Sheila C. Johnson is Founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts. The company operates a collection of luxury properties in the US and the Caribbean that includes the Forbes Five-Star Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. Johnson has long been a powerful influence in the entertainment industry, starting with her work as founding partner of Black Entertainment Television (BET) which made her the first Black female billionaire in history.
She has served as executive producer of documentary and feature films and is founder and chair of the Middleburg Film Festival.
When we sat down last year on The Caring Economy, we discussed her meteoric rise as a Black female entrepreneur, a space that is still tiny compared to most other demographics. Our listeners get to learn how she made it and what she’s doing to scale her success to bring others along with her.
Johnson opens by saying, “I’m now in the third act of my life, but I have a first and a second act as well. I started out in a small town outside of Chicago, which was a great foundation for me. I really got started in music. I had some wonderful mentors along the way. Teachers really looked after me to make sure that I got into college. They were supportive. It was great community. It was diversified so we had all races and cultures there which was very enriching.”
This first chapter was that of a musical prodigy who excelled at the violin. Johnson had found her first love: music. She went on to become a concert violinist and the first African American to win a statewide violin competition in Illinois.
Then in 1969, Johnson married Robert Johnson, and in 1970, graduated from the University of Illinois with her B.A. degree in music. After graduation, Johnson worked as a music teacher at the private school, Sidwell Friends. In 1975, she founded a 140-member youth orchestra, Young Strings in Action. The group was invited to perform in the Middle Eastern nation of Jordan, where she was given the country’s top educational award by Jordan’s King Hussein.
In 1980, there came a second chapter in Johnson’s life. She and her husband co-founded Black Entertainment Television (BET); a cable network gearedtowards African American audiences. Johnson became BET’s executive vice president for corporate affairs, focusing on issues affecting the communities that BET served.And the network grew in fits and starts to become the BET we know today.
Yet as BET was growing, Johnson’s marriage was unwinding, ultimately seeing the couple divorcing and their company being sold. As Johnson says: “This was the second act of my life. In 2000, Bob got probably the best cable deal to date and cashed out.”
And as they cashed out of their business, they also divorced. “It was the best move I ever made in life,” she says. “I don’t regret what I went through because it’s made me stronger and I would never have been able to get to this third act of life, which is wonderful. I’ve never been happier or felt more successful because I’m able to control my life.”
That third chapter she sites is Johnson’s launch of a hospitality companyin Middleburg, Virginia, a town that was struggling financially. She says, “I could see all of the problems in the town, and it was almost a case of really helping it financially.” She went on to build a performing arts center, and then bought the farm of celebrated Washington socialite Pamela Harriman. That move was perhaps the greatest struggle she had to date.
“I went up there and at the time Robert Redford was visiting me because he had to Sundance Preserve and was really in a quandary of getting a new management company. So, we went up there and Robert Redford looked out on the town and said you’re in a really special place and you need to put a film festival here.”
Johnson valued Redford’s advice but as someone who dances to her own tune, she reached a great conclusion that she shares with listeners: “I told him what I was goingto do. That I was going to be the financial anchor for Middleburg. And to make a very long story short: it was a 10-year battle of getting this resort launched.”
The longer version of that short story is about the challenges of a Black outsider investing in the South. Johnson says: “I was very naïve. I forgot I was south of the Mason Dixon line. It was one of the nastiest fights — I thought my divorce was bad, but it was really good by comparison. I’d experienced racism but nothing at this level. You know what we’re going through right now with the post-Trump era and how everybody’s felt license now to hate. It really came out as I invested in Middleburg. It was very scary for me. My life was threatened. My kids’ lives were threatened.”
So how did Johnson prevail? She tells listeners that “every time I went into the hearings, I’d try telling them that I understand their fears – but I also never stooped to their level of debate. I toldthem that I understood their fearswould not make any design changes without Town Council approval, that I wanted this resort to be real asset to the community, something that they would be very proud of. And every time I heard wild rumors to build a high-rise of worse, I would call it out and ask, ‘Where are you getting the stuff from?’ and just counter the falsehoods and rumors. I just continued to persevere through it all.I mean, you don’t want to give up because then what messages are you sending to my kids and to the African American community. I will tell you that Virginia, and especially the Middleburg area, needed this diversity.”
Now well into her third chapter of life, her happiest, she is paying it all forward, taking others along with her. In 1999, Johnson left BET to pursue her own interests and to guide her daughter’s equestrian career. In 2002, Johnson became head of the Washington International Horse Show at the same time that shepurchased the Harriman farm which became the 350-acre estate into the Salamander Inn & Spa.
Johnson also became involved in the Washington Mystics Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) franchise, and in 2005 purchased it from former owner, Abe Pollin; this and similar moves in relation to the Washington Capitals (NHL) and the Washington Wizards (NBA), earned her the distinction of being the first woman to be a stakeholder in three professional sports franchises.
In 2016, she spearheaded the formation of WE Capital, a venture capital consortium to support and invest in female-led enterprises with a goal of promoting social impact and generating financial returns. She also served on the board of the Greater Washington Partnership (GWP), which seeks to strengthen the region’s global position as a center for commerce and innovation. Currently, she is Co-Chair of GWP’s Inclusive Growth Council, bringing together business leaders from across the region that will work together to make the Capital Region a national model for advancing equitable economic solutions.
Then just last month Johnson’s Salamander Resorts hotel group purchased the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C., for her a “longtime dream”. Of this dream realized, Johnson hopes that the purchase will not to just feel like a win for her and her team, but her hope is that it will open more doors for the success of other Black women business owners in the district.
“From the moment we opened the doors in Middleburg, when there were so many naysayers and there was so much that I went through, this is just the beginning,” says Johnson. “We’re going to grow this company, and we always strive for excellence, because that’s what the Salamander is.” Now one hopes that the Mandarin Oriental purchase will be another step forward for her and for so many others.
As with all guests on The Caring Economy, Johnsonexemplifies how leaders with purpose-driven lives and careers are shaping our contemporary workplace for the better.