June 6, 2017 / 2:00 PM / 5 months ago

Jean Case's journey from needing charity to giving it

 (The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed
are his own.)
    By Chris Taylor
    NEW YORK, June 6 (Reuters) - 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, CEO of the Case
Foundation and Chair of the National Geographic Society, have
been transforming the twin worlds of technology and giving for
    For the latest in Reuters' "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
    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
    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
    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.

 (Editing by G Crosse)

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