How Steve Case Became Washington's Tech Whisperer

Can flyover country share the prosperity of Silicon Valley? The AOL billionaire is making it his cause

By Nancy Scola | June 8, 2017

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.