Women’s History Month Kickoff Interview: Jean Case, On Being Fearless

Jean Case, the Chairman of the National Geographic Society and CEO of the Case Foundation, is a philanthropist, investor and internet and impact investing pioneer, and is now the author of a best-seller called “Be Fearless.”  

ODP:  You mention climate change in your book “Be Fearless” as one of the overwhelming problems we face today that might leave people feeling powerless.  Do you believe we need to make some big bets as a society to deal with it?

JC:  Every truly history-making transformation has occurred when people have decided to push for the revolutionary — not incremental change. And, as I note in the first principle in the book, to build a better world we need to make Big Bets and set audacious goals. While we face daunting challenges, the need to make Big Bets to fight to protect our planet for future generations could not be more urgent. For instance, National Geographic is leading a Planet or Plastic? initiative to both reduce single-use plastics and to support innovative solutions to remove and replace plastics. I’m equally encouraged by the policies being rolled out in many world capitals and state houses, in the companies that are focused on positive impact, and through actions that individuals are taking in our communities and in daily life. And as Jane Goodall said in the Foreword that she wrote for Be Fearless, “There is no point in history when it has been more important to Be Fearless, overcome our acceptance of the status quo, and for each of us to step up and take action to make a difference in our world.”

ODP:  Movements begin with bold, “risky” action.  Are you seeing the seeds of a new environmental movement today with a new generation of leaders being willing to take risks to jump-start progress?

JC:  Today’s global challenges — poverty, civil unrest, political stalemates, economic divisions, climate change — play out daily against the backdrop of our living rooms and in our news feeds. While we need to acknowledge the size and scope of these problems, there has never been a better time to engage. An explosion of innovation is transforming the way we live and bringing unprecedented opportunities to leverage technology for good and to mobilize across communities and across borders. I am encouraged by the innovators and changemakers from all walks of life who are stepping up by building new tools and bringing a new perspective to research and fieldwork that hold great promise. I see great examples of this in the work of many, including National Geographic Explorer Enric Sala who has led efforts to help protect the most pristine areas of oceans that have resulted in 21 new Marine Protected Areas across the globe, representing more than 5.3 million square kilometers of our oceans; David Lang, whose startup provides underwater drones that are being used by citizens to explore oceans, rivers and lakes in ways that have never been accessible to non-academic and government officials before, enabling citizens to share findings on a publicly accessible site Open Explorer; Sarah Parcak, whose platform Global Xplorer combines “satellite archaeology” and crowdsourced investigation from tens of thousands of people around the world to find some of the oldest structures on the planet, uncovering hidden cultural treasures that lie beneath the surface of the earth, such as pyramids and temples, to better understand our planet and those who came before us. Each of these National Geographic-related efforts gives me great hope that innovative solutions will be brought forward by people and organizations that see the world differently and can bring new thinking to old problems.

ODP:  Failure is a part of success, as you point out in the book.  It is when things look the worst that real innovation happens.  Are we at that point now when it comes to climate change?

JC:  No one wants to fail. In fact, most of us detest failure. But those who succeed often have stories that include significant failures along the way. And this is because failure can be a powerful teacher — helping to refine an idea or efforts. In Be Fearless, I explain that embracing risk as “R&D” allows for both trial and error, and sets the expectation of some failures along the way with a commitment to build off these experiences as part of moving forward. To make a real impact, those working in conservation and environmental protection need to push outside their comfort zones and stretch for solutions that can make a real difference at this critical time. And to do this they need to acknowledge that not only is failure a possibility, but that it could be key to success if the lessons of failure are applied along the way.

ODP: Another key to success that you describe in the book is expanding your bubble.  How can expanding our “bubble” help the conservation movement, in your view?

JC:  There is growing recognition that we all live in our own bubble — most often unintentionally. Reach Beyond Your Bubble is a principle in Be Fearless that recognizes that ideas and efforts can be greatly aided by pushing beyond the limitations that a single point of view offers. Indeed, by bringing together different talents, experiences and backgrounds, we can widen our perspective on an issue, and cover our blind spots. From land management to environmental policy to recycling programs, conservation is an area where collaboration among different sectors and different communities can be powerful. Bringing citizens, NGOs, policymakers and for-profit companies together who often are seen as incompatible at the outset to the table — has paid great dividends. For instance, think about the power of images in the conservation movement where extraordinary photographers and filmmakers from Paul Nicklen, Ami Vitale and Cory Richards have brought to life the majesty of our world for millions, while at the same time chronicling real threats to our natural world. National Geographic’s belief in the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to change the world embodies the ethos of Reach Beyond Your Bubble.

ODP:  We as a society have a growing sense of urgency about climate change, but it is a global problem.   Do you think climate change is too big for individual actions to matter?  

JC:  While we face daunting challenges and the need could not be more urgent, it is important to remember that some of our greatest ideas come when our backs are against the wall. As I say in the book, “Don’t overanalyze. Just do.” And there is no more notable example of this today than the work José Andrés is doing in Puerto Rico. As Our Daily Planet readers probably know, in 2010, chef José Andrés founded the World Central Kitchen after traveling to Haiti following the devastating earthquake. In the years since, he’s continued to provide disaster relief. When Andrés realized the lack of government response to Puerto Rico’s hurricane disaster in 2017, he scaled rapidly. He went from serving 1,000 meals in one kitchen per day to 23 kitchens serving 175,000 meals per day. Andrés and his teams became the lifeline for many on the island. In the end, they served more than 3.7 million meals.

This kind of action and driving forward with a sense of urgency is at the center of the work that we all must — both on an individual and a collective level — embrace to make an impact on climate change. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who talked about the “fierce of urgency of now,” and while he was speaking of the bold steps taken to end segregation, the words are applicable today to anyone who is ready to step out or up to innovate or breakthrough with something new. In short, there is no better time to Be Fearless.

Thanks so much, Jean!  Jean was one of ODP’s first readers and has been a huge support to us since the beginning.  Early on she advised us to be fearless, and start ODP.  So we highly recommend her book and its inspiring message.  Check it out here.


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