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Robert L. Johnson is an American entrepreneur best known as the founder of the BET channel and as the country’s first African-American billionaire.
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Robert L. Johnson was born on April 8, 1946, in Hickory, Mississippi. Johnson founded Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 1979 with his wife, Sheila. He became the first African-American billionaire after selling the network to Viacom in 2001. Johnson has since started a new business, the RLJ Companies, and has invested in an NBA team, a film company, and political causes and campaigns.
Robert L. Johnson was born in Hickory, Mississippi, on April 8, 1946. He spent the majority of his childhood in Freeport, Illinois. Johnson graduated from Freeport High School in 1964, and studied history at the University of Illinois. He then earned a master’s degree in international affairs from Princeton University.
In 1979, Johnson and his wife Sheila founded Black Entertainment Television, the first cable network targeting the African-American market. It was launched in January 1980, initially broadcasting for two hours a week. In 1991, BET became the first African-American-owned company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. BET has continued to grow since that time, reaching tens of millions of homes. The network has expanded to include other traditional and digital channels.
In 2000, Viacom announced plans to purchase BET. Johnson’s majority stake earned him over a billion dollars, making him the richest African American in the United States at that time and the first African-American billionaire. Johnson continued to be the company’s chairman and CEO for several years before leaving BET to lead the RLJ Companies.
Johnson developed the RLJ Companies following the sale of BET to Viacom. RLJ is a holding company and asset management firm handling a portfolio of companies in the financial services, real estate, hospitality, professional sports, film production, automotive and gaming industries. Johnson has referred to RLJ as his “second act.”
Johnson has invested in several notable companies and organizations beyond the reach of RLJ. He was the first African-American principal owner of a North American major-league sports franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats. In 2006, Johnson founded Our Stories Films with partner Harvey Weinstein. The company focuses on family-friendly movies intended for African-American audiences. In 2011, Our Stories released the romantic-comedy feature Jumping the Broom.
In addition to his business ventures, Johnson has involved himself in politics. In 2007, Johnson organized a tour of African-American business leaders to Liberia. This trip led to the creation of the Liberia Enterprise Development Fund. Johnson publicly called for African-American support of Liberia, on the model of Jewish support for Israel. Johnson received criticism for his rebuke of Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary election, in favor of Hillary Clinton.
Johnson was married to Sheila Johnson from 1969 to 2002. The couple, who cofounded BET, divorced a year after selling the network to Viacom. They have two children. Sheila Johnson received one of the largest documented settlements in United States history and subsequently married the judge who presided over the divorce proceedings.
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