Johnson, in red cap, wants to inspire underprivileged girls.
Thu, Nov 16, 2006
Sheila Johnson Knows How To Balance It All
Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET, has an empire that includes sports teams and a five-star resort. So, how does she find the time to save the world as well?
This story first appeared in November/December 2006
Some people are satisfied with one career, others are happy with two, but Sheila Johnson is on her third and may not stop there. In fact, if you count philanthropic and charitable work, then she’s had a fourth career for years. “I was a violinist and music teacher, then co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), and now I’m in the hospitality business,” says the best-known lifelong resident of the Middleburg, Va., area. (Bi-coastal actor Robert Duvall wins “Most Famous.”) “But, I’d say that, on a percentage basis, I spend 65 percent of my time on charitable work.”
Case in point: In January 2006, Johnson was named an International Ambassador of CARE, one of the world’s largest private international humanitarian organizations. CARE ambassadors include celebrities such as supermodel Christy Turlington Burns and actress Meg Ryan, who help make aware the plight of impoverished people worldwide. During a trip to Guatemala in August, as part of a recently launched campaign targeted at women (called “I Am Powerful”), Johnson visited several villages and conducted hands-on entrepreneurial clinics designed to help women achieve economic independence. Because the culture in Guatemala is chauvinistic—girls are not allowed to go to school, for instance—women are not generally part of the workforce. CARE’s programs are working to break this cycle by helping women independently pursue their own business endeavors.
“It was a real eye-opening experience,” says Johnson. “We are trying to empower women to take charge of and be responsible for their own lives, and stop the cycle of poverty that exists globally.” During the trip with her husband and son, Johnson saw firsthand how CARE is teaching women to become entrepreneurs in their own right. “Whether it’s raising chickens or flowers or weaving garments, having their own business gives them a sense of freedom. It’s so important that women learn how to take care of themselves, so that if the husband dies—or walks—they can take care of their families. It not only stops the cycle of poverty, it also gives them incredible self-esteem,” she says.
Throughout the trip, Johnson immersed herself in the lives of the women she met, and heard their struggles and triumphs. “These are really remarkable and courageous women,” she says. One highlight of her trip was watching her son, Brett, age 15, learning from the women and their children as well as witnessing the struggles of impoverished people. Guatemala was the first place Johnson visited for this particular CARE program; the next will most likely be South Africa.
Achieving independence is something Johnson knows about firsthand. As the popular Merrill Lynch ad put it, she made her money the old-fashioned way—she earned it. In 2001, she and former husband Robert Johnson sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion dollars. When the sale was complete, Johnson, by then comfortably ensconced with her children in Middleburg, began a series of business and charitable ventures that seem to have grown exponentially ever since.
The hospitality business, career number three, encompasses Market Salamander in Middleburg, whose sister market will open in Palm Beach, Fla., by the end of the year; the high-end Salamander Resort & Spa under development in Middleburg; and the up-and-operating Woodlands Resort & Inn in Charleston, S.C., which Johnson describes as a “five-star, five-diamond” property. In 2000, Washington sports and entertainment mogul Abe Pollin asked Johnson if she would like to buy the Washington Mystics, D.C.’s WNBA team. She did, and then went to Ted Leonsis with the idea of folding the Mystics into his Lincoln Holdings empire. He agreed, and Johnson became the 11th partner in Lincoln Holdings, which also owns the Washington Capitals.
In addition to serving on a number of boards, Johnson has spoken all over the world on behalf of the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, a cause with which Johnson has long been deeply involved. “Sexual trafficking in both women and children is a thriving industry in this country and abroad. It’s definitely out there, and it’s definitely horrific, and we have to put more time and dollars into stopping it.”
In 2005, Johnson took time from her peripatetic activities to get married. It all began when she walked into court to get her divorce and the judge recognized her as someone with whom he’d been in a play 33 years ago. Johnson says, “He asked to be recused, but they said there was no conflict because we hadn’t seen each other for so long. So about three weeks after the divorce he asked me out. He is truly a kind man, and he gives me the space to do what I have to do.” The wedding was an extravagant affair complete with 60,000 flowers, a stunning Bob Mackie wedding gown, and a 400-pound wedding cake designed by New York legend Sylvia Weinstock, aka the Leonardo da Vinci of cakes.
Given all the directions in which Sheila Johnson has expanded her empire, she never loses her focus on the problems of women in the world, be they women in high places in business or those struggling to make their lives—and those of their children—better in Third World villages. “There’s a well-known song with a line that goes something like ‘women carry the world on their hips,’ and I’m reminded of it now because I truly believe that women carry the weight of the world,” says Johnson. “We have the power to truly make a difference; we just have to work to discover our capabilities and support one another.”