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How Steve Case became Washington’s tech whisperer

On a late March afternoon in the marbled caucus room of the U.S. Senate, more than a hundred entrepreneurs from all over the country—Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Cincinnati—stuffed themselves column-to-column for an unusual session. The topic was the promise of technology for America and the perils it poses to a country in which some regions are being left far behind. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, a first-term Republican, delved into the particulars of a mechanized economy so new that economists don’t know what to call it but is leaving his state hollowed out. “Even as we feed more and more people around the globe,” says Sasse, “it requires less and less labor.” Next up was Ro Khanna, a newly elected Democratic congressman representing Silicon Valley. On paper, he and Sasse share just about no politics. But he was there to talk about exporting the benefits of his district’s booming economy to people in places like, well, Nebraska. “It’s patronizing to suggest they don’t want to be part of the future,” said Khanna.

Everyone here—the politicians, the founders, a healthy helping of Capitol Hill staff—was in the room at the invitation (and in the founders’ case, on the dime of) someone whose name some of the younger participants could be forgiven for otherwise not knowing: America Online founder Steve Case. For those who remember a time when the internet wasn’t just the air we breathe, Case, 58, is something of an icon. He injected “You’ve got mail!” into the American lexicon and gave much of the country its first—safe, cloistered—experience online. When Case retired as chairman of AOL after its rocky merger with Time Warner, he entered a new period that’s seen him take on a handful of new roles. He’s a venture capitalist, backing new companies as chairman and CEO of a Dupont Circle-based firm called Revolution. He’s in the wine business, with his Early Mountain Winery a two-hour drive southwest of Capitol Hill.

But the reason people were gathered here, thoughtfully interrogating the future in a place more accustomed to partisan point-scoring, was the other hat Case wears. Over the past few years, Case has emerged as the technology leader most assiduously trying to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and the vast swaths of the U.S. that aren’t sharing in its benefits—what Sasse called “the geography of places that aren’t just the big-fix cities that VC funding flows through.” Case brings cash and connections, and—because, as just about anyone you ask will tell you, he actually cares about this stuff—he’s willing to pick up the phone and call whoever can help get something done. More and more, as Washington struggles to understand what the next wave of technology innovation is doing to America, it is calling Steve Case.

Until last year, the American prosperity gap—if it was discussed on the coasts at all—tended to be the province of economists and activists. But it was made viscerally real for millions by the campaign of Donald Trump, one fueled by heartland resentments of the fortunes that sprang up in just a few metropolitan centers. Post-Inauguration Day, the tech industry realized it was no longer driving the conversation in Washington. Middle America was newly empowered, but it, too, didn’t seem to know how, exactly, to fix the disparities that put its candidate in office.

Those disparities can be deep, structural, and—when it comes to the funding that helps turn small companies into big ones—extreme. Some 75 percent of all venture capital investment, Case is fond of saying, goes to funding ideas in just three spots: Silicon Valley, New York City and Boston. He wants to redistribute that balance. His firm, Revolution, has in its dozen years of existence invested about $ 850 million of the $ 1.1 billion it controls in places not those places. More recently, Case has put some $ 4 million of his own money, via checks of $ 50,000 or $ 100,000 at a time, into hand-picked startups located outside the country’s technology hubs, hoping that they’ll be able to stay and grow on their home turf. Some start quite small. Amy Johnson is co-founder of LifeLoop, an Omaha-based company working on a digital dashboard connecting residents of senior-living centers to their loved ones. In October, LifeLoop was the winner of a pitch competition held by Case. The money allowed LifeLoop, she says, to add another lead programmer and scale its sales operation; it now has a team of nine. Leaving eastern Nebraska “never even crossed my mind,” says Johnson.

During his Rise of the Rise bus tour in 2016, Steve Case poses with Amy Johnson, co-founder of LifeLoop, an Omaha-based startup working on a digital dashboard to connect residents of senior-living centers to their loved ones. Johnson won a pitch competition held by Case, gaining a cash infusion that enabled her to hire more staff.

During his Rise of the Rise bus tour in 2016, Steve Case poses with Amy Johnson, co-founder of LifeLoop, an Omaha-based startup working on a digital dashboard to connect residents of senior-living centers to their loved ones. Johnson won a pitch competition held by Case, gaining a cash infusion that enabled her to hire more staff. | Denver Post; Revolution

Case’s approach—and his unusual willingness to wade into the muck of policy—has made him a, if not the, center point in D.C.’s conversations on entrepreneurialism, surrounded by elected officials like not just Sasse and Khanna, but also Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the chief deputy whip in the House, who represents a hilly, semi-rural sweep of western North Carolina once dotted with textile mills. Case’s company has been attracting eye-catching names outside of Congress as well, in part for its pitch to transform more than just its investors’ bank balances: J.D. Vance, whose memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, emerged as something of a guide to Trump country in the wake of the surprise 2016 election, joined his firm earlier this year. Case’s executive vice president is Ron Klain, the former chief of staff to two U.S. vice presidents and the Obama White House’s “Ebola czar,” who was among the first handful of employees at Revolution. He joined, he says, out of a chance to put his Washington experience to work on behalf of increasingly regulated companies. “Steve’s picked out a really interesting role for himself,” says Klain. “He’s become the pied piper of startups outside the coasts.”

What Case is doing—if it works—will be an extraordinarily heavy lift. Reversing the trend of consolidation in places like Silicon Valley and New York would mean changing a tide that has proved powerful enough in recent years to completely upend the American economy. It would mean planting seedlings in places that have been ravaged of late by sweepingly global economic forces. It would mean getting Washington to figure out how to support industries it knows little about. Pulling that off is, of course, too much to ask of any one human. Though if one could make that happen, there are worse bets than it being Case. He’s worth an estimated $ 1.4 billion and talks with the quiet bravado of someone who’s already made the impossible-sounding into the possible. When he got started with the internet all those decades ago, “most people didn’t think the world wanted to get online,” says Case in his office. And for a long time, “they were right.”

IN A SENSE, the roots of Case’s campaign go back to a late-’90s dinner club, one whose mission never quite lived up to its frothy ambition. Case, making his fortune at AOL, began meeting regularly with a group that called itself the Capital Investors, which got together for sometimes cocktail-and-wine-soaked dinners at high-end D.C. area restaurants like Citronelle, Restaurant Nora or the Georgetown Club. In its meetings, recounted in the 2002 book The Dinner Club, by Shannon Henry, the two dozen or so participants would gather for camaraderie but also to hear pitches from companies eager for their money; they didn’t want to miss out just because they lived far from the tech boom in Silicon Valley. Some went on to considerable success: Marc Andreessen’s Netscape was an early internet success story. Mark Warner, then a wireless entrepreneur and funder, would become governor of Virginia and is now a United States senator. But dot-com bust arrived with the new millennium, and the group never achieved its grandest goal: turning Washington, D.C., into a high-tech hot spot.

Some of that thinking, though—that there were good ideas in unlikely places—stayed alive in Case. At its launch, Revolution proclaimed itself focused on cultivating business ideas that, because they were taking root in industries already dominated by dinosaur companies, were “undiscovered, under-financed, or undone.” Then came the 2016 presidential race, and the realization among many in tech that the industry’s great advances, as they break new ground when it comes to raw innovation, might also be helping to pull the country apart.

“The election of Donald Trump was a signal, a wake-up call for people, including in Silicon Valley, that, ‘Huh, maybe some of the things we’re doing that are disruptive, we don’t really understand the implications of, in terms of jobs and other things,” says Case. “And we haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening in other parts of the country.” That’s when, says Case, he began making plans for the Capitol Hill summit, to make explicit to both Washington policymakers and innovators that they needed each other.

Case on Capitol Hill, shaking hands with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) as Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) looks on.

Case on Capitol Hill, shaking hands with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) as Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) looks on. | Getty

Case actually knew Donald Trump a bit, socially—dinner at the Economic Club of Washington a few blocks over, that sort of thing—he explains in his 10th floor office. In person, Case gives off a generally laid-back air—a crisp button-down and comfortable leather slip-on shoes, rather than a Beltway suit and wingtips. He sits relaxedly in a caramel-colored tufted leather chair and grows truly animated only once during our hourlong conversation. When asked, given his handful of interactions with Trump, what he made of the would-be commander in chief, he says: “I didn’t think he’d be president!”

Case is sipping on a glass of iced tea and answers just about every question quickly, and with force, but quietly, something like the rhetorical equivalent of an electric freight train. In a sense, he sees his new mission as just an extension of something he’s been doing all along. Back in his AOL days, he explains, he was all-in on “democratizing technology.” Thus the CD-ROMs that showed up in mailboxes, constantly, promising “700 hours free!” Now his fixation is “democratizing access to capital”—or helping put money into the hands of a wider range of people. Of course, some of those attempts will flame out, says Case. But then most Silicon Valley investments fail, as well. And “some,” he says, “will end up surprising us, and not just creating companies and creating a ton of jobs, but creating new industries.”

One of Case’s go-to examples of where place-based entrepreneurship has worked is Shinola, the Detroit-based manufacturer of watches, bicycles and other fine goods. After Case visited with the company on the recommendation of Revolution partner Ted Leonsis, Revolution wrote its biggest-ever check to the firm’s parent, Bedrock Manufacturing, in 2015—a multi-million dollar cash infusion that helped Shinola expand into new product lines. (Revolution declines to specify the amount.) The company’s location in Detroit isn’t an obstacle: It’s the whole idea. Since its founding in 2011, the company has sold people on the idea of bringing back manufacturing to the city most identified with the collapse of the Rust Belt. “People say, ‘I like the idea somebody’s retraining workers. I like the idea somebody’s fighting for Detroit. I like the idea somebody’s fighting for built-in-America. And I’m gonna wear that watch. And I’m gonna wear it with pride.’ So they sell more watches at a higher price point than if that same watch was, I don’t know, made in China or something,” says Case. Shinola watches start at $ 475, and among their fans is former President Barack Obama; he has bragged about his own and gifted one to then-Prime Minister David Cameron during a 2016 visit to the U.K.

Shinola, though, is something of a special case, capitalizing on the reputation of America’s most famously collapsed manufacturing city. But to be successful, Case’s model needs to work in places that don’t have the marquee value even of Detroit. In some cases, says Case, that means backing companies whose mission and functions are soaked in a unique sense of place—like Quantified Ag, a Lincoln-based data platform for the cattle industry (“Cattle health management, tags, and software, simplified”), whose founders hail from both New Delhi and Nebraska.

As more of these “startups” start making things that real people put their actual hands on, argues Case, that’s only going to run them smack into questions of government regulation. And here’s where Case’s long career in and around D.C. comes in: He doesn’t share the aversion most of the tech industry feels toward government. “I just understand the role of policy,” said Case on a recent episode of the NPR podcast “How I Built This.” It is what he’s called “an appreciation for government I’ve developed over the years, partly because the internet wouldn’t exist without government.” Sitting in his office, Case explains: It’s not just that the U.S. government helped fund and foster what would turn into the internet. It’s that the decisions it made about that new medium wholly shaped how it would turn out. “When we started AOL, it was illegal for consumers and businesses to connect to the internet.” (He’s talking about a 1990s rule change by the National Science Foundation, before which commercial activity was prohibited on the networks that would become the internet.)

Case meets with partners and staff at the Dupont Circle headquarters of Revolution, his D.C.-based venture capital firm.

Case meets with partners and staff at the Dupont Circle headquarters of Revolution, his D.C.-based venture capital firm. | André Chung for POLITICO

As the Clinton administration set out trying to make the internet safe for commerce, and set the rules of the road for life on everything from taxation to child safety in what was then “cyberspace,” Case was there, encouraging the government to come up with rules that, while protecting the public’s interests, allowed this potentially transformative new thing to flourish. (Klain was there, too, as Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff. “No, he did not invent the internet, nor did he ever claim that he invented the internet,” Klain says with a laugh.) Without that careful, eyes-on-the-future policymaking, says Case, his “crazy little company in Tyson’s Corner” might not have become the AOL of business school case studies, for better or for worse.

For companies to succeed now, argues Case, they need to consider the policy landscape in which they’re working early on, not painfully after-the-fact. That’s for their own sake, and out of consideration for not doing damage to civilians. Says Case, “I get mad at folks in places like Silicon Valley that have this hyper-libertarian, ‘leave me alone, let me do what I want, technology will answer all problems’ [mind-set].” He says he’s engaged in light debate on the topic vis-à-vis driverless cars with Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, with whom Revolution shares a building in Washington.

Says Case, recounting the conversation, “He’s like, ‘There’s regulation about what cars should do, and as long as we abide by those….’” Here Case lowers his voice a conspiratorial notch: “Well, because there’s no driver in them, and that’s going to make people nervous. And, like, the software: What if there’s a bug, or what if it breaks, or what if there’s cyberterrorism? It’s not unreasonable to say that government should have some rules of the road regarding driverless cars.” Same goes for drones or food, says Case: “I think it’s kinda important that drugs and medical devices offered to people don’t, like, kill them. That’s not unreasonable.”

Detroit-based Shinola CEO Tom Lewand, top left, at his watch factory. Case was an early investor in the luxury-goods brand. Top right, Shinola bicycles on display at a store in Detroit. Quantified Ag was one of eight contestants in Case’s 2016 Rise of the Rest pitch contest in Lincoln, Nebraska; the local company produces telemetric ear tags for cattle, bottom left, which transmit information on their health to a central computer. Bottom right, Quantified Ag co-founders Vishal Singh, Brian Schupbach and Andrew Uden.

Detroit-based Shinola CEO Tom Lewand, top left, at his watch factory. Case was an early investor in the luxury-goods brand. Top right, Shinola bicycles on display at a store in Detroit. Quantified Ag was one of eight contestants in Case’s 2016 Rise of the Rest pitch contest in Lincoln, Nebraska; the local company produces telemetric ear tags for cattle, bottom left, which transmit information on their health to a central computer. Bottom right, Quantified Ag co-founders Vishal Singh, Brian Schupbach and Andrew Uden. | Getty Images and Craig Chandler/University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Case, then, sees himself as just filling in the gap not just between places on a map but as liaison between “leave us alone” and government’s reflex to regulate. “My experience in all those things is why I consider myself kinda independent, not Republican or Democrat—that answers are in the middle,” Case says. Says Warner, his old dinner-club ally, now a Democratic senator, “If push came to shove, back before he was bipartisan Steve would have been viewed as kind of a moderate Republican—which in today’s world makes him totally bipartisan,” finishing with a laugh. Case’s active distancing himself from any active partisan identity is its own sort of political lubricant in Washington. In gets him in the door, says Warner, with everyone from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). That said, it goes only so far: Case endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016. Among other things, he says, he finds Trump’s thinking on immigration completely unreasonable. It will “cost us jobs,” he argued pre-election, in part because it might drive away young, would-be Americans who might grow up to be this country’s next great entrepreneur, like, say, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who came with his family to the United States at 6 years old from what was then the Soviet Union.

JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING we know about modern economics suggests that Case’s optimism about spreading the gains of innovation more widely is misplaced: that rich areas are just getting richer; that wealth and skills are on a path toward clustering ever closer together, and that the distance between those spots and left-behind places is growing ever greater. Local leaders constantly try to short-cut the process by doling out tax breaks and trying to build their own little tech hubs—Oregon’s Silicon Shire, Utah’s Silicon Slopes, or Colorado’s Silicon Mountain—but, all the while, Silicon Valley’s status as the country’s tech center gets only more entrenched. That Case is eager to throw himself against that stacks of facts makes him intriguing. But it also makes you wonder whether he’s wishing for one too many crazy things to come true.

Last October, Case arrived in Albuquerque. He visited there with the Republican mayor and Democratic Senator Tom Udall, and he gave a $ 100,000 check to a local 3D imaging company. Case’s presence was no doubt welcome. But still the area—though, of course, no fault of Case’s—is flailing. New Mexico has the highest unemployment rate in the country, at 6.7 percent. The city has a serious meth addiction. There are things going for the town on the innovation front. There are nearby national labs that can give growth to spinoff businesses, Udall says via email. “New Mexico, like many communities away from the two coasts, has huge potential to nurture entrepreneurs and emerging startups,” he writes. “But we also face challenges.” The lack of access to capital is one, and perhaps a big one. But there are others. Udall ends on a hopeful note: “Each success builds another. High-profile attention from folks like Steve Case helps build enthusiasm and attract investors—we need more of that kind of attention, not less.”

Case taking part in the 36|86 conference for tech startups in Nashville, Tenn., earlier this month.

Case taking part in the 36|86 conference for tech startups in Nashville, Tenn., earlier this month. | Tamara Reynolds for POLITICO

Margaret O’Mara is an associate professor of history at the University of Washington and author of the book Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley. In many ways, O’Mara says, what Case is up to has an intrinsic logic. Small, often Midwestern cities drove 20th century innovation, from the Wright brothers to National Cash Register. The geography of innovation has changed before, she says, and may well again.

But there are still powerful reasons, she says, that people pay astronomical Bay Area rents, and it’s not just the scenic factor. Have a go at building a company in the Valley and, if it fails, she points out, there are plenty of others to which to jump. Add to the mix that venture capitalists, who are in some way indeed the glue of the innovation economy, often like to be hands-on with their investments. “Silicon Valley VCs aren’t money people,” says O’Mara. “They’re ‘mentor people.’ Go back to the early days of being a VC in the Valley, and it was seed capital, but it was also smart guys who could bring management experience.” That’s harder from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.

Evan Burfield, co-founder and CEO of the D.C.-based startup incubator and investor network 1776, sees the value of Case’s mission but also doubts that early, small-dollar investing can get startups very far if they lie outside the big innovation hubs. “They hit a wall,” says Burfield at a Washington panel discussion in early June. “So, yes, you can get your company started in Madison, Wisconsin, but it’s very hard to raise a $ 10 million Series A in Madison, Wisconsin.” There’s a self-reinforcing cycle, Burfield argues, where investors assume top-notch talent will eventually make its way to Northern California, where they were smart enough to end up.

Case has a few counters. For one thing, the visions he has for these cities is for companies that might, instead of “tech-centric,” be “tech-enabled.” They might, for example, have a really killer app, but not be an app. Take SweetGreen. Revolution has invested heavily in the salad-shop company, and Case sits on the board. Case says some of his investors balked at how little like a tech company it looks, and he doesn’t disagree that it isn’t, at least not in the traditional sense. But one-third of the company’s orders, he says, comes in via mobile ordering. The whole salad-to-customer exchange depends upon a complex, digitally managed supply chain that allows dynamic sourcing from local farmers. Is it Google? Clearly not. But, says Case, “that company couldn’t have existed 20 years ago.” (SweetGreen, he points out, is growing like a weed, including to San Francisco and New York City—a rare exporting of Washington, D.C.’s, food culture.)

And as for mentoring, that’s actually part of the plan. Case and others at Revolution are spending time right now thinking through how to make connections between local startups, regional investors, on-the-ground political leaders, and major institutions like universities in the community. Case, post-election, hired Vance to build localized versions of just the sort of entrepreneurial ecosystem that makes Silicon Valley legendary. Says Vance, “It’s about getting different entrepreneurs in the same city who have an alignment of interests to start talking with one another. It’s about getting people in Louisville to talk to people in Cincinnati.” Cincinnati may never be San Jose. But it might end up being a place where those with entrepreneurial instincts and creative impulses find worthy of staying. Enough of them, at least, to help.

CASE WAS ALWAYS something more of an idea marketer than a hard-core technologist. As a teenager growing up in Hawaii, he attended Punahou School alongside a younger classmate named Barry Obama. Case recalls playing basketball together, but he doesn’t think they ever shared a class. He graduated from Williams College, a liberal arts school, and in 1980 fell under the spell of futurist Alvin Toffler’s work, “The Third Wave,” which forecast the transitioning to a digital age. “I knew I wanted to pursue his vision of a global electronic village,” says Case, “but the internet didn’t really exist then, at least as a consumer phenomenon. And there wasn’t really a start-up culture.”

Case, in his days as AOL chairman, visits a Washington, D.C. high school computer science class with President Bill Clinton in 2000.

Case, in his days as AOL chairman, visits a Washington, D.C. high school computer science class with President Bill Clinton in 2000. | Getty

After a spin at Pizza Hut as—seriously—“director of new pizza development,” Case ended up in suburban Washington working at a Virginia company called Control Video Corporation. Initially promising to bring video gamers online, the struggling firm later recentered itself around introducing the widest number of people possible to the networked world, by making it as simple and as unintimidating as possible. The company would eventually be reincarnated as America Online, one of the titans of the early internet.

At least inside AOL, it wasn’t a uniform belief that Case was thrilled to be in D.C. “If it was up to Steve Case, he would have moved it to Silicon Valley,” Virginia-bred co-founder Jim Kimsey said around that time. (“We never seriously considered moving,” says Case via follow-up email. He floated the possibility after struggling to find both investors and workers in Washington, he says, but “after kicking the idea around for a couple of weeks, we dropped it.”) Either way, Case eventually made the most of being so close to the capital. He worked with the Clinton administration, including the president and first lady, to tackle the economic and social issues being raised by this new rise of the internet. And when George W. Bush was contending for the White House, Case attempted to sell the candidate on the principle of “open access,” or the idea that providers like AOL should be allowed to ride on top of the internet networks that the cable companies were rolling out.

Bush didn’t bite on open access, and when he took the White House, Case says he saw an existential threat to AOL. Theirs was a dial-up company, running along phone lines, for which there were rules guaranteeing competition. But the next big thing was broadband, and AOL would need access to cable. In 2001, AOL bought the cable and media empire Time Warner in a deal worth $ 350 billion. It made Case very rich, but the coupling eventually went south, and there are scores of autopsies of what went wrong. Case himself emphasizes a clash of cultures. The transaction, though, has at least one enduring fan, at least as Case tells it. Says Case of Donald Trump, “Every time I’ve seen him, which is three or four times in the last decade, he always says the same thing to me, which is that the merger of AOL and Time Warner was ‘the best deal of all time.’ Coming from the man who is ‘The Art of the Deal,’ I appreciate that.” Perhaps Trump admires that AOL is seen by many as pulling off the deal by the skin of its teeth; Pets.com, the icon of the excesses of the early dot-com early, went belly up 11 months later.

A handful of years followed, and, in 2005, Case made two big moves that rooted him to D.C. First, he and his wife, Jean, bought Merrywood, the nine-bedroom, seven-fireplace brick-and-slate house overlooking the Potomac that was built in 1919 and served as the childhood home of Jackie Bouvier. (The Cases paid $ 24.5 million for it.) And Case co-founded Revolution—a bid, he has says, to return to the entrepreneurial days of CVC and early AOL.

At the start of 2011, the Obama administration launched what it called the Startup America Initiative. As was the Obama White House way, there was a somewhat confusing private-sector companion effort, also called Startup America. Case—who was also serving on the president’s job council—was named the head of the outside group. Said Obama in a video announcing the push, “We need to do everything we can to make it easier for America’s entrepreneurs to take an idea from the drawing board to the factory floor to the store shelves.” Says Denis McDonough, who at the time was deputy national security adviser and would go on to serve as Obama’s chief of staff, Case “was somebody the president turned to,” especially when it came to the nuts-and-bolts, startup-friendly policies that, late in his first term, Obama began pitching.

In a speech to Congress that September meant to battle back against both an unwilling Congress and a lingering recession, Obama talked about his plans to “cut away the red tape that prevents too many rapidly growing startup companies from raising capital and going public.” Republicans pounced, seeing a recognition of their long-standing belief that small businesses were being stifled by both regulation and accidents of birth. “If you’re in Silicon Valley, you have the best access to capital in human history,” says McHenry, the North Carolina Republican congressman. “And if you’re born on the wrong side of the tracks, you don’t know deep pockets, and you’re at a severe disadvantage.”

“Steve was a bridge between us—the Republican majority in the House—and Obama White House,” says Eric Cantor, the House Republicans’ second-in-command at the time, as majority leader. They began working on legislation focusing on where existing rules were making it too burdensome for small businesses to get traction, whether that’s to go public or raise funds, including via so-called crowdfunding, a la Kickstarter.

Case won fans in the White House, in Congress, and in Silicon Valley for throwing himself into the slog of writing legislation, even with no obvious dog in the fight. He was willing to listen and learn, even though he had more money, more fame and, probably, more connections than everyone in the room. The word heard again and again from people who worked with Case then is “humble.” Says McHenry, by way of compliment, “Somebody of Steve’s reputation, skill set, notoriety, oftentimes are folks that don’t spend their time engaging meaningfully on the Hill.”

Naval Ravikant is a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur who at the time had recently co-founded AngelList, sometimes described as a LinkedIn for startups. He was fretting about how the Washington policy writing was shaping up, but no one would listen. When he realized Case was involved, he gave it a try. “I was just a dude sending him an email,” he says. They met in a Capitol Hill office building, Ravikant recalls: “I went to some random lunchroom in the basement and there was Steve, a multibillionaire, eating a $ 3 sandwich.”

President Barack Obama signs the Jumpstart our Business Startups (JOBS) Act in 2012, with Case looking over his shoulder.

President Barack Obama signs the Jumpstart our Business Startups (JOBS) Act in 2012, with Case looking over his shoulder. | AP Photo

Eight months after the day Obama uttered the words “cut away the red tape,” the president was in the Rose Garden signing what had become the Jumpstart Our Business Startups, or JOBS, Act. Directly behind him was Cantor, who is beaming in photographs taken during the day. The president and the majority leader at an event together and not looking like they loathed one another was a rare enough occurrence that POLITICO wrote a short article about it. Just behind Cantor’s right shoulder, in a blue shirt, green tie, and with his own smile on his face, was Steve Case.

THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE of working through the ins and outs of policymaking with both the White House and Congress, says Case, looking back, got him thinking deeply about how small companies start and take hold in places where they might not be closely watched.

He made a decision. “Rather than just talking about it here in Washington” and places like it, “let’s hit the ground and see first-hand what’s happening, and do what we can to be a catalyst in each of the communities,” while shining a bit of attention on them in the process. In 2014, he and Revolution rented a high-end bus, had it wrapped with a map of a first batch of cities to visit—Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Pittsburgh—and a logo: “RISE OF THE REST ROAD TRIP WITH STEVE CASE,” where the “I” was an arrow shooting straight up. In the years that followed, there were more trips. There was a Midwest swing, then the South, and then out to the Southwest. There have been five mini-tours—six, if you count bringing entrepreneurs to D.C. for the March summit, which was framed as “a short break from the road.”

His Dupont Circle office is littered with books—Born Digital, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker—but it was one book in particular during these years that caught his imagination. Case was, he says, intrigued by the picture J.D. Vance painted in Hillbilly Elegy of the challenges and missed opportunities of growing up in Appalachia. Vance, it turned out, was himself a venture capitalist, working in Silicon Valley for a firm co-led by Trump adviser Peter Thiel. Case and Vance connected via Twitter shortly before the election, and when Vance was in town for a television spot in December, he, Case and Case’s wife met at the bar of his Dupont Circle hotel for a drink and a talk.

Vance would soon announce that he was leaving California and heading back home to Ohio, where he’d start an anti-opioid nonprofit and explore what to do next. This was shortly after the election, and Case had decided it was time to see what his bus-tour-based project could really be. “When he said he’d decided to move from Silicon Valley back to Ohio,” says Case, “I said, ‘It’s interesting you mention that. We’re looking to ramp up this Rise of the Rest effort. Maybe there’s a way to work together.’” (Vance’s home base will still be Ohio, he says, but he’ll be in D.C. plenty, both for Revolution and personal reasons; his wife is starting a one-year clerkship with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.)

Vance, whose name and face have been everywhere of late, decided to work with Case because, he says, “I just don’t think there’s anybody who’s taken such a long-term interest in these areas of the country, and has, literally, put their money where their mouth is.”

If Case was an early mover on the idea of an internet-based company, he was, perhaps, too, an early mover on the idea of tech-world icons getting on—if not a bus, a plane or a train—and getting out to see the rest of the country. Shortly after the election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the latest of his annual challenges to himself would be to meet with people from all 50 states, including where they live.

Case in the offices of Revolution, his venture capital firm in Washington, D.C.

Case in the offices of Revolution, his venture capital firm in Washington, D.C. | André Chung for POLITICO

“I give Mark Zuckerberg credit for hitting the road, and visiting, what was it, South Bend?” Zuckerberg had, the week prior, visited that Indiana city, a trip that included a drive-around with its mayor. Those sorts of journeys, in places, too, like Dearborn and Baton Rouge, have triggered talk that perhaps the 33-year-old Zuckerberg might want to run for office one day. Asked for his assessment, Case says he hasn’t talked to Zuckerberg about it directly, nor to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who he considers a friend. But, he says, “I give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was, ‘We’ve been a little out of touch.’ So I think he’s listening and being responsive. And I think he will learn a lot, to be honest. I have.”

WHEN IT COMES to making sense of how technology will reshape the American job, there’s a somewhat frightening possibility lurking at the edges: that it will reshape some industries to the point where there won’t be any jobs left. Automation has already downsized car factories, and if driverless trucks become the norm, it could do away with the No. 1 job for non-college-educated men in the United States. Politicians and political thinkers have, in the early going, been mixed in their willingness to reckon, or even acknowledge, what’s on the horizon. Obama talked in his farewell address about the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete. Philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax” on those that replace workers. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has called that, respectfully, a terrible idea. Sitting Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—one of Trump’s leading economic advisers—called artificial-intelligence-powered automation “not on my radar screen.”

Thus far, “Silicon Valley,” as a concept, has benefited from the widespread assumption that it creates jobs. If, instead, people begin thinking that its main effect on their towns is to eliminate jobs, they are likely to get angry. Angry at the industry, and the people behind it. “No one wants to become Wall Street. No one wants to be like those guys everybody hates,” says Klain.

Case’s solution, at the moment, is throwing every creative impulse we’ve got, and lots of dollars, too, at trying to create new jobs to replace the ones going away. He’s less enamored of another idea taking root among tech types, the so-called universal basic income, or a low-dollar subsidy paid to all Americans to ease the pain of the modern economy. “Jobs are not just about income,” he says. “Jobs are about dignity and respect.” (Shinola echoes the theme in its marketing, which talks about creating “meaningful manufacturing jobs.”) “It’s very possible we’re not going to create enough jobs to offset the jobs we lose. But don’t let’s presume,” says Case. “Before we jump to a defeatist attitude about a jobless future, why don’t we take a shot at actually creating a bunch of jobs?”

When he talks to audiences of businessmen and politicians, he pitches flyover country as a classic smart investment. He talks about the “arbitrage opportunities” available in places between the coasts. Rent is cheap. Wages are lower. And because funders generally don’t go looking for startups there, their price tags are artificially low. “It takes more work to identify them, to help them attract capital, talent, visibility and partners,” says Case. “But if you’re successful, the returns can be,” and here he hesitates, seemingly out of a sense of decorum, “significant.”

Left, Case arrives at the Turing School of Software & Design in Denver last year. Right, Case's "Rise of the Rest" tour bus on a visit to Nashville last year.

Left, Case arrives at the Turing School of Software & Design in Denver last year. Right, Case’s “Rise of the Rest” tour bus on a visit to Nashville last year. | Denver Post; Revolution

There’s also talent, says Khanna, the Silicon Valley Democratic congressman. “What Steve has identified is, on its face, pretty obvious. There’s no reason to think that a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk is more likely to be born within California than to be born in Ohio, or Pennsylvania, where I grew up”—Khanna was born in Philadelphia—“and that there has to be a better job of scouting talent, and going to where the talent is.”

And Case is finding that all sorts of ears are open to hearing that sort of thinking. Mark Warner, the Virginia senator, points to the Capitol Hill summit Case put on in March. “Just the fact that we have Democrats and Republicans showing up in the same room, talking about entrepreneurship—you can say that’s a low bar to get over it, but Steve does.” Warner himself spent years funding deals in northern Virginia. “I know lots of successful tech entrepreneurs. I don’t know very many of them who spend near the time or effort Steve does on trying to actualize his vision of where the country ought to head.” Warner recalls the Capital Investors club of which both he and Case were members. “Very few of them are still slogging through the political process.”

“I’ve spent a fair amount of time the past six months around billionaires,” says J.D. Vance. “Most of them just don’t think like Steve does. Steve makes an effort to not be isolated.”

Khanna, the Silicon Valley congressman, believes for his part that figures like Case—and, indeed, Case—are central to there being any shot of it working at all. Elected officials “are derivative thinkers,” explains Khanna. “Politicians never really have an original idea.” Instead, they source ideas from others and then attempt to scale them up. But there’s a dearth of ideas in Washington. “So when you have people like Steve Case and Ron Klain say, ‘Look, we’re going to dedicate 40, 50 hours a week to trying to think about solutions, that’s very helpful, because that’s not happening in Congress.”

Case says he hasn’t talked with Trump since he was elected, though he has talked to some of his still-small team. While Case is unsettled by Trump’s “hot rhetoric” on global issues, he says he’s encouraged by Trump’s willingness to change his mind when confronted with new information. And while that’s a flexibility that, he says, can obviously go too far, it also signals an opening for other tech leaders, especially if they’re willing to put their companies’ parochial interests aside.

Says Case, “I’ve supported Elon Musk and others who were criticized for meeting with the president of the United States. I think, you know, you should! You should be in the room; immigration, or climate, or other things that he cares about, he should have his voice heard.” It’s crucial, says Case, to keep building connections with the people in Washington making decisions that can have far-reaching ripple effects. Says Case, “If there’s not that engagement, you know, things are gonna go off the rails.” (About a month later, Musk would resign from his White House advisory roles over Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.)

And so Case will keep meeting over coffees and sandwiches, and online, chatting over ideas, forging ahead on the notion that while this new, uncertain economy where anything seems possible might be ailing much of America now, it might also be key to ensuring its future. Case says he didn’t know Sasse, the Nebraska senator, before his Capitol Hill summit. Asked for his review of Sasse’s deep dive into the state of the Midwestern economy, Case says, “I was impressed!” Says Sasse in an email, “Steve gets that we should be talking about how we’ll tackle big problems 10, 20, 30 years down the road by innovating into the future, not regulating into the past.”

They have plans to meet, Case says—you know, just to talk. “No specific thing we’re pushing,” he says. “We’re just going to get together and have lunch.”

It’s a fair bet, though, that a focus will be on figuring out what happens next. Says Case, “Every idea that ends up being significant starts as a stupid, crazy idea that’s not going to work.”

“But some of them do.”



Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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