Steve Case has a proven nose for new business. The billionaire—who cofounded AOL in 1983—has followed his instincts to back dozens of successful businesses, including Zipcar, sweetgreen, and Exclusive Resorts. Now, he’s hitting the road on a new quest to discover the next big startups, entrepreneurs, and disrupters with his Rise of the Rest tour. Along with a group of impressive partners, ranging from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to fashion titan Tory Burch, he scours the country for the next great business ideas. CURATED caught up with Case in between tours to talk about the change his big red bus is bringing to cities across America. 

Q.
Why did you start Rise of the Rest?

We started it as a way to change the narrative about innovation entrepreneurship—that it’s not limited to just a few places like Silicon Valley. It’s about investing in the places that generally don’t get much venture capital. It’s as much an investment strategy as it is a strategy to create a more inclusive national economy. 

The tours sound a little bit like an entrepreneur’s version of American Idol. Tell us about what happens when you’re on the road. 

American Idol is more made for TV, but there are some similarities in that we give people a shot at being on the big stage. We have done eight tours in 43 cities so far. The last tour we did about six months ago, we had 540 entrants apply to pitch in five cities. We picked the top eight in each city, and we helped them with their pitches. Then, in each city, we had a panel of judges pick the one that was most promising, and that’s the one we ended up investing in. 

Why is it important to invest in companies outside of major hubs like Silicon Valley and New York?  

Well, if you’re trying to innovate in the farming sector, for instance, it’s hard to imagine that you’d have any insight to problems that farmers are having if you’re sitting in a skyscraper in Manhattan. But it’s also quite critical that we level the playing field, so innovation and job creation is happening everywhere—not just in a few places.

  

  

What kind of companies have you invested in so far?  

We have invested in all kinds of companies—traditional software tech companies, agriculture companies, healthcare companies—and it has been incredible to see the kind of innovations happening all across the country. One recent company we funded in Detroit, an e-commerce site called StockX, had three or four employees when we first invested; now it has hundreds of employees. It’s exciting to scale these young startups into major companies employing hundreds, even thousands.

What’s it like traveling on that bus across the country?

I have been on every one of our eight tours so far—but we don’t actually sleep in the bus. We’ll check into a hotel and get up early the next morning and get back on the road. It’s a nice bus though. It was deliberately designed to be able to host big groups, so we’ll have several dozen people create different meetings throughout the day (akin to a traveling conference room). 

What’s been your favorite stop so far?  

I’ve been constantly surprised in every city we have been to. Each of these cities and tours has opened our eyes to the fact that there are entrepreneurs everywhere. And it’s making it possible for everybody, everywhere, to have a shot at the American dream.