Sheila Johnson was born on January 25, 1949, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. She co-founded Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 1979. The successful station focused on African American audiences and was sold to Viacom for $3 billion in 2002. Johnson is currently part-owner of sports teams including the Washington Capitals (NHL), the Washington Wizards (NBA) and the Washington Mystics (WNBA) and is the second wealthiest black female in the United States.
Entrepreneur Sheila Crump Johnson was born on January 25, 1949, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Her father, a neurosurgeon who worked for the Veterans Administration, and her mother, an accountant, were both accomplished pianists. Johnson inherited her parents' musical talents, beginning to play the violin seriously at the age of nine. Johnson also displayed flashes of her future entrepreneurial spirit as a child. She crafted purses out of oatmeal boxes and potholders, going door-to-door to sell them to her neighbors.
Due to her father's job with the Veterans Administration, Johnson's family was often on the move, relocating 12 times during her childhood before finally settling down for good in Maywood, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. There, she attended Irving High School before transferring to Proviso.
An accomplished young musician, in high school Johnson served as the concertmaster of the Illinois All-State Choir, and upon graduating from Proviso High School in 1966 she received a full scholarship to study music at the University of Illinois. Her assigned mentor during orientation week was an upperclassman named Robert Johnson, and the pair quickly fell in love. Two years later, in 1969, they married. Sheila Johnson sewed her own wedding dress from an "idiot-proof" McCall's pattern and the ceremony cost a grand total of $50.
Black Entertainment Television
In 1971, two years after her marriage, Johnson graduated from Illinois with a bachelor's degree in music performance and education. After her graduation, Johnson moved to Washington, D.C. There she landed a job teaching violin at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School, while her husband took a job with the Public Broadcasting Corporation. To supplement her meager teacher's salary, Sheila Johnson also began teaching private violin lessons out of her home.
The lessons grew into a successful enterprise, and when Johnson had enrolled 100 students she quit her job at Sidwell Friends to devote all her attention to private teaching. She took her students on several tours around the world, including a stop in Jordan where they performed for the King and Queen. And it was by running her own music instruction business that Johnson developed into a shrewd businesswoman. "I learned tax law, how to deduct for the space, even for toilet paper," she later recalled. "I always kept good records."
While Johnson concentrated on her music business, her husband managed to secure a $500,000 investment from cable TV mogul John Malone, allowing Robert and Sheila Johnson to co-found their own cable TV network, Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 1979. A decade later, in 1989, Sheila Johnson abandoned her music business to join BET full time as head of community relations. She also developed and produced her own show, Teen Summit, an acclaimed talk show where African-American youth discussed the pressing issues of the day.
However, as BET devoted more of its airtime to music videos, and as the videos grew increasingly sexually explicit, Johnson grew disenchanted with the direction of the network. She said, "I do worry about young kids at such an early age watching videos day in and day out where young women are ... being depicted in demeaning ways. Women and young girls think they should act like that in order to attract a man and behave that way in order to get through life." Johnson frequently expressed her grievances to her husband and received the unvarying response: "It's not about education, it's about entertainment."
Professional differences became personal differences, and Sheila and Robert Johnson divorced in 2002, splitting after 33 years of marriage. They have a daughter, Paige Johnson, a world class equestrian with Olympic ambitions, as well as a son, Brett Johnson. Two years before their divorce, in 2000, Robert Johnson sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion; both Johnsons now rank among the wealthiest African-Americans in the country.
Since her divorce, Sheila Johnson has developed into an extraordinarily successful entrepreneur in her own right. In 2005, she founded Salamander Hospitality, a hospitality and management company through which she owns and manages two resorts and an inn, among other properties. She is also the Vice Chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment; as the majority owner of the Washington Mystics WNBA franchise and a minority owner of the NBA's Washington Wizards and NHL's Washington Capitals, she is the first black woman with a stake in three professional sports teams. She is also a documentary film producer of acclaimed pictures such as A Powerful Noise (2008) and The Other City (2010), a film about the AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C.
In 2005, Johnson married for a second time to the Honorable William T. Newman, Jr.—the judge who presided over her divorce proceedings three years before. Johnson and Newman did not meet at the divorce proceedings; they had actually acted in a play together many years before. After her divorce hearing finished, Johnson recalls, "I asked if I could approach the bench." She then walked up to Newman and asked, "Do you remember me?"
With an estimated net worth of $400 million, she ranks second only to Oprah Winfrey among the wealthiest black females in the United States and seventh among all African-Americans. President Barack Obama recently appointed her to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and she also sits on the board of numerous foundations and universities. Asked what business model has allowed her to achieve such incredible success, Johnson revealed that her business model is not to follow any model: "When I instinctively feel it is the right move to make, I do it," she explained, adding, "And I don't do it in a stupid way, I do it where I can see really the upside."
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