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Want to change the world? Here are five steps to take

Case Foundation CEO Jean Case’s new book profiles leaders who have used their desire to solve a problem to drown out their fear of risk or failure.

Want to change the world? Here are five steps to take
[Source Photos: StudioM1/iStock, yatharth roy vibhakar/Unsplash]

After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, chef José Andrés activated a network of chefs through two groups he’d founded–World Central Kitchen and Chefs for Puerto Rico–to set up mobile kitchens capable of feeding hundreds of thousands of survivors. (He’s continued that work for other disasters, including those impacted by Hurricane Florence in North Carolina.)

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But in order to be in a position to do that, Andrés has also continuously bet big, and learned from failures. The chef moved to the U.S. from Spain in his 20s and worked his way up to food-world icon status. After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, he joined response groups and saw that there was a need for a new kind of philanthropic effort, so he punted: World Central Kitchen’s broader efforts include building chef networks in impoverished countries to train workers, fund social services, and push for other life-improving changes. For instance, in Haiti, they’ve ensured school kitchens use cleaner fuels in their stoves.

[Image: Case Foundation]

Andrés is just one example of someone who has acted fearlessly to dramatically change the world. At its most broad, that umbrella could also include Corrie ten Boom, the first female watchmaker in the Netherlands, who put her ingenuity to use by building a hideaway for Jews seeking refuge during the Holocaust. It also envelops the very different antics of Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, who launched a company that’s democratized the lodging industry and earned many more people a new source of revenue out of a moment of self-preservation: They initially offered up their own place because rent was due.

These examples and the universal themes they gesture toward form the thesis of a book entitled Be Fearless: Five Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose by Jean Case, the CEO of the Case Foundation. The private nonprofit, which was formed by Case and her husband, former AOL CEO and chairman Steve Case, is not endowed but funded annually by the couple. Since 1997, it has made more than $100 million in donations to groups that primarily inspire entrepreneurial and innovative ways to make social change. As Case puts it: “We like to say we invest in people and ideas that can change the world.”

Which ultimately raised a pretty obvious question: Regardless of circumstance, “Some [people] move forward and accomplish extraordinary things while others may not,” Case says. “What’s the difference?”

Be Fearless, which comes out in January but is currently available for preorder, is built on several years of Case Foundation research to find the answer. Overall, Case believes most “transformational breakthroughs” have five key elements in common, which she explores in different book chapters whose titles work like personal mantras: Make a Big Bet; Be Bold, Take Risks; Make Failure Matter; Reach Beyond Your Bubble; Let Urgency Conquer Fear.

“Fearlessness is not the lack of fear, but rather the courage and the strength to overcome it,” says Case, who is also a former senior executive at AOL. It’s a lesson she knows firsthand and also recounts in personable ways throughout the book: Before becoming a major philanthropist, for instance, Case benefited from charity, earning a scholarship to a prestigious school that her single mother otherwise couldn’t have afforded.

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Case hopes readers will see Be Fearless as “a playbook for someone who really wants to go out and change the world” in a variety of ways, including through business, nonprofit, individual philanthropic, or government work. Other people who Case profiles throughout it include Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, the largest minority-owned investment firm in the world, who follows a philosophy of investing in intentionally different-thinking people, and Bryan Stevenson, the attorney behind the Equal Justice Initiative, which has won important victories against unfair sentencing standards.

“It is less about what sector you come from, and more about your fearless spirit of wanting to make a difference in this world,” Case says. “In many cases, these are ordinary people who end up doing extraordinary things, much to the surprise of others, and often even themselves.”

The Case Foundation supports that mind-set in other ways, including through its Be Fearless online hub that features case studies of other organizations that have deployed this kind of thinking to make more impact. There’s also a Be Fearless Facebook show that’s aired 11 episodes over that past 11 months, highlighting the work of Andrés, among many others.

Without becoming overtly political, Case points out that organization’s work feels particularly timely given that currently, messages of fear and hopelessness dominate global discourse, and need counteracting. “This is really challenging every individual to get out there and make a difference in the areas that they care about, and that they’re passionate about,” she says.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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