AOL founder Steve Case trains students to forge a new world

Interests: Building companies that can change the world.
Putting consumers back at the center of health care.
Bridging the worlds of business and philanthropy.
Clean water in Africa.
Making brain cancer a treatable disease.
My family.

The Facebook profile page of Steve Case ’80, founder and former CEO of AOL and founder and current head of Revolution and The Case Foundation, gives a clear indication of Case’s bold interests and ambitious goals. However, believe it or not, the same drive that led to Case’s impressive resume was actually viewed as a flaw during his time at the College. “I recall an editorial in The Williams Record suggesting I was a little too entrepreneurial so I guess my fellow students were not that supportive at the time of my interest in creating businesses,” Case said jokingly.    

In spite of this initial discouragement from entrepreneurial enterprises, Case pursued his ideas about future business ventures. “I recall
first learning about interactive services – it was not yet called the Internet – when I was at Williams, reading a book by Alvin Toffler called The Third Wave and reading magazines in Sawyer Library like Advertising Age talking about interactive TV experiments. That helped plant the seed that later led to AOL,” Case said.

The Internet has seen a tremendous transformation since Case’s early musings. “When we got started virtually nobody had PCs,” Case said. “We believed that the ‘killer app’ was communications and especially facilitating communications between people. AOL was the first Internet company to go public and was the on ramp to the Internet for tens of millions of people. Now of course the Internet is part of everyday life and people would have difficulty living without it, a far cry from the days when everybody told us we were crazy to pursue our dreams.”

At the same time, Case recognizes that the World Wide Web is not without its faults. “I am of course delighted that now the Internet is pervasive, but [I] wonder if students should unplug more often to hang out with each other,” he said. “I’ve been surprised to see how dead Sawyer Library now is – what used to be a gathering place has become sort of a ghost town – in large part because the Internet makes going to the library less necessary.”

However, Case’s influence on the world does not stop there. “I’ve tried to also have an impact in other ways, by funding people and ideas that can change the world, whether it be investing in for-profit companies through Revolution or in non-profit initiatives
through The Case Foundation. We’re involved in a wide range of causes including health care, sustainability, participatory citizenship, clean water in Africa, etc.,” he said.

Due to his expansive list of accomplishments and causes, Case decided to take these successes and use them as a teaching method for other “too entrepreneurial” students at the College. “I thought it might be useful to share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past 30 years with students who are thinking through what they want to do in life – to urge them to think big, swing for fences and aim to have a real impact in the world,” Case said.

Using everything from his expansive liberal arts education to his incredible breadth of knowledge from experiences in the business and non-profit worlds, Case is passing on advice to his students. “Knowing a little bit about a lot of things and being able to understand challenges in multi-faceted way will be an increasingly important skill set,” Case said.

Not only does Case share the triumphs and failures of his own career with his class, but he also brings in many speakers, friends and colleagues to offer varying perspectives.

Speakers have included Case’s longtime friend Doug Holladay, Chairman and CEO of PathNorth, and Scott Griffith, CEO of Zipcar. The speakers tell their life stories, analyzing why they chose the paths they did, how they succeeded in their pursuits and how they overcame failure. The speakers consistently emphasize that they simply pursued their passions relentlessly without being afraid to take risks or fail. “We define success through failure,” Holladay said.

Of course, success is a nice byproduct, but Case emphasizes fulfillment through having a meaningful impact on the world. “I am encouraging people to understand the importance of what I call the P’s – passion, people, perseverance and perspective – and apply them in their own journeys – And I remind them that while the current job market is difficult, perhaps that will be for the best, as it may push people out of their comfort zones, and trying different jobs in different industries in different places will likely turn out to be valuable for us in the long run,” Case said.
Case’s stories and advice will no doubt continue to be invaluable to his students, who are beginning to “craft their own narratives” at the College by choosing majors and career paths. At the foundation of Case’s seemingly complicated life process, there appears to be one simple principle that all of us can remember: do what it is that we love, and success will follow.