Renaissance woman: Candace Johnson

Candace Johnson is a singer, musician, entrepreneur, fund manager, satellite communications pioneer and – according to Time and Fortune – one of the 50 most powerful women in the world today.

You can do anything you want. You just have to work hard enough,’ proclaims Candace Johnson, a few minutes after we’ve met on one of her frequent whistle-stop trips to London (she is based mostly in Luxembourg).

That this inspirational statement is the first sentence from her lips is unsurprising, because Johnson really is the personification of the can-do philosophy.

As well as boasting incredible career achievements in the arts (she has five degrees in music and a cultured singing voice), Johnson has also been instrumental in changing the face of the global telecommunications industry over the last 30 years. She was a co-founder of the SES-ASTRA, Europe’s dominant private satellite system, and SES Global, the largest satellite system in the world. She is also founding president of Europe Online, the world’s first and largest internet via satellite network, and founder of Teleport Europe, the first independent private trans-border satellite communications network in Europe. Needless to say, she was a hearty champion of the political and economic deregulation and convergence changes that made all of the above possible.

Along the way, she has also found the time to set up two investment vehicles and telecoms bodies such as the Association of Private Telecoms Operators and the Global Telecom Women’s Network.

Parents, plans and passion

Johnson attributes her organisational zeal and business drive to a father who made her and her three siblings ‘write business plans for everything we did – such as when I was running for class president’. Her interest in all things space-related she traces to a Christmas when she was five years old and her parents inserted a Santa Claus figurine into a sputnik toy.

Which of her parents advised her on her conversational style (it really is a task to get a word in edgeways) is not clear. But her monopoly of our conversation merely serves to underline how passionate she feels about her achievements in the satellite industry, and how committed she remains to its future development.

The lure of the business challenge

Happily, she is as loquacious about her failures as she is about her achievements. Two projects in particular stick out – Iridium and Europe Online.

Johnson was actually vice-president (from 1994-1996) of Iridium, an ill-fated concern that famously burnt through more than a billion dollars building satellites. Having filed for bankruptcy in 2000, it was rescued by a private company that bought the assets. In its time this venture came close to being one of the world’s most celebrated (and, of course, most costly) scientific failures.

Interestingly, Johnson is still fiercely defensive of the business, even though she left (long before its near-collapse) after becoming disillusioned with the direction it was going in.

‘Iridium was way too expensive. My thoughts about it were not the same as everyone else’s. I thought of it as a satellite booster that would link to mobile phones and I said we have to have competition at the handset level [Iridium’s handsets were expensive and not competitive with ground-based networks], or I would leave. So I left. But it did come into its own. It was one of the few infrastructures that worked on September 11. It will go on to have a life,’ says Johnson.

Events at broadband internet provider Europe Online were equally colourful. Having been founded by Johnson, she came to its rescue not once, not twice, but three times, when she acquired the business assets and brought the company back from the brink of bankruptcy, determined to prove wrong those who saw it as a failure. She remains president today.

‘I am proud of these projects – even in the face of great difficulty, and often when I was not in control I was able to take steps to ensure that these lived and survived and that they did it on their own. And this means even more when I look around at all of the companies and their assets which have disappeared off the face of the earth.’

All or nothing

Johnson’s core interests at present are two investment vehicles – Johnson Paradigm Ventures (based in Luxembourg) and Sophia Euro Lab (based in France).

The latter is a C12 million early-stage investment fund founded by Johnson and a consortium of others such as AXA Private Equity and Bayerish Landesbank.

Her investment strategy is very simple – she likes to back strongly driven individuals who are at the cutting edge of ‘things that matter’. The sole focus of these people must be on the success of the project– not the size of their financial gain or exit five years down the line.

‘We are seeing venture capital fund after venture capital fund being started, investing in ideas which shouldn’t be given the time of day. If somebody approaches me and I don’t get the feeling that this person is going to do everything he/she can to make a success – then that turns me off.’

It’s all about people, stupid

This singular approach colours her idea of risk. ‘People in the VC community always talk about exits – but I never want to do that. They also say that [after a point] you have to get rid of the entrepreneur. I say, ‘why?’ I don’t take risks with myself or with my money,’ she asserts.

This last statement seems at first glance somewhat strange, but Johnson is adamant that entrepreneurship has nothing whatsoever to do with risk, and plenty to do with personal responsibility.

‘Many people say it is about taking risks. They are wrong. It is about taking no risks because all the risks and chances to fail surround you anyway. It is about doing everything you can to make certain that you win. It’s about responsibility to stay true to the vision and not compromise it. To have the determination to act responsibly to shareholders and stakeholders to realise the expected and anticipated rewards and results.’

Making a difference

Interestingly, throughout her career, Johnson has rarely completely stepped away from a business she has been involved in.

‘Being an entrepreneur is about never giving up, never accepting no for an answer, and never going away even when others want you to. I’m not into egos or titles – I hate them. What is important is making a difference and ensuring that things continue.’

Judging from her dealings thus far, it seems that Johnson will be making a difference for some time to come.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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