Skip to navigationSkip to content

How We’ll Win

How We’ll Win is a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality.

STEVE CASE
CASE IN POINT

AOL co-founder Steve Case: ”I understand why men feel threatened, but turning back the clock is not the answer”

By Leah Fessler

No creation has defined the past century quite like the internet. And few people have influenced that creation quite like Steve Case.

Case was a co-founder and CEO of America Online, the internet dial-up service. In 2000s, AOL was the biggest internet provider in the US; at its peak, in 2002, more than 25 million people relied on the service to get online. Case was made a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship in 2014, and he was instrumental in passing the 2012 JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act. He has long been an advocate for immigration reform.

Today, Case is chairman of the Case Foundation and the chairman and CEO of Revolution, a Washington DC-based investment firm seeking out visionary tech entrepreneurs. Through both organizations, Case seeks to invest in hundreds of organizations focused on leveraging the internet to strengthen society.

Specifically, Case is looking to invest in underrepresented visionaries—a large reason why his fund isn’t in Silicon Valley. Speaking in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2016, Case argued that the second wave of the internet was “basically white guys that went to really good schools.” The next wave, he predicts, will look a lot more diverse. Here’s what he told Quartz about backing underrepresented founders, and about the economic competitiveness we put at risk if we fail to achieve gender equality.


1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

Absolutely. The management team that helped me start AOL in 1985 and scale it in the 1990s was fairly diverse, and that contributed to our understanding of how to build a mainstream consumer business. Most of our competitors at the time, like CompuServe, had overwhelmingly male subscribers, but AOL had broad appeal, including to women, and that propelled our growth.

Our Rise of the Rest investment philosophy (backing companies outside of Silicon Valley) was, in part, because we believed that by getting out of the Silicon Valley bubble, we would naturally find more female founders and entrepreneurs of color to fund.

As I shifted from running a company to backing entrepreneurs as a venture capitalist, I’ve tried to carry that inclusive mindset forward. Disappointingly, the data on venture capital suggests we have a long way to go; last year, less than 10% of venture capital went to women, and more than 90% to men.

Since the founding of Revolution, my investment firm, we have been focused on backing underrepresented founders. Our Rise of the Rest investment philosophy (backing companies outside of Silicon Valley) was, in part, because we believed that by getting out of the Silicon Valley bubble, we would naturally find more female founders and entrepreneurs of color to fund. This has turned out to be true. In our last 10 Rise of the Rest pitch competitions, half of the winners were women. We also continue to work on building a diverse team at Revolution. Three of the partners are women, and we have numerous investment professionals who are also women. But that’s just a start; we know we can and must do better.

The Me Too movement has spotlighted how widespread sexual harassment continues to be, and the challenges women continue to face in the workplace. While we like to think we’re making progress as a society, the range of stories that have been told over the past year, from women in every industry, and at all levels of seniority, is evidence of a larger cultural and systemic problem that we all need to address. It has been an important wakeup call.


3. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?
We are not going to be able to maintain our lead as the most entrepreneurial nation in the world if half of our population is on the sidelines.

I’ve learned that “feminism” means different things to different people. For me, feminism is about advocating that women be treated equally. Of course that’s the right thing to do. It’s also the smart thing to do. We need everybody on the field, actively participating in every facet of society. We are not going to be able to maintain our lead as the most entrepreneurial nation in the world if half of our population is on the sidelines. We need to be far more inclusive.


4. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

For the past two decades I have chaired the Case Foundation (which my wife, Jean, runs as CEO), and a key focus of our work has been on building movements, including leveling the playing field for entrepreneurs—particularly women and founders of color through our inclusive entrepreneurship work. We’ve supported a number of programs that are directly combating disproportionate funding and under representation for diverse entrepreneurs. These include digitialundivided, a social enterprise that fosters economic growth by empowering African-American and Latina women entrepreneurs; and Jumpstart Inc., a nonprofit whose seed capital Focus Fund is designed to support women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color. And we launched a Faces of Founders campaign to showcase the robust pipeline of diverse entrepreneurs that exist in this country.

Through my investment firm, Revolution, we’ve backed a wide range of female founders. For example, we helped incubate Framebridge, led by Susan Tynan, and they’ve gone on to raise more than $50 million. We also are large investors in Revolution Foods, co-founded by Kristin Groos Richmond and Kirsten Saenz Tobey, which now serves 3 million healthy meals to kids in schools each week and employs more than 1,000 people. And we recently backed Shivani Siroya, the founder of Tala, which is giving credit where it’s due to the 3 billion people around the world who are financially underserved. Lastly, we’ve backed more than a dozen female founders through our Rise of the Rest fund over the past year alone.

And on a truly day-to-day basis, I’m proud to be the father of four young women! They’re all in their 20s now, and doing great things. They give me hope for a more inclusive future!


5. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?
I understand why men feel threatened, but turning back the clock is not the answer.

A lot of people feel threatened, in part because job security has diminished greatly over the past half century. They feel left behind in a world that is hurtling forward. Much of that is due to automation and our inability as a nation to retrain people for the jobs that are emerging. But a lot of people feel the push for gender equality, and also the forces of immigration, have created more competitive job markets, and put their own jobs at risk. And given that jobs aren’t just a source of income, but also a source of purpose and dignity, that has created disruptions and dislocations in our society.

I understand why men feel threatened, but turning back the clock is not the answer. We need to be more welcoming to people who don’t look like us, and commit to doing what we can to promote gender equality. And we need to have the self-awareness to keep our biases, both conscious and unconscious, in check. This will continue to be a difficult societal transition, as we shift to new kinds of jobs and embrace a more diverse workforce, but it’s a transition that must continue to move forward.


6. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

Yes, I have had a wide range of discussions about the importance of being more inclusive, and it is a frequent topic in speeches I make and fireside chats and interviews in which I participate. Acknowledging that there is an issue is an important first step. But we need to get past the conversation stage and start taking action, both in what each of us does day-to-day and in contributing to mobilizing industry-wide solutions.


7. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

I sometimes have anxiety about being a good husband, father, brother and son. I try to make it a priority, but I no doubt often come up short. From time to time I also have anxiety about being a leader, both of specific organizations like Revolution and more broadly in business and society. I recognize I have a voice, and a platform, and try to use it to be a force for good. The Bible reminds us that to those to whom much has been given, much is required and expected. I strive to be a leader, and a role model, including as a man, advocating for a more just and inclusive society. But I know I can do more.


8. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?

That I care and want to be part of the solution, and that I am committed to using my platform and resources to make a difference on this front.


9. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

I’d urge them to step forward and be part of the solution. Silence is not the answer.

There’s a famous Teddy Roosevelt speech that I love, about engaging even when it is hard. He gave the speech more than a century ago, but it’s quite relevant as we deal with this issue. Roosevelt said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Perhaps that will be a rallying cry and a source of comfort for men who are on the fence, wondering if they should take a stand!


10. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?

Over the years I’ve tended to do social things with men who I work with more than with women. I’ve come to realize this can be unfair. I wish I’d been more inclusive in the past and I am more mindful of that today.


11. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

The best advice I’ve ever received was in the form of an African proverb: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Going together is about creating a more inclusive society. It’s an issue of equity and fairness, to be sure, but it’s also an issue of economic competitiveness. We shouldn’t just view this as a problem to solve—although it is—but also as an opportunity to seize, so we can be fully competitive as a nation.