There are some prominent power couples in the world of philanthropy, but Steve and Jean Case might be among the most influential of all.
Steve, the famed founder of AOL, and Jean, chief executive of the Case Foundation and Chair of the National Geographic Society, have been transforming the twin worlds of technology and giving for decades.
For the latest’ “Life Lessons” series, Jean Case spoke with Reuters on the 20th anniversary of her foundation’s inception to discuss what life’s thrill ride has taught her so far, and what challenges still lie ahead.
Q: Just how extraordinarily normal were your beginnings?
A: It was so normal that I actually grew up in a place called Normal, Illinois.
I was raised by a single mom, and was pretty close to my German immigrant grandparents, so they instilled a strong work ethic in me. I also had someone who took me under his wing, (former Florida Congressman) Clay Shaw, whose law office I worked in. So I like to think I had a series of guardian angels looking after me.
Q: Your mom had the very tough job of waitress, so how did that environment shape your understanding of money?
A: You have to take care of the basics first, if you can’t count on financial security. So pay essentials like the electric bill before you think about buying anything else.
She tried really hard, but as a waitress raising four kids, the bottom line is that it was never enough. She had to deny herself a whole lot just in order to pay the bills.
Q: Eventually you achieved success by joining AOL, where you met your husband Steve. Was it strange to go from a world of need to a world of wealth?
A: I went from being a recipient of philanthropy to being able to practice philanthropy. There are definitely big pendulum swings in life. But I have stayed close to the communities where I grew up, where people still struggle, and those folks have never allowed me to get enclosed in a bubble.
Q: What role models have guided you along the way?
A: I am a student of history, so many of them come from the past. Madam C.J. Walker, for instance, was one of the first self-made millionaires in the U.S. as a black female from the South. You look at someone like that, and you say ‘Wow, if she can do that, then I can do anything.’
Q: When you and Steve formed your foundation, how did you hash out how to allocate resources?
A: We started 20 years ago, and a common theme in a lot of what we have done is to take initiatives and really scale them in a powerful way, by partnering with government and the private sector. For instance, along with the Obama administration, we helped lead Startup America, helping and championing startups across the country after the financial crisis.
Q: You two have signed on to the Giving Pledge to donate at least half your wealth to charity. Was that decision easy or difficult?
A: It was easy in the sense that we had already made the commitment personally, but the hard part was doing something so public and visible. We had to get comfortable with that. Our kids were very young when we signed on, and they are all in their 20s now, and so they have always known that we wanted to give away most of our wealth.
Q: What money mistakes in your career stick out in your mind?
A: A litany of them. One was pretty visible, though: We had a clean-water initiative that we put millions of dollars into, before we realized that the ship just couldn’t be righted. I even wrote something about it, and called it ‘The Painful Acknowledgement of Coming Up Short.’
Q: Will your children take over the reins of the foundation someday?
A: They are not involved and it was never our intent to get them involved. Think of the really wonderful moments in life: Earning your own paycheck, buying your first car. We wanted all five of them to have those experiences on their own, so they have all started on their personal life tracks. In fact, the last two graduated from college just last week.