Jean Case: Being Fearless, Impact Investing, and Millennials


Branching from our usual for-profit entrepreneurs, Startup Grind DC was privileged to host Jean Case this month. Jean founded The Case Foundation with her husband, serial entrepreneur and Startup Grind regular, Steve Case. Jean was also a former AOL marketing power player, GE info services marketer and technology company board member. The Case Foundation invests in social entrepreneurs, and is founded on principles of entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology.


What’s Expected When You’ve Made It


Where did this extraordinary woman come from? Normal, Illinois of course! “I had a corn field in my back yard, so it wasn’t really a setting that was aspirational”, she said of Normal. Raised by a single mother of four, it’s not surprising Jean grew into a strong and ambitious career woman. Answering her own question, “What took you into philanthropy?”, she shared her experiences “benefitting from the generosity of others” in her childhood, including attending private school on scholarship. “Too whom much is given, much is expected” is a feeling she shares in common with her husband Steve.


“Bad Words” Nonprofits Need to Learn


How important is marketing for a startup or a nonprofit? “I think marketing is important no matter what sector you’re in,” said Jean. “Particularly for nonprofits, but also for social enterprises (for profit social good companies), we talk about some of the principles and some of the language that we’re used to on the business side, that sometimes is missing in a nonprofit or mission-oriented work. I had spent my entire career in the tech field. It became clear to me that the sector actually considered marketing almost a bad word.”


She understood the importance of instilling nonprofits with an understanding of marketing. “In marketing you have to understand what’s your value proposition, if you don’t have that nailed, you’re probably not going to be successful.” Having seen many entrepreneurs and startups pitching to the Case Foundation, she emphasizes with an “underscore” the need for a “unique value proposition”.


“This is some everyone on the business side everyone understands”, she continued. “Revenue models. This is something that made AOL very successful: We were very data driven, so we understand the cost-per-acquisition of a new member and the cost to retain a customer as well.” In nonprofits it’s a different story. “Sometimes they don’t talk about revenue. Sometimes they don’t talk about customers.”


Be Fearless:


Brian was ready to ask the questions on everyone in the audiences’ minds: How to get funded, how their ideas were evaluated, how to succeed as a social venture or nonprofit. But first, what was the “be fearless” campaign about? “It’s not a very risk tolerant environment ”, said Jean “If you’re an entrepreneur, you’d used to risk. Chances are you wear some of your failures as a badge because you know those failures are going to help you be successful…but in the nonprofit.”


“What’s going on is the convergence of a perfect storm”. Jean explained the emergence of impact investing, coming out of the Millennial generation, who are often influencing their parents and grandparents, pushing them to “expect more than just a financial return.” Citing feedback from banks engaging in financial planning, she explains how the younger generation is even affecting the corporate investment industry through their older family members.


Using Warby Parker as an example, Jean emphasizes the need to focus on core business models. “Sometimes with social entrepreneurs they can get the mission out a little bit in front of what they’re really there to do with their products and services. Being unabashed with your core product and what you’re really there to do is the best way to then deliver a mission too.”


To hear more about Jean’s work and how you can either get involved or make your social idea stand out, see the rest of the video interview.