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The Reinvention(s) of Sophia Collier

Sophia Collier wrote her autobiography at age 21, founded her first company a few years later, and then took on the mutual-fund industry. Now she’s set her sights on the cable-TV power structure. Why can’t this woman sit still? And what can you learn from her entrepreneurial journey? A two-part feature.

Sophia Collier got a fast start in life — and she’s been picking up the pace ever since. By age 21, she had already published her autobiography with a major New York publisher. A few years later, the Rockefeller family gave her money to launch a soda company, which she later sold to Seagram for roughly $15 million. Then, with no place to park the proceeds, she bought a small money-market-fund company and used it as a platform to launch the largest group of socially responsible no-load mutual funds on the planet.

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After that, she invested in a small technology company, Broadwave USA Inc., with a giant goal: to use a third method — besides cable and direct-broadcast satellite — to provide television and Internet service to the entire United States. The company has seven full-time employees; Collier is president and CEO. Some of the biggest names in communications are lined up in Washington, DC right now, trying desperately to keep her out of their markets.

At one level, Sophia Collier is a familiar character — the ever-restless company builder who moves from one idea to another, one venture to the next, searching for new challenges and victories. Who needs to read yet another saga of a serial entrepreneur? We all do, for at least two reasons.

First, Collier’s drive and enterprise are a welcome change of pace from the torpid climate of these difficult times, when most of us are content just to hunker down and hold on to what we’ve built at our companies and in our careers.

Second, there are very few executives anywhere who have racked up the diverse record of success and experiences that Collier has — certainly not by age 45. There are also very few people who approach their work with Collier’s thirst for self-understanding — and even fewer entrepreneurs who wear their hearts on their sleeve to the extent that Collier does. In her quest to understand herself, she’s discovered some important lessons about business and leadership as well.

Reinvention du Jour: Technology Executive

Take Collier’s latest venture — an audacious bid to provide television transmission that has put her directly in the crosshairs of direct broadcast’s and cable television’s major players. Not only is she outgunned financially, but her tiny company — seven employees, plus herself as CEO — has only a few lobbyists on retainer, compared to the army of hired guns employed by her competitors.

Collier’s view: No problem. “Sophia’s very shrewd and cunning,” notes Jane Owens, Collier’s former attorney. “She delights in the game that’s at the bottom of it all.”

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Collier became interested in television after meeting Saleem and Carmen Tawil, a Texas couple who developed a unique technology to use ground-based transmitters for television broadcasts. The technology solved a problem that subscribers to direct-broadcast satellite (DBS) services almost always encounter: Cable networks come in fine, but local television transmission is unavailable.

The service requires space on the digital spectrum, but the Tawils figured that hurdle could be overcome if the DBS companies could be convinced to share. To test their technology, which they called Northpoint Technology Ltd., the Tawils strung together some gear, and sure enough, it worked. But to go any further, they needed help, so in 1996, they turned to venture capitalist Chula Reynolds, who hooked them up with her friend Collier.

It was an auspicious match. As treasurer of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Collier knew her way around the regulatory thicket of Washington — a landscape that the Tawils had found daunting. The company, which they named Broadwave, planned to compete directly with direct-broadcast satellite companies by offering a package of cable-television channels and high-speed Internet access at a steep discount.

When word of the fledging enterprise’s bold plan began to spread, however, an array of big, powerful companies quickly lined up to block the deal. Executives at EchoStar Communications and DirecTV howled that the system would cause signal interference on their subscribers’ DBS systems.

Boeing, Loral Space & Communications Ltd., and others were outraged that Broadwave wanted to use the spectrum without paying for the privilege at an auction. But, Collier noted, no other company had yet figured out how to use the spectrum the way Broadwave did, so why have an auction for rights that only her company knew how to share? “We don’t want to wait anymore,” she says. “It’s a horrible public policy to make inventors wait seven years for a federal agency to act. It’s ridiculous.”

Despite Collier’s expertise in Washington, the odds that Broadwave will prevail are incredibly long. The city hosts an entire industry of lobbyists who make sport out of burying companies like Broadwave. “The companies lined up against us are a very powerful part of the industrial-military complex,” she says. “They are cornerstones of the national defense, and they have very tight relationships in Washington that go back many years.”

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But despite those odds, Collier has found an interesting way to exact her own form of leverage. Broadwave intends to roll out its service through at least 100 affiliates, each of which already owns the broadcasting rights in one or two cities. The affiliates would also put up about three-quarters of the $1.5 billion needed for a nationwide launch. The affiliates’ owners, all handpicked by Collier, have formed a grassroots political army, lobbying members of Congress and senators from their home states to convince the Federal Communications Commission to give Broadwave a crack at the market.

Reinvention I: Eastern Mystic

No one who knows Collier would be surprised at her innovative strategy. Collier is a master at finding unconventional ways to tackle problems. Small wonder, since her own adolescence owed more to Eastern mysticism than to Leave It to Beaver. Indeed, by age 21, she had already penned her life’s story. That precocious autobiography provides a window into what makes this woman tick.

Collier’s book, Soul Rush: The Odyssey of a Young Woman of the ’70s (William Morrow & Co., 1978), is, essentially, a chronicle of her spiritual development, and it reads like the diary of the brainy, excruciatingly self-aware girl that she was. It breezes casually through her experience smoking pot, using LSD, watching porn with mobsters, and making mischief with Abbie Hoffman — all by age 16. There’s a brief retelling of her sexual assault at the hands of man who picked her up while she was hitchhiking, and then an exhaustive recollection of her move to a commune at age 16 and her experience in an ashram one year later.

That flirtation with Eastern spiritual practice has proved remarkably useful in the rough-and-tumble Western world of commerce. “At the ashram, we did things like staying up all night and meditating, things that taught us how to focus our minds,” she says. “Those skills never leave you, and they’re something that I still feel very connected to. There are times in my current work — and certainly in the past — when I’ve been involved in stressful business situations. Drawing on those experiences has definitely helped me maintain perspective.”

Not everyone should bag an MBA in favor of an ashram. But the experience helped Collier see huge gaps in industries that appear crowded to everyone else.

Read more: The Reinvention(s) of Sophia Collier, Part 2