level the playing field in society. Maybe it was because of my background, but this really did become my “True North” that guided me in decisions I made along life’s path. I became convinced that becoming a lawyer would be the best path to enable my lofty goals, and everyone around me – from teachers to mentors to friends – encouraged me and helped me on my journey.

While still in high school I was mentored by a local judge who was to go on to become Mayor and then a Congressman from our area. He encouraged me each step of the way, and indeed he became my employer as I worked in his Congressional office while still in college.

That experience brought me to Washington, where – at a very young age – I had the unusual privilege of a political appointment in President Reagan’s Administration.

So there I was… nice office, impressive title and a role that was fulfilling my dreams. In many ways, it felt as if the stage was set to possibly achieve the high expectations others had for me.

Then, one day, all at once, the bottom dropped out – or so it seemed.

My political appointment had been a one-year assignment. Throughout the year, the executives I worked under provided assurances that they could get it extended, but as the date drew near it became clear there were unexpected delays in the process. “Don’t worry,” they said, “you may have to go home for a month or two, but we are certain we can get this renewed. We want you back.”

Go home a month or two? Who were they kidding? As it was I was sharing a small apartment with others and eating Cup O’ Noodles to get by. There was no savings account or rainy day fund – if I had to be out of this job for a month or two, I had to find a new job.

Suddenly, it felt like my world was caving in. Now what I might not have mentioned is that I wasn’t a lawyer at this point; indeed, I hadn’t finished my college degree. As a Political Science major, I had left school to ride this early career opportunity that I thought would get me to my goals. So there I was, unemployed, a college dropout in the eyes of the world, and no idea how I was ever going to find my way back to my dreams.

Then a funny thing happened. While I was figuring out my next steps,

I heard about this little startup in McLean, Virginia called “The Source,” that needed some temporary – mostly administrative – help putting together a conference. No fancy office or title this time – instead it was the mission of the company that totally captured my imagination.

You see, The Source was the nation’s FIRST Internet company. Back then, we called them “online services,” but you get the idea. I could instantly see how this new platform had the potential to offer UNPRECEDENTED access to ideas, information and communication – and yes, in the process empower people. With newfangled features like “electronic mail” and an “online encyclopedia” – no pictures, no icons, just clunky text on a screen.

And it was SLOW. So slow that had we offered music it would have taken about 40 HOURS to download a song!

Most saw this as nothing more than a hobby for computer nerds and didn’t see it ever catching on. But I didn’t see that. I saw in it the potential to change the world. So I signed up for the job, and an entirely new future unfolded before me.

A few years later I left that startup for GE, a big, well-established company. GE was starting another online venture and it seemed a no brainer to take the role. It didn’t take long to realize that this “mostly safe” choice also meant I was working in an environment that AT THE TIME was risk averse, bureaucratic and not very innovative. Thankfully, just as I began thinking about a change, I got a call from a tiny little upstart down the road in Vienna. That upstart was to become AOL… or perhaps better known to you as the company that brought you AIM.

Over time AOL became the platform that truly got America Online. Nearly a decade later when I retired from the company, AOL was one of the most valuable companies in the world, a household name and more than half of the world’s Internet traffic flowed through it. But these were not the accomplishments we valued or even that I reflect on today when I look back.

What I reflect on is how AOL:

  • gave voice to a generation of young people;
  • connected teachers, student and families together in meaningful ways;
  • and enabled consumers to gain valuable information about products and services or health.

AOL opened up the world to the wisdom of the ages, bringing a promise of a brighter tomorrow for all.

What had been the scariest moment of my life – having the rug pulled out from under me – turned into the best opportunity I ever had.

Knowing what many of you went through to get here today, I can certainly understand what many of YOU might be feeling when it comes to expectations.

You may feel that it is up to you to create a new narrative in the arc of your family’s history. Or conversely, maybe some of you feel the burden of your family’s accomplished past and present and there is a legacy of achievement that now YOU are expected to match. No matter your background, my guess is that as you think about what is expected of you in the months and years ahead, your heart rate increases a bit, or maybe your palms are just a little bit sweaty from the pressure even as the ink is drying on your college diploma.

But my story, like so many others, is about staying open and nimble as you create your OWN path, hopefully driven off your own “TRUE NORTH” and passions or deep concerns for our world. Don’t settle for what often seems the safest path – I want you to strive – constantly challenge yourself to be in an environment that can most dramatically lift you and your goals.

But here’s the thing, when you are on the front lines of change and disruption – when you are innovating, by nature it means you will take risks and try new, unproven things.

And here is where Principle #2 comes in: Count on the fact that you will fail.

The road to success is littered with potholes of failures along the way.

Any study of extraordinary people quickly becomes a study in failure.

  • Like the two entrepreneurs who were part of what they called the “Facebook reject club” – having been turned down for employment by the company. So they launched their own startup called WhatsApp instead, and Facebook later bought it for $19 billion.
  • Or the author J.K. Rowling who was waitressing and on public assistance when she was writing the first installment of Harry Potter – which was rejected by a dozen publishers before it saw the light of day.
  • Michael Jordan, who was cut from his high school basketball team and went home and said he cried in his closet.
  • And it took Steve Jobs getting fired from Apple – a company he co-founded, to ultimately come back and make it become one of the most important and valuable companies in the world.

So, remember, if you fail, don’t despair! Einstein said, “Failure is success in progress.”

Failure teaches. Commit yourself to fail fast and fail forward. Pick up and learn from it – Be Fearless and keep going! With each failure – big or small – remind yourself that you are that much closer to success.

Principle #3 – Don’t always listen to those who know best.

Larry Page, co-founder of Google said he was inspired by being told to “have a healthy disregard for the impossible.” And that’s what I want for you. There will always be those – and they usually come with gray hair – who want to tell you they know best and they often use it to discourage radical ideas.

When we started AOL, only 3% of people were online and they were online 1 hour a week. I can’t tell you how many pats on the head, roll of the eyes and “it can’t be done” statements we encountered as we tried to take forward our dream of a connected world that seemed unthinkable at the time.

But there are many more famous examples of “those who know better” trying to stifle innovators and brilliant minds who attempt something new. For instance…

  • The Beatles were rejected by a leading record company executive who told the band, “Guitar groups are on their way out.”
  • Or one of my favorite examples: Walt Disney was told, “a giant mouse will terrify women,” by MGM studios in 1927 when they rejected his proposal to distribute Mickey Mouse.

I think I can say with a high level of confidence that this principle holds true no matter what your major or discipline, no matter what school or department you’re in. The reality is that most of the time, people who make big contributions in any field – from activists to entrepreneurs to scientists and educators, start by challenging the status quo and largely getting mocked and dismissed for it.

There will always be a force that wants to resist change of any kind. Find the wisdom to know what advice you need to hear and what advice you need to tune out because its only purpose is to discourage you or to defend the status quo.

Principle #4 – Your intelligence and your credentials won’t get you to where you want to go.

It turns out that having a great idea or great credentials almost never accounts for greatness. Hard work does. It is Thomas Edison who said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” How hard you work to turn your great ideas into reality is what will count. Parents often say they don’t want their kids to work as hard as they had to get ahead. But I say if you want to change the world, you may have to work even harder. Hard work is noble thing. Embrace it, relish it and know that it is the secret sauce behind those who’ve found success.

So allow me if you will to finish my story. After I left the private sector, that “True North” inside of me continued to speak to me. But really, what could I do that would ever match the thrill and exhilaration of AOL? Well, as I stand here 18 years later I can you that I wake up feeling just as jazzed, just as energized as I ever did back then. In 1997 I co-founded the Case Foundation with my husband, Steve. There we set out on a mission to invest in people and ideas that can change the world. As CEO I lead a passionate team of mostly young people who are helping to revolutionize and democratize philanthropy, ignite civic engagement and unleash entrepreneurship.

  • We back young people just like you who have BIG ideas and “think different.”
  • We invest in social innovation of all kinds because we passionately believe that YOU ARE THE GENERATION that can point to the way to a brighter future.

It is truly thrilling work. We routinely fail as we seek to innovate and disrupt old systems, but we keep reminding ourselves we are that much closer to success.

Today you are graduating from a remarkable institution. An innovative institution with a vision that understands where the world is going and what the world needs. You’ve learned a lot about these things in your time here. Now it is your obligation – indeed your privilege – to take this great education and go make an impact in this world.

Routinely I hear about Mason graduates who have done or are doing just that. Take the story of Roger LeBlanc, who was, just a few years ago a new student right here at Mason, with a passion for the environment and sustainability. Roger didn’t take the safe path of hundreds of hours of biology and science classes. But instead, he forged his own path by combining courses in the humanities and the sciences – and then he did something extraordinary. He sparked an entire green movement on campus:

  • fostering green certification and composting programs;
  • creating organic vegetable gardens; and
  • turning March Madness into a Green Event with national recognition.

Or Jade Garrett, an engineering student who identified an opportunity to use her skills in software development to create a toy bear that can help children with autism and other special needs.

These are great examples of two individuals who have embraced the principles we’ve covered this morning and who serve as an example for others. They also speak to something almost more valuable than your degree – the amazing network and community here at Mason. While it may be true that you are leaving this campus today, as President Cabrera shared this morning – don’t leave George Mason University behind. These people, this community, can become an important pillar of strength and support as you pursue your own path in life.

So, in closing, I’ll leave you with some words from a celebrated comedienne, Lily Tomlin and it goes something like this: “I said ‘Somebody should do something about that.’ Then I realized, I am somebody.” So, Graduates, be that somebody. Make noble use of your education, your time, your talents and your hard work to make a difference.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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