It’s not a good time for start-ups. Coffers are empty, stocks have plummeted, and once-cocky investors are returning to Wall Street on hands and knees. But Lynn Forester, the 46-year-old co-chairman of FirstMark Communications Europe, which she founded in 1998, is just going about her business – namely, conquering Europe. “We’ve got Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Finland,” she says serenely in her offices above Barneys, flipping through flow charts for the businesses she brings broadband to.
It is 7 p.m. on a Friday night, and Forester, dressed in a black pinstripe suit, has just delivered a keynote speech at the U.N. on “Adding Values in the Digital Era.” Now she simply wants to return to her apartment in the posh River House on the Upper East Side before jetting off to London, where she spends half the year. Sinking into a leather chair, she bids her assistant good-night. “She saves my life,” Forester says with a little sigh. Then she briskly switches gears, back to the calm, confident speaker of an hour ago who brought at least one audience member to tears with her call for “universal literacy.” If anyone can explain how high-speed Internet access can change your life, it’s Forester. “It’s probably too early to say this now,” she says, her blue eyes fixed on a point in the distance. “But someday, I’d love to say that broadband is a human right.”
Forester’s bets have paid off before. As a Pomona College graduate in 1976, she became the first employee of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Senate campaign when she boldly approached him at the Democratic state convention and asked if she could follow him around to snap photos for his admirers. The first company she owned, a small Puerto Rico-based cellular business called TPI, tripled in size and revenue every nine months until she sold it for nearly $100 million in 1995. In the early nineties, Forester filed applications for unused wireless frequencies in four major American cities, then sold them to Teligent in 1997 for more than $100 million in stocks and cash.
Today Forester ranks No. 4 on Fortune magazine’s list of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” in Europe. Her personal net worth is estimated to be more than $100 million. With her co-chairman, Michael Price, she has just raised $1 billion in private capital – the biggest deal of its kind, ever, in Europe. And in August, she quietly filed for an IPO with the SEC. She expects to launch it in the next six months.
The woman who counts Bill and Hillary among her closest friends (they vacation together on Martha’s Vineyard), is the ex-wife of Andy Stein, just married Sir Evelyn de Rothschild last week, and has thrown birthday parties for Prince Andrew bristles at the notion that her success has come from her society ties: “When I was building this business, no one knew who I was married to, or where I was partying.”
“I don’t remember how we met,” says Henry Kissinger. “She was just suddenly in my life.” Telecoms tycoon John Kluge, who became the richest man in America in the mid-eighties by investing in cellular when no one believed in it, met Forester when Stein was running for mayor; Kluge became her mentor and promptly set the 29-year-old lawyer to work buying up cellular companies across the U.S. for him. Nathan Myhrvold, Vernon Jordan, and Kissinger all agreed to serve on FirstMark’s board of directors. “It is less painful to do what she wants than to resist her,” Kissinger explains. Then he stops and corrects himself: “She is also very charming, so perhaps painful is the wrong word.”
Forester hasn’t been able to charm her way back into the U.S., however, since signing a non-compete agreement with Teligent in 1998. (Filing with the SEC does not violate the terms of the deal.) But you get the sense that a limited dominion won’t satisfy her for long: “I believe,” she says, with the persuasiveness Kissinger finds so irresistible, “that we are creating a new world.”