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Influencers Transcript: Jean Case, January 31, 2019

ANDY SERWER: Jean Case made her mark both in the world of business and philanthropy. She rose to fame as an internet executive who helped build America Online into one of the nation's top web providers. But she's also made a name by paying it forward. Jean and her husband Steve co-founded the Case Foundation, where she built a reputation as one of America's leading philanthropists. She's a passionate believer in technology and its potential to make a better world. And she shares her story with me now.

ANDY SERWER: Hello, everyone. I'm Andy Serwer. Welcome to "Influencers." And welcome to our guest, Jean Case. Jean, great to see you.

JEAN CASE: Great to be with you, Andy. Thanks for having me.

ANDY SERWER: So you have a new book out, which we want to talk about. But before we get to that, I want to ask you about women leaders, because we've seen more and more women in leadership roles-- Speaker Pelosi, Susan Zirinsky is the new head of CBS News. Yet sometimes it seems that women are taking two steps forward and one step back. What's holding women back, Jean?

JEAN CASE: Yeah, well, you know, I have reason to be both optimistic and I guess a little concerned at the same time. You're right. Women are emerging as leaders across different fields. I mean, for instance, the new head of the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC is a woman. Right? It's a field where we haven't seen a lot of women leaders emerge.

You know, the data is pretty stark today if we look at technology, if we look at women in C suites, in terms of the representation of women in leadership roles. But there's also compelling data out there that's showing us outperformance where diversity is present in senior teams and with female leadership, particularly both Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey have reported on this and show anywhere from 20% to 30% difference in performance when diverse teams are present. So I'm hoping as more and more of that data gets out there, will change things.

But you know, one reason I'm optimistic is, if you look at our recent election, gosh, we have a more diverse group going into Congress than ever before, particularly more women, 100 of them. And it's so exciting.

ANDY SERWER: Now, you mentioned politics. But what about the presidency? And we've got potentially Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris. Do you think America's ready for a woman president?

JEAN CASE: I do believe America's ready for a woman president. And I'm hopeful that I'll see it in one of the upcoming elections, depending on who emerges as the candidate. But yeah, I think the time is now.

And you know, it's funny. I think it's been a really important year for women on many fronts. I think a lot of their issues have been put on the table in terms of it being so clear that it really hasn't been a level playing field. But again, I think the thing that will move more people is not just this sort of social justice or fairness issue, but a clear understanding that we're better together, we're better when we have a diverse set of leaders, and that, you know, we can't rely on just the same old, same olds because it's not getting us to where we want to be.

ANDY SERWER: In your new book, "Fearless," you talk a little bit about your upbringing, which you say was very normal.

JEAN CASE: It was.

ANDY SERWER: Can you talk about that a little bit?

JEAN CASE: Sure, sure. Well, the book is called "Be Fearless, Five Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose." and you know, the reason I wrote it, I started life in the most normal of ways. I was born in a small town in Illinois called Normal. And I was the youngest of four kids being raised by a single mom.

But you know, as I've gone out across the world, what I've realized is, just like myself, people everywhere have ideas about how they might make a difference in this world or make a better place in the world. What they often lack, though, is sort of that motivation to really get started or to push through in some way.

So about-- I don't know-- a few years back, the Case Foundation undertook some research basically looking at the core qualities behind successful change makers, innovators, and entrepreneurs. And what we discovered is it's not at all what people think. It's not special genius, or wealth, or connections, or the right school. It actually, really, is simple set of five principles that are present wherever transformational breakthroughs take place. So that's really the framework for the book. But I try to use inspiring storytelling of people who've achieved success from all walks, like myself, where they might have been underestimated, to go on to find success in their lives.

ANDY SERWER: I want to talk a little bit about some of those points. But also mentors, Jean, you had a number of mentors through your career.


ANDY SERWER: Can you talk about them a little bit?

JEAN CASE: Sure, sure. Well, you know, one I really love talking about in the book. Because I had really come from a working class family-- my dad was a long haul trucker, my mom was a waitress-- I really hadn't been exposed to sort of the professional world, if you will. But I had dreams of becoming a lawyer.

So when I was in high school, the school matched me in an internship with the town judge, who became the town mayor. And every week, I would go and work in his office. And at the end of the week, he'd sit me down in chairs like this and say, tell me about your week. How are you doing in school? Are you staying on the straight and narrow? And really, he would mentor me.

So obviously, that meant the world to me. And I went on to work on his campaign and then worked for him when he became a congressman, my earliest role while I was still in college. So that was so important.

But it was also important just to get exposed to that different world. I mean, when I first went into his office, I hadn't really seen a lot of people in suits in my life, other than maybe at church. OK? And they seemed to speak in a different way and carry themselves differently. And so it was an invaluable contribution he made to my life.

And I had the opportunity-- he's since passed. But I had the opportunity to go down to Fort Lauderdale, where I lived then, and where he mentored me, and where he was mayor. And after he passed, they did a annual mayors prayer breakfast. And they did one in honor of his life. And I was able to go down there and talk about his important role in mine. So that was a lot of fun.

ANDY SERWER: You have a number of other remarkable characters in the book that reflect some of those points that you wanted to convey, that you were talking about. Who are some of those? And what are some of those points?

JEAN CASE: Well, you know, we talked about women leaders. It was very purposeful on my part to start the book with the story of a remarkable woman. And the first chapter is called "Start Right Where You Are."

And it's a story-- the first story is of Barbara van Dahlen. And Barbara was a sole practitioner, a mental health counselor, when the war was raging in Iraq and Afghanistan. And she looked around and realized there was a great need in the nation among the military and their families for mental health support during that period. But there wasn't the capacity there for those that needed it. So she had an idea that she'd give an hour each week of pro bono to these kind of families.

And then she saw the impact of that. And she asked her friends, might they do the same thing, in her field, and they did.

Then she called me into her office one day. And she said, Jean, I have a crazy idea, and I just want to know what you think about it. What if I built a national network of doctors everywhere who would give pro bono time to help fill the gap? And of course, I, you know, completely asked her questions all over the map about, are you sure you can take this forward. She didn't have a staff. She didn't have an MBA. She no organizational background. But what she did have was a burning passion and felt an urgent need. And that's what we see in successful people who break through.

So she created this network. Thousands and thousands of doctors around the nation responded. Today, they're part of Give an Hour even still. And over $25 million in free medical health care services have been provided. And more importantly, "Time" recognized that she was such a significant leader that they named her among the 100 most influential people in the world.

So it's a great story of someone who started right where she was. Many might have looked at her and said, you don't have what it takes to do that. But she did. And she broke through and made a huge difference in this world.

ANDY SERWER: Where do you think that passion comes from, Jean? I mean, can you acquire it? Can you learn it? Or is it something you just have to see?

JEAN CASE: Well, you know, your background, Andy, you see entrepreneurs everywhere who've built great companies. And really, what that secret is, look, they look around, and they've lived problems, or they see problems, and they come up with solutions based on where they sit. They see opportunities, and they seize them.

It's no different in change-making really. You know, Barbara just saw a problem, and she had an idea about how to solve it. And she was in a good position to do so, given that passion that was burning and that sense of urgency that she felt.

So the five principles, the fifth principle is "let urgency conquer fear." And I do think, you know, we're living in a time right now where people sometimes can be gripped with fear or discontent. But that can actually be a motivator to get them the motivation they need and the inspiration they need to go out and get started.

ANDY SERWER: Right. You also talk about failure and how important that is. And you hear about that-- fail fast.


ANDY SERWER: Sometimes I think that's overdone a little bit.

JEAN CASE: I do too.

ANDY SERWER: But still, it is something to learn from. Right?

JEAN CASE: Yeah, yeah, well, you know, there is this culture, which, if you're not careful, can actually glorify failure.


JEAN CASE: That's not what we're talking about in the book. In fact, what I try to do is just make it clear that there are very few success stories out there that don't have a path of failure behind them.

And so I have this chapter, which is one of my favorites, "Fail in the Footsteps of Giants." And I make it clear that folks like Oprah, fired from TV early in her career and told she just wasn't right for television. Can you imagine? JK Rowling, who was a single mom on welfare when she wrote Harry Potter, which is remarkable in its own right, and rejected by a dozen publishers.

So I think part of it is, as people move forward and they have success, sometimes the story gets a little sanitized, and the part about the failures along the way aren't told. So that can stop people in their tracks who are taking their own ideas forward if they fail. But if they can recognize that it's part of how you break through, get better, learn new lessons and apply them down the road, I think it can make failure a little less daunting.

ANDY SERWER: All right, what about you, Jean? Any failures you can talk about?

JEAN CASE: I've had big failures. And I write about many of them in the book. And I'm particularly careful to talk about my failures when I'm in front of young people. In fact, I gave a commencement address once about various failures that were truly horrifying moments in my life, great, great fear and concern about what it would mean to my life. But I could later see how that teed me up for greater opportunities down the line.

But I did write about one specific, very public failure we had at the Case Foundation. We undertook a large initiative to bring clean water to sub-Saharan Africa across 10 countries. I launched it with President Clinton to my right and First Lady Laura Bush to my left. So it was pretty high profile, and a lot of partners along the way.

And what we discovered as we were taking it forward and executing it across villages, some challenges arose, not uncommon when you're trying to take forward big things. So we put a lot of investment and time into trying to course correct and realized we weren't going to be able to basically take forward the ideas that we had had with success.

So we had a choice to make. Could we possibly just sweep it under the rug and hope nobody noticed? You know, should we just stop in our tracks and say we're done? Or should we really be clear about the fact that this is a failure, we're committed to staying the course of clean water, and find a way forward?

And so I wrote this blog, "The Painful Acknowledgment of Coming Up Short." And what I found was people responded in a way I hadn't expected. They thanked me for talking about failure in such a transparent way.

And you know, what everybody knows who's taking on big, daunting things , you're going to have failures along the way. The question is, what do you do in the face of failure?

So we pivoted. We found a new way forward with a new partner and with new interventions. And the end of the story turns out just fine. But it was definitely one of those moments where I did not want to hit that send button and tell the world. But today, I'm really glad I did.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah. I don't know whether you characterize this as a failure, Jean, but maybe a roadblock. You dropped out of college.


ANDY SERWER: Did you ever go back?

JEAN CASE: No. I never did.

ANDY SERWER: And what was that about?

JEAN CASE: I never did. And it's so funny, because if you talk to a lot of people who are college dropouts like me, what they might tell you is, that was not an intentional thing on their part. I just had a very rare opportunity because I'd been working for the congressman in Florida. When President Reagan was elected, I had the rare opportunity to come as a political appointee of President Reagan's and work in Washington. And I was going to school, college at night at that point. So I moved myself to Washington with the full intent that I'd go back to school and finish. But my career took off, and I never did.

So yes, I'm a college dropout. But in some ways, I look back-- and I talk about that in that commencement address I did as well. At the time, I thought, oh, my gosh, is my life over? I don't have a college degree. But I see how each one of those decisions teed me up for bigger opportunities down the line. And of course, ultimately, as you know, Andy, where we first knew each other, I landed in the tech field over 30 years ago and really was able to have this extraordinary opportunity to help bring the internet revolution forward.

ANDY SERWER: But before that-- this is very interesting to me as well, Jean, you worked at GE.


ANDY SERWER: And then you took a risk. I mean, you left what was arguably the best company--

JEAN CASE: In the world.

ANDY SERWER: --on the planet.

JEAN CASE: Most valuable at the time.

ANDY SERWER: Right, most valuable, to go to a startup that really no one had ever heard of.


ANDY SERWER: How did you have the audacity to do that?

JEAN CASE: Yeah, well, so I probably have to just rewind the tape one more chapter to make it clear why that happened. So I actually had worked for the first pure play online service in the world. It was called The Source. And didn't feel like that was going to be a winning, successful thing, and got a call from GE, who was going to start their own online service. Would I come and help build one for them? So I made that jump.

And I thought, gosh, GE, big brand, big budgets, they really can take this market forward. But when I got there, I realized-- and risk-taking is something I talk a lot about in the book. You know, they were really unwilling to risk a good thing for maybe an extraordinary thing. They were really in their comfort zone of being the most valuable company in the world. And taking risks on new businesses was not really in their DNA at that time.

And so I got this call from the startup down the road that was to become AOL, asking me if I'd go build a service with them. So I made the leap.

But yes, Andy, everybody I knew thought I was insane to leave this really good thing. I was on a very clear, professional track at GE. I'd been picked for the management track, et cetera. And thought I was crazy.

But to me, it was so clear that it would take a startup mentality and a disruptor to really build this emerging field. But I had to actually work inside of a big company to understand that sometimes it's those on the outside disrupting that will have the success.

ANDY SERWER: Before we get into AOL a little bit, Jean, are you disappointed or surprised at the straits that GE is in today?

JEAN CASE: You know, I think it's kind of a sad thing, when you think about it. As I said, they were the most valuable company in the world when I worked for them in the '80s. And last year, I think they were the poorest performing stock in the market. I think a lot of companies have to dig deep and ask, are they taking the risks necessary? Are they doing the things to stay relevant?

You know, Andy, I chair National Geographic. It's a 130-year-old institution, in many ways, a legacy organization. But if you walk in there, you would feel it's 130-year-old startup. We are constantly disrupting ourselves and embracing new ways forward, trying to peek around the corner and seeing what's next.

And you know, I tell a funny story in the book. 100 years ago, what's next was photography. That was the new technology. And we had this "National Geographic" magazine. And when they wanted to put some photographs in the magazine, some of the board members threatened to resign. You know, this photography thing is a fad, right?

ANDY SERWER: Crazy to think about that today, right.

JEAN CASE: It's a fad, and it's not serious science, et cetera. Well, thank god they made the fearless decision to go forward anyway. And then, of course, when cable was the new disruptive media, we created the National Geographic Channel. So it's an organization that really, through all of its chapters, has fearlessness in its DNA and is constantly reinventing itself.

And that's what companies like GE have to do. We've seen IBM struggle with that as well. A lot of those 100-plus-year-old companies out there have to face that.

ANDY SERWER: All right, so what was AOL like back then in the early days? And you guys know you were onto something?

JEAN CASE: We totally knew we were onto something. And if you'd walked the halls, you would have seen a company on a mission to democratize access to information and communication and ideas really. And we were true believers. And I think that was really the secret sauce to the early success of AOL.

And I want to point out, you know, we had some competitors that emerged. There was this company Prodigy. It had IBM, CBS, and Sears behind it, who put in over a billion dollars of investment, when we had just put in $10 million. But we could see it. As a young upstart, we could take risks and be a little more fearless to drive forward this new market. And ultimately, we achieved success. And I just was thrilled to be part of that ride.

ANDY SERWER: You talk about the mission of AOL-- and maybe this relates to some of the big giants today, and we'll talk about them-- that maybe it could have been or should have been a nonprofit. What did you mean by that?

JEAN CASE: Well, we really were on a mission. And we often laughed that we could have started it as a nonprofit to really help people get online, because we believed it would change the world, that it would level the playing field. Of course, we know a lot today about some of the downsides of technology and what communication has brought. But back then--

You know, I tell the story of my mom had spent two years paying month by month an amount of money so that I could have a set of hard copy encyclopedias like the rest of the kids I knew. Well, gosh, when I saw the first online encyclopedia, I was like, this is amazing. This levels the playing field for everyone.

So I think we were just real true believers, more like you often see in a movement or a nonprofit. Where I saw the company maybe start to get a little off the rails is when more and more people came in, maybe with different motivations around how much money they'd earn or different things like that, when we moved from that very mission-shared DNA to this larger group who were really about riding the success.

ANDY SERWER: It's hard to keep those core values, isn't it?

JEAN CASE: It is. It is.

ANDY SERWER: So let me ask you, AOL had huge market share back then.

JEAN CASE: Yes, it did.

ANDY SERWER: Over 50%--

JEAN CASE: Of the internet traffic went through AOL.

ANDY SERWER: Internet traffic, which is amazing.

And then today, there is a lot of talk and concern about Facebook and Google.


ANDY SERWER: Do you think those companies have too much market power? Or what do you think we should do about them? Because there are certain issues there that need to be addressed.

JEAN CASE: Yeah. Well, I think there's a couple of things going on there. I think that many of those big companies are crowding out new innovations of young upstarts, too often not letting other innovations around them happen, and trying to sort of own the world, if you will. I think that's not healthy.

ANDY SERWER: Through venture capital and buying up other competitors.

JEAN CASE: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And you know, I think that's really not a healthy thing. As you know today, you know, we are experiencing really a downturn in startups. It's at a 30-year low.

Look, the secret sauce of America and the success of our economy has been these new firms that form. We need to do everything we can to get all the players on the field and have innovation across all fields. And we need to make sure that a few big players don't crowd out that kind of innovation.

But also, on the technology side, look, things have changed so fast. Right? We couldn't have imagined we would be where we are here in 2019. And I think we just haven't kept pace with some of the ethics policies and frameworks that we need to put around this stuff. And products and services are out there used by millions of millions before thought is given to implications. And so I think we just have to do a better job of having some forethought or at least catching up with what we need to do today in terms of how we're seeing abuses of some of the technology.

Certainly, my generation of people who went into technology believed it was really for the good of humanity. And I think many leaders today in technology believe that too. But it compels us to be responsible with our policies and the things we take forward to make that happen.

ANDY SERWER: Do you have any advice for Sheryl Sandberg?

JEAN CASE: Sheryl is a friend, you know. And I think she's been a great leader. And I'm really hopeful, based on the things I'm hearing from Facebook, that they're going to figure their way through this tough time.

ANDY SERWER: So of course, you're married to Steve Case.

JEAN CASE: I am, proudly.

ANDY SERWER: And I want to ask you about working as a partner or husband together in a lot of these endeavors. And what's he up to? And how's he doing?

JEAN CASE: Steve is doing great. Of course, I first worked with Steve at AOL and saw his remarkable leadership there.

He runs an investment firm called Revolution. But just one of the initiatives that they have is something called Rise of the Rest, where Steve takes a bus and goes out across America to communities where people don't expect to find innovation. And he brings investors and the press with him. And it's always so surprising to everyone to see the remarkable innovations happening across our country. I think that is just such a cool thing that he's doing. And it's in total keeping with his sort of fearlessness, where he always has the next big idea.

And I talked earlier about really needing all the players on the field. Last year, 75% of venture capital went to just three places-- New York, Boston, and California. But actually, it turns out the mass majority of our Fortune 500 companies have been founded between the coasts. So what Steve is doing is really trying to almost take us back to a healthier economy that was more diverse, where we spread the love of capital and support for entrepreneurs.

ANDY SERWER: You guys are also, of course, philanthropists. What is the best way to practice philanthropy, Jean?

JEAN CASE: Yeah. Well, I spend a lot of time with people who are thinking about it, just getting into it. And you know, it took us, I'd say, a few years to get our sea legs, really ask the question, what could we do to make a unique difference. And that's really what I encourage people to think about.

There really isn't one answer to your question, Andy, because it's going to look different based on the skills, or background, or what people have to bring to the party. But basically, I think it's important to say, what can we uniquely do.

The one constant I would say is-- and this is becoming more common today-- we've used all the arrows in our quiver approach. So we don't just think about philanthropy as that charitable thing over there. In everything we do, we say, how can we invest in people and ideas that can change the world. We bring our investment dollars. We bring our mentoring. We bring our network of support. We bring our philanthropy to that.

And so what I would encourage people to do who are thinking about philanthropy or just using their resources in some way to make a difference, you actually don't have to be wealthy to be a philanthropist. There are so many ways you can add value to this world.

ANDY SERWER: I want to ask you a follow-up question about Steve, that you guys work together. I mean, that's kind of unusual in that your partner. So what is that like, actually, to be a husband-and-wife team?

JEAN CASE: Yeah. We had to figure that out, actually, because when we got started in the foundation, Steve took the chair role, and I took the CEO role. We were doing a lot of common investments together, working on some things, et cetera.

And what we realized, Andy, for us-- and I'm not saying it's true for everyone-- is we needed our own lanes. We got to a point where it's like, wait, who makes the call on this one. And so what we decided was dividing and conquering might be the happiest way to go forward. So he has his set of things, Revolution, his investment firm. I really lead the foundation. There is this middle ground where we continue to do things together, but it seems to work for us.

ANDY SERWER: Great. And getting back to the National Geographic a little bit, you're the chairperson, the chairman of the board, first woman.


ANDY SERWER: And I want to ask you, can you tell people what the organization does besides put out that iconic magazine?


ANDY SERWER: And the TV shows that you mentioned.

JEAN CASE: I'd love to talk about National Geographic. So we say we believe in the power of science, exploration, storytelling, and education to change the world. And that's really our mission. And so we really find and fund great explorers, great scientists, great photographers everywhere to bring the world to people, to bring really what we call the front lines of the unknown to every person out there.

So today, we probably are more relevant than we've ever been before. While a lot of media companies have really struggled, we've really grown. So between our channel, our magazine, our digital footprint, we have the world's largest social media footprint of any brand in the world. We touch--

ANDY SERWER: What does that entail, I mean, just on Facebook--

JEAN CASE: Instagram alone is 90 million--

ANDY SERWER: Oh, is that right?

JEAN CASE: --followers, yeah.

ANDY SERWER: That's fantastic.

JEAN CASE: So going back to that early decision around photography and then later video, that really has created a treasure trove that we can, today--

ANDY SERWER: Your archive.

JEAN CASE: Yeah, absolutely. Really use and take forward to make more compelling some of the stories we want to share with the world. So it's a really exciting mission.

And you know, the other thing that the world doesn't understand about National Geographic, which I just think is so cool and fearless, is the business model. Because when new media was cable television, and the magazine looked at possibly being disrupted by that, we made this decision to basically do a venture with Fox to create the National Geographic Channel.

Well, today, we've put all of our commercial businesses into that venture. And it not only provided a very generous endowment for us, but about $100 million a year comes over the transom from that venture. It's been with Fox. It's been a great partnership.

Now, as Disney's poised to acquire Fox, Disney will be our new partner. And we couldn't be more excited.

ANDY SERWER: Right. That seems to be a good match potentially. And National Geographic, it's not a government agency. Is it a nonprofit?

JEAN CASE: It's a nonprofit. The parent company is a nonprofit so that the venture that we formed with Fox sets up under that. But yes, it's an absolute pure nonprofit with a very sustainable business model. And you know, that's one of the things that I love about the organization. But it really is. The fearless men and women of the National Geographic inspire me every single day.

ANDY SERWER: And Jane Goodall is the explorer at large who wrote an introduction to your book.

JEAN CASE: That's right.

ANDY SERWER: What does she do? And what have you learned from her?

JEAN CASE: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I was so thrilled when Jane offered to do the foreword for the book. She is one of our most iconic explorers and residents.

You know, her story, Andy, is, as a young woman living in the UK, she had a love of animals and wanted to spend her career working with them. So in the early '60s, she, as a young woman in her 20s, she goes to Africa, really not having a network-- she had one friend there-- and finds herself working in the field with chimpanzees. She had no advanced education, but doing chimpanzee research. And it turns out what she didn't know became her greatest advantage. Because you know, she really grew to love these chimpanzees and almost treated them like partners because she hadn't been schooled in sort of the formal way to do research.

So later, when she went to Cambridge and got her PhD, her professors were like, are you crazy? You gave them names? You know, we use codes and numbers for them. You know, they're not people.

But what she discovered, because she did sort of see them as partners and creatures that mattered, she was able to do groundbreaking research that no one else had done before, looking at how chimpanzees actually made tools to aid them. That was a huge, disruptive idea in research.

So today, of course, she is considered one of the greatest animal researchers of all time and greatest human beings, I might add. And I was delighted that she wrote the foreword to the book.

ANDY SERWER: So let me ask you. This show is about influencers, Jean. And I want to ask you, what is the way that you see that you'd like to use your influence on this Planet Earth while you're here for this brief time?

JEAN CASE: Well, you know, for me, it really hasn't changed. I started life as the recipient of philanthropy and the goodness of others, as a full scholarship at a private school, only because of the generosity of others. And as I looked around in the neighborhoods that I was living in and then looked at some of the families from my private school, I could see that opportunity wasn't necessarily a universal thing. So I think very early, I wanted to spend my career basically using whatever I could to lift people and to empower them. And you know, actually, I try to talk in the book about how my career did just that.

But I'm grateful that I knew that was sort of what I wanted to do, because it became a helpful guide as I faced some of those daunting moments and then tried to figure out my next step forward.

ANDY SERWER: Jean Case, thank you so much for joining us-- investor, philanthropist, and now, author of "Be Fearless." Thank you for your time.

JEAN CASE: Thanks so much, Andy. Great to be with you.

ANDY SERWER: I'm Andy Serwer. And this is "Influencers."