Sheila C. Johnson: The First Black Woman Billionaire

Success stories of Black women millionaires and business leaders are often heard, but rarely do we get a chance to know the origin stories of Black women billionaires like Sheila C. Johnson, the co-founder of BET and CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, who was able to build up her fortune as a trailblazer in business.

Born in Pennsylvania to George P. Crump, a neurosurgeon and Marie Iris Crump, an accountant and raised in Maywood, Illinois, Johnson grew up to graduate from Proviso East High School in Chicago. She later attended the University of Illinois obtaining a B.A. degree in music.

As an accomplished violinist, co-founder of a popular cable network, co-owner of professional sports franchises, CEO of a chain of hotels and resorts, Johnson has amassed quite an accomplished resume all while triumphing some remarkable feats in the industry.

Her billionaire mindset didn’t come until later in her career, but Johnson credits her skills as a violinist with shaping her path in business.

“Things don’t come overnight in life – you have to persevere and stay focused. Music does that for you,” said Johnson to Reuters. “It also teaches you to be a better listener and communicator. If you are part of a string quartet, you have to be focused on the conductor and know exactly when to come in, because if your mind wanders in the least, you are finished.”

Sheila C. Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television/ Getty Images

This focused mindset followed her when transitioning to founding one of the few cable networks that cater to Black audiences. Johnson with the help of her former husband Bob L. Johnson, co-founded BET with a vision to bring Black voices to the masses during a time where that kind of goal in the cable world was nonexistent.

John Malone, an angel investor for BET, helped contribute $500,000 in startup money to get the network up and running. According to Johnson, it was his funding alone that kept BET afloat until their eventual sale to Viacom, the current parent company to the cable network.

According to Urban Intellectuals, while at BET, Johnson created an original program called Teen Summit that focused on issues affecting teenagers.

After co-founding BET, Johnson then went on to work on her personal business portfolio that consisted of investing in planes, real estate, horses, and of course hotels under the Salamander brand, Forbes reports.

Salamander Hotels & Resorts, a hospitality and management company founded in Middleburg, Virginia in 2005 proved to be a challenging enterprise for Johnson to create as she battled a combination of regulatory issues, an economic downturn, and protests from the town, according to Black Enterprise.

“I got racial hate mail. My life was threatened; my kids’ lives were threatened,” she told Black Enterprise Business Report in 2007. “I was determined to make it work.”

Getty Images/ Larry Busacca

Despite the obstacles she endured, the execution of Johnson’s multi-pronged strategic business practices developed a large portfolio of luxury hotels that have elevated the hospitality industry. She paid it forward to the town’s community and expanded to build other locations in Florida, South Carolina, and Jamaica.

In addition to her investments and business ventures, Johnson also produced the critically-acclaimed 2013 film “The Butler,” which went on to receive several award nominations and wins, according to Forbes.

Johnson is also Vice Chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the majority owner of the Washington Mystics WNBA franchise and a minority owner of the NBA’s Washington Wizards and NHL’s Washington Capitals.

Her combined business portfolio, independent businesses, and joint ventures all contributed to Johnson’s wealth and becoming the first Black woman to amass a billion-dollar net worth, according to WSJ.

Johnson is an example and role model for many who wish to follow in her footsteps across different industries. Her contributions and achievements have earned her the right to call herself a self-made woman, a title Forbes graced her with as well.

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