Sheila Johnson, America’s first Black female billionaire, talks her 2nd entrepreneurial act after cofounding BET: ‘I see business opportunities and just walk through the door’

Good afternoon.

In Roman folklore, salamanders are fabled to be able to walk through fire and come out alive. Scientifically, they can regenerate entire limbs. These traits make the amphibian a fitting representative for Sheila Johnson’s second entrepreneurial act as founder of the fast-growing luxury hospital company Salamander Hotels and Resorts.

Perhaps to her chagrin, Johnson is best known as the cofounder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), the media mecca that earned her the title of the first Black woman billionaire in the U.S. following a nearly $3 billion sale to Viacom in the early 2000s.

The septuagenarian is a soft talker, speaking with a measured intonation and purposefully choosing her words as she sits with me to discuss her upcoming book Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph

She’s surprisingly candid in recounting her experience at the once-esteemed T.V. network; her pantheon of media executives, political contacts, and other champagne-swilling plutocrats; BET’s ascent as the go-to destination for Black audiences; its eventual decline; and, most salaciously, the infidelity of her then-husband and cofounder, which plagued the cable network and for years filled Washington D.C.’s gossip rags.

When I ask why she’s writing the book now, she doesn’t hesitate. “I’ve suppressed so much in my life, and the pain has been terrible.” She pauses and pivots. “Everyone else has been telling my story, and there’s isn’t accurate. I needed to take my power back.”

Johnson, now worth $850 million by Forbes estimate, is pensive when reflecting on her time at BET. On the one hand, she’s gratified by the impact made—such as partnering with the Clinton administration to reduce teen pregnancies—and successfully convincing advertisers that the Black audience is worth targeting. “There was no network that really appealed to the African American voice. And our voices needed to be heard,” she tells me. 

But there were dark moments, too. Cheating. Theft. Siphoning of funds. Drug runs. The berating and belittling of rank-and-file employees and the network’s reliance on music videos glorifying drugs, violence, and misogynoir. “I was not happy with what I was looking at on the screen,” Johnson says bleakly.

Her temperament, by contrast, completely changes as she speaks animatedly about her “third act.” Before launching BET, Johnson was a musician, touring globally with an orchestra. “I stayed in some of the finest hotels in Europe and learned what luxury was all about. I’d come back to the States and think, ‘This isn’t luxury.’” After leaving BET, and scarred by a very public and bitter divorce, she left Washington D.C. for the suburbs to look inward and plan her next steps. “I could have stayed home and just enjoyed my money, but I wanted to prove that I could create a business on my own because, at BET, I wasn’t credited for how big a role I played in its success.” 

That business opportunity materialized as a 340-acre plot of land in Middleburg, Virginia, dubbed the “nation’s horse and hunt capital”—and situated south of the Mason-Dixon line, which brought its own challenges. “This was a town that was totally bankrupt but so bucolic,” Johnson says. “I thought that building [a resort] could become the economic engine, and I could visualize it.” She was a bit naive, she admits. Residents didn’t see it that way, protesting against the project, racially harassing her, sending hate mail and death threats, and prompting her to hire a security team. 

It didn’t help that she’d initially hired the wrong people to win over the town—a big learning opportunity for her. “They did more destruction than help. They were combative, arguing with the community. They just wanted to spend my money on stupid stuff,” she says. “So I fired them.”

Johnson distinctly remembers the day the town voted on whether to approve Salamander Middleburg Resort. She won by just one vote. “I was sitting next to my attorney, and when the last guy voted yes, [my attorney] said, ‘Sit on your hands and do not react.’ But the tears just came.”

I ask her why she didn’t pack her bags and jet off to another town, one that would welcome her investment with open arms. “Believe me, there were other nearby towns. But I don’t like quitting. I don’t like failure. And I knew if I could make it work, it would be historical.”

Today, she’s curated a growing portfolio of luxury properties and lifestyle businesses, including seven resorts spanning Montego Bay, Jamaica, and Aspen. Her 900-acre Innisbrook Golf Resort in Tampa is part of the PGA championship tour, and she wants to develop three more resorts in short order.

She’s also invested in sports teams, making her the only Black woman to own stakes in three professional leagues: WNBA Mystics, NBA Wizards, and NHL Capitals.

I ask her if she’s driven by being the first. She denies that she is. “I see business opportunities and just walk through the door when they come along.”

In somewhat of a cinematic arc, the very company she first launched was reportedly for sale until August of this year. Would she buy BET if it returns to the chopping block? She wouldn’t, but depending on future ownership, she’s happy to serve as a consultant.

That might surprise some, given BET’s impact not only on cable TV programming but also on the Black diaspora. I tell her as much, noting that it’s part of her legacy. She’s unperturbed. “I just want to be remembered as a woman who never quits, who has a passion for life, and a brain for business.”

Ruth Umoh