Candace Johnson, an American who helped pioneer the satellite industry on the Continent, was dubbed “The Satellady” in a 1996 Economist article. A career as a trailblazer also earned her a few other labels: she was called “the most dangerous woman in Europe” by an angry media mogul after she foiled his plans to build a cartel and “Enemy No. 1” by Germany’s Deutsche Telekom when she won a landmark case against the company for illegal subsidies of data networks.
Johnson says she has earned all of these titles over the course of a 35- year career in the tech industry by “always trying to create something new” and usually breaking monopolies in the process. “What I am really most proud of is that I made SES (Societe Europeene des Satellites) become the world’s largest satellite system at the time and the premier satellite system today and that I was able to create other companies, all of which contributed to the advancement and democratization of access totelecoms, media and Internet for the world,” says Johnson.
Building innovative infrastructure that democratizes new types of services remains her core mission. Through her global investing activity started ten years ago, Johnson, now 58, has widened her scope of expertise to include clean tech and med tech and has been actively involved in financing such companies as the Blue H Group, which operates deep-water off-shore wind farms, Nheolis, a home-turbine energy company, and CertiNergy, France’s first B2B2C energy-credit trading company as well as Quotient Diagnostic and AboDiag, life-sciences technology and services companies.
Johnson is one of some 80-plus scheduled speakers at DLDWomen, a conference in Munich June 29-30 organized by Burda Media. The conference, which focuses on women’s influence on developments in technology, media and markets, is expected to attract 500 women in business and the arts. The speakers, who include top female executives at companies such as Google, HP and IBM, haven’t just climbed corporate ladders, they have honed their skills by doing everything from bicycling across Siberia to driving solar-powered race cars through the Australian Outback.
Johnson’s path has taken more than a few interesting turns of its own. After growing up in Hawaii and graduating from Punahou, the same Honolulu high school later attended by U.S. Present Barak Obama, Johnson went on to earn five degrees in music, includinga bachelors degree from Vassar College and masters degrees with honors from France’s Sorbonne and Stanford Universities.Through an early job as a producer at a U.S. classical music station, she met her husband, Adrien Meisch, a classical pianist and diplomat 23 years her senior, who was then serving as Luxembourg’s ambassador to the U.S. (The two celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary this year.)
From the start Johnson had no intention of becoming a demure tea-serving ambassador’s wife. While still in her 20s she joined a small broadcasting business, created a satellite distribution network for them and sold it within a year for several million dollars, earning a commission equal to three years salary. So when Meisch was posted back to Europe in 1982 and the prime minister’s chauffeur took her on the tour of the Grand Duchy, Johnson started thinking about how she could help the country she would soon call home, which was in the middle of a steel crisis.
Never one to think small, she proposed that Luxembourg launch its own satellite and made good on her promise to make it happen. Johnson used the broadcasting company commission to work without pay, concentrating all of her time on putting together a group of private investors to fund Astra, the first privately owned European television satellite and SES as well as obtaining the frequencies, putting a management team in place, and negotiating with the satellite and launch companies. Later, while on the board, she architected and implemented SES Global. Today, SES is Luxembourg’s largest taxpayer.
The satellite business was a natural one for Johnson. Her father, General Johnny Johnson, was the head of telecommunicaitons for the U.S. armed forces and ran telecoms policy in the White House under Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and later, at age 57, was recruited by venerable Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to help select and then manage interesting communication start-ups.
There was not only talk about satellites at the Johnson family dinner table. Architects of the Internet such as Vint Cerf were regular guests, says Johnson. Her father also taught her how to have a head for busienss. When, as a little girl, she told her farther she wanted to run for class president, he told her she would need a marketing plan and taught her how to design one. Anytime she wanted to do a project he would tell her to create a business plan and again, showed her how it was done. So, for Johnson, entering the tech business didn’t require any special training in engineering or bsuiness. But it did require moxie.
Johnson is credited with helping Astra flourish by fighting a lonely battle on SES’ board to block Europe’s biggest broadcasters from taking over the company and suppressing smaller, new channels – a role that earned her the “most dangerous woman in Europe” title.
Seventeen years after she started SES in 1983 an 15 years after it was actually incorporated as a company she stayed with SES on the board to help build it to be not only number one in Europe but also to architect and implement a plan for SES Global, thus creating the world’s largest satellite system at the time.
“It took an amazing effort to make SES Global happen since there was much internal opposition and once I pushed it through everyone was so mad at me,” says Johnson. “ I had to fight for five years to get all my efforts recognized and it was for this that the Grand Duke and the Prime Minister gave me the Commander of the Luxembourg Order of Merit after they had already given me the Officer of the Couronne de Chene for having started SES.”
Creating ASTRA also frightened politicians and companies alike. Recently, when Johnson saw Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Germany’s legendary former foreign minister, she says his first remark in seeing her after 10 years was that the late Francois Mitterand, France’s President from 1981 to 1995, complained to him that she was “selling Europe’s skies to America.” Johnson retorted, “No, as you can see with SES Global I made Europe’s skies global, something Mitterand and the industrial policies of all European governments could never do.”
Johnson also started a venture to use satellites to buest telecom monopolies in Europe, launchign Teleport Europe in 1990. Within 18 months it became Europe’s biggest independent private trans-border satellite communications network. Johnson convinced some of Europe’s biggest companies to invest, including Germany’s RWE and Vebacom.
The investors asked her to come and run the company. “I told them I am not going to work for you – I am going to sit at the shareholder’s table with you,” JOhsnon recalls. This took some doing as making a physical person rather than a company a shareholder in such a venture, was highly unusual, but Johnson stuck by her guns and was given a 1% share. When Loral, a subidiary of Orion Network systems, an international satellite communications provider, announced it wanted to buy Teleport Europe, RWE and Vebacom agreed by Johnson refused to sell. She continues to own 1% of the company, which is now known as Loral Skynet.
Johnson’s next high profile venture was Europe Online. The vision, in 1993, was to do just that – to get Europe online by pioneering the delivery mechanisms that would enable Europeans to receive Internet-based interactive entertainment via their PCs and televisions. Johnson patented the digital delivery of content via satellite but gave her idea to a consortium that included Burda Media, AT&T, Pearson, Matra and a group of Luxembourg banks. The company morphed into a content play and ultimately failed. Johnson says she learned a lot from her experience with Europe Online (she bought back the name at an auction and still owns the URL) “When you are an entrepreneur you have to implement your idea at the beginning – you can not expect others to do it for you,” she says.
Johnson remains an integral part of the Internet and communications sectors and is a fervent promoter of women in these businesses. She is a founder of the Global Telecom Women’s Network (GTWN), which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in March 2012. Still going strong, she and her colleagues at GTWN hosted a breakfast at the Mobile World Congress last February that attracted some of the industry’s highest flying female executives, including Qualcomm Executive Vice President Peggy Johnson and Xin Fanfei, vice president and executive director of China Mobile.
As thanks for decades of effort, Johnson has been decorated not only in Luxembourg but also as an Officer of the German Bundesverdienst Kreuz 1. Klasse for her work in de-regulation, innovation, privatization, and globalization at Astra, Teleport Europe and Iridium, (she helped that global satellite company obtain its global frequencies and country codes while serving as it vice president worldwide) and for the creation of the VATM, Germany’s private telecom operator’s assocation.
Johnson is the second recipient ever of the UN-sponsored World Teleport Associations’ “Founders Award” and received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” along with Vinton Cerf and Tim Berners Lee from the World Communication Awards in 2002.
That’s not all. In 2006, she created the Festival of the Fourth Dimension, the world’s first festival of the Arts, Technology, and Sciences, which has since become a major French government global initiative for Industrial Innovation and Creativity (Pole ICI) of which she is the first vice-president, the President being a French government official
Rather than resting on her laurels, Johnson is now playing a big role in investing in Europe’s start-ups, arguing that if Europe wants to ensure its economic prosperity everyone is going to have to do its part to keep young entrepreneurs from moving elsewhere. To that end, she is president of Johnson Paradigm Ventures (JPV) which is a principal founding shareholder with AXA, Caisse des Depots, Bayerische Landesbank, and the SPEF of Sophia Euro Lab, Europe’s first trans-border early-stage investment company based in Sophia Antipolis. JPV is also a principal founding shareholder in London-based Ariadne Capital, headed by Julie Meyer.
In her personal capacity, Johnson is a member of the Supervisory Boards of Paris-based Iris Capital and Turkey’s Inovent; a founding member and former president of the Board of the Sophia Business Angels in Sophia Antipolis, France; and founding president of three multi-million Euro investment vehicles, Succès Europe, Croissance Europe and Innovation Europe, together with Meeschaert Gestion Prive. Johnson has also been instrumental in the creation of the Galata Business Angels in Turkey, the Luxembourg Business Angels and most recently, the Cologne Business Angels. She is a foundering member of all three groups.
Johnson is also a member of the board of governors of EDHEC, France’s largest business school, the University of Haifa in Israel, Sabanci University in Istanbul, Turkey, and a Senior Enterprise Fellow for the University of Essex in England, working together with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to bring entrepreneurship around the world.
Her advice to other women? “Choosing something that makes you go beyond yourself is exciting and allows you to reach new horizons,” she says. “ Spoken like a true Satallady.