The Connector

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: April 5, 2011


African women who sell their handmade purses on roadsides near their villages. American art students who teach them how to make their bags more marketable. Would-be entrepreneurs in need of startup money. Banks, private donors, business school graduates all working together to launch a micro-lending program.

At the center of these varied groups, interests and activities, and many more, is Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, entrepreneur, mother of two and committed philanthropist. Rather than just sitting on boards or lending her name to charitable undertakings, she rolls up her sleeves, does her research and keeps her eyes open for unfilled needs—the bigger the better. Then she leverages her resources and contacts and fills those needs. One acquaintance describes her as a “fulcrum.”

Leveraging Relationships

A lifelong passion for fostering relationships and helping others has contributed to Sheila Johnson’s talent for connecting people to achieve great things. Here’s how she does it.

Connecting. Since childhood, Johnson has taken the time to get to know people of all ages and all walks of life. She finds that people enrich her life, and she points out: "No one is ever above anyone else."

Looking for needs and opportunities. Johnson doesn’t simply sit on boards or lend her name to charitable causes; she pays attention, does her research, and taps her own creativity to think of ways disparate groups can work together in mutually beneficial efforts.

Maintaining a competent and caring staff. Johnson’s many activities could exhaust just about anyone. She relies on her staff to help keep all the balls in the air.

Setting Priorities. "I have tried to be everything to everyone, and you can get burned out very quickly. You have to set your priorities, what’s most important in your life. My children and my husband [Arlington County Circuit Court Chief Judge William T. Newman] are the most important people, and they always come first."

Giving back. "You can’t be successful in your own business until you also learn to reach out to others."

Johnson has broken through barriers and achieved many firsts in her lifetime. The sale of BET to Viacom in 2000 made her and co-founder and former husband Robert L. Johnson very wealthy. Sheila Johnson used her earnings from the BET deal to pursue several entrepreneurial ventures, most notably her company Salamander Hospitality, which comprises luxury properties in South Carolina, Florida and Virginia, where she lives.

She also earned an invite into what she calls the “old boys network” of professional sports, resulting in her ownership in the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals—making her the first African-American woman to be an owner or partner in three pro sports teams.

But Johnson doesn't measure her success in records or even dollars and cents.  Instead, she places value in the number of lives she can touch, the connections she can foster. (Read How Entrepreneur Sheila Johnson Leverages Relationships.)

As I have gotten into my professional life–whether it was from playing the violin, or starting BET or what I am doing now—I feel as though I’ve got so much to offer,” she says. “I want to always be able to give a piece of myself in some kind of way and to connect people with others.”

Johnson says such humanitarian leanings have been lifelong: She remembers making friends with the janitors and cafeteria workers at her Chicago-area junior high and high schools, as well as performing her violin for senior citizens during the holidays.

“And that was my way of connecting and sharing and bringing some joy into their lives, even though one lady said, ‘I don’t want to hear that crap anymore,’ ” Johnson recalls. “She just cracked me up, and I would just give her a big hug. Even that connection was very special.”

The people skills developed in those formative years proved useful, especially during her time with BET, when Johnson worked closely on Teen Summit. The award-winning talk show, which debuted in 1989 and ran through 2002, served as an open forum for youths to discuss everyday issues.

“One of the biggest things that I am very proud of is that show,” she says. “I was able to reach out nationally and into the Caribbean to really be able to start a dialogue among teens. … The show was able to open up lines of communication, and I remember so many young people saying, ‘All we want is someone to talk to and be honest with.’ ”

Understanding teen issues and trying to buoy the nation’s youth—especially in her own backyard of Washington, D.C.— remains a top priority for Johnson. And she recently echoed the lessons from her Teen Summit years when she welcomed 800 young people to D.C.’s Verizon Center for HIV testing and a panel discussion.

“So maybe we’ll turn three people around,” she says, “but at least I was able to connect with those two or three teenagers.”

 In the face of staggering infection rates that continue to climb, Johnson was inspired to create a documentary, The Other City, about the AIDS crisis in D.C. Her fourth film project to date, the movie premiered to much acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2010.

“If I see something that I instinctively know I’ve got to do something about, I go for it,” Johnson says. “Making this film and actually being behind the camera and going into the situations of these victims, I really have felt like I needed to stay in their lives in some kind of way to help them. They were able to open up their lives in a transparent way to hundreds of millions of people— this is the least I can do, to stay in touch with them and continue to help them in some way.”

Johnson also strives to connect with the young employees within her business ventures, including the sports teams. She says she hopes to be a role model—and not a mentor—for those in need of guidance.

“I think the word ‘mentor’ has been overused,” she says. “Mentors and role models are different. Because if you show young people how to behave and how they are to live a life of honesty and responsibility, they are going to learn more from that than if you say, ‘OK, I’ll take you under my wing,’ and you meet with them once a month or something. They need to see role models, and we don’t have enough of them out there.”

Empowering women has been another recurring theme in Johnson’s life, whether indirectly through setting examples as a pioneering businesswoman, or directly, like through her efforts with CARE. The global humanitarian organization named Johnson a global ambassador in 2006, and the following year she issued the “I Am Powerful” challenge with a $4 million gift. The program asked individuals and businesses nationwide to join a global movement to empower women in the fight against poverty. Matching donations dollar for dollar, Johnson helped raise more than $8 million for the cause in less than a year.

Through CARE and other efforts, she hopes to send women a message of self-respect and independence. “Women have to respect themselves, take responsibility for their lives, have some humility and make sure that they stay focused on their goals,” she says.

It was through her work with CARE that Johnson learned about the African women who make handbags, as well as others who fashion beautiful jewelry out of scrap materials such as newspaper. As chair of the board of governors of Parsons The New School for Design in New York (where she funded an entire design center), Johnson provided a grant for Parsons artists to develop a business plan to help the African artisans make their handbags more marketable.

Considering all of Johnson’s varied goals, as mother, businesswoman and philanthropist, it’s not surprising that she has an incredibly hectic schedule. She says each day and each week may be different. During a conversation last fall, she said she had been focusing on “rebuilding my front office with the Washington Mystics.” There may be weeks when she’s traveling, checking in on her hotels. On any given day, she may spend hours in meetings, then catch a game in the evening, inviting other business leaders to join her in her box and afterward, visit with the players in the locker room.

“There is not a day or week or a minute or an hour where I am bored,” she says.

Yet, the unceasingly energetic woman, who of ten wakes up before dawn, deliberately makes time to connect with her staffers on a regular basis: “Every Thursday, I have what I call ‘catch-up’ meetings where I bring all my staff, and they report to me what’s going on, what is not going on, what should be going on and what we need to do. And those meetings are very important because that’s how I stay in touch with everything.”

Maintaining open lines of communication with her staff is the foundation of both their success and hers, Johnson says. “We respect one another. We love one another. We can fight, we can laugh and we can be ourselves. They have all bought into my vision. And that is very important, that you have a staff that understands your vision and where you want to go because they are on the bus with you, and to make it work, they have to be on the bus with you.”

While staying financially solvent is a common goal for her team, ultimately, she says their collective efforts have a more altruistic aim. “I tell my staff all the time, ‘Your job is to help me be successful so that I am able to give back to others.’ It’s nice to have a healthy bank balance, but to be able to touch others in many ways and make their lives better is the real end goal. And, if you don’t want to do that, you are taking the purpose of living for granted.”

Next up for the indomitable Johnson: a micro-financing program to help Virginia women fund and launch business ventures. A consortium of banks and private donors has helped fund the program, while business and engineering students and graduates from Virginia Commonwealth University are helping develop business plans.

Also upcoming is a community project in a blighted Richmond neighborhood, Church Hill, where Johnson hopes to build a town square that will attract new businesses and, in turn, provide jobs to the area’s unemployed, especially women. And, again drawing on her resources at Parsons, Johnson will bring the school’s designs for urban gardening to the neighborhood—yet another example of her passion for building and leveraging mutually beneficial connections.

The bottom line of all her efforts is two-fold. Yes, Johnson wants to improve the lives of the disadvantaged, the victimized, the under-served. But she also hopes to trigger a pay-it-forward-type ripple effect, inspiring those whose lives she has touched to then go out and help someone else—something that can be achieved even without social status or financial sway.

“I don’t think you have to have money in order to give back,” she says. “Giving your time, giving a part of yourself is important.”

She points to her second film, A Powerful Noise, as proof. Shot in Vietnam, Mali and Bosnia, it centers on “three exceptional women who had no money whatsoever,” Johnson says, but who made profound differences in their communities.

“That documentary is a lesson in itself,” Johnson says. “As I tell many women, you could just invite kids from your block into your living room and talk to them, help them after school, let them do their homework in a safe haven. Just help them in some way. And, just by improving your one block, you could improve your entire neighborhood. “If everyone did that, our world would be terrific.”


Strength of the Salamander

In 2002, when Johnson purchased her farm in The Plains, Va., outside Middleburg, she acquired more than just property—she also got a personal hero and a mascot out of the deal.

The farm’s owner was former governor of Rhode Island and World War II vet Bruce Sundlun, whom Johnson likens to Hogan of Hogan’s Heroes. “His unit was shot down, and, of course, he was able to escape,” she explains. “And he went to fight for the French Resistance for a little bit, and they said, ‘No, you need to go back in and rescue your unit.’ And they gave him the codename ‘Salamander.’ ”

Sundlun later named his farm after the amphibian, which is one of the only creatures in the world that can walk through fire and survive. Johnson had just endured a bitter divorce and found the name appropriate.

“I said to him, ‘This is perfect,’” she recalls. “And I asked him if I could brand it. And he said, ‘Not a problem.’ ”

In addition to her company Salamander Hospitality, Johnson has passed on the inspiring moniker to the members of her homeless soccer team, the Lady Salamanders.

“I told them that, in their new life, now they are going to be the animals that have walked through fire, and they are still coming out alive,” she says. “They’ve got the resistance and encouragement and the perseverance to make their lives work.”

Another namesake, the highly anticipated Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, is slated to open in 2012 or 2013.