Celebrate Sheila Johnson, BET Co-founder & America’s First African-American Female Billionaire

As Black History Month 2019 draws to a close, MWBC celebrates mega-entrepreneur Sheila Johnson. Sheila demonstrated her entrepreneurial ingenuity at an early age when she began creating purses out of oatmeal canisters and sold them in her neighborhood. Years later, she co-founded Black Entertainment Television, followed by several other profitable enterprises, and is considered the first African-American woman billionaire. She is also the only black woman to have partial ownership of three professional sports franchises.

“Don’t ever lose sight of who you are and your own power.” ~Sheila Johnson

Sheila Crump was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in 1949 to George P. Crump, a neurosurgeon with the Veterans Administration, and Marie Iris Crump, an accountant. Both her parents were gifted pianists, and with their encouragement, Sheila excelled in music at a young age. She became an accomplished violinist, which led to a full scholarship to the University of Illinois where she earned a B.S. in music education and met her future husband, Robert L. Johnson. They married in 1969, and two years later moved to Washington, D.C.

While Robert focused on his career at the Public Broadcasting Corporation, Sheila shared her musical abilities and passion as a violin teacher at the Sidwell Friends School. Seeking supplemental income, she began offering private lessons. Over time, Sheila’s private music instruction became so popular, she left her full-time teaching position and transitioned into her new role—female business owner.

After stabilizing her music instruction business, Sheila and Robert embarked on a new entrepreneurial venture in 1979. With an initial investment of $500,000, the Johnsons founded a groundbreaking entertainment network, Black Entertainment Television (BET), which delivered a variety of programming based on the unique interests and needs of the African American community. In 2000, after more than two decades of successful network management and growth, the Johnsons sold BET for $3 billion.

True to her entrepreneurial spirit, in 2005 Sheila founded another company, Salamander Hotels and Resorts. In her current role as CEO, she oversees a portfolio of luxury properties in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Sheila later created her own accessory line of scarves and invested in several other businesses, including an aviation company and a line of French bath and beauty products.

Sheila’s philanthropic contributions reflect the areas she’s passionate about, such as supporting music and the arts, fighting global poverty and disease and educating African American leaders, just to name a few. She endowed the Daniel J. Perrino Chair in Music and the Susan Starrett Violin Scholarships as a way of honoring two of her college music professors. In 2006, she was appointed the global ambassador for CARE, a humanitarian agency that fights poverty through female empowerment, and subsequently raised $8 million for the organization. She is also a member of Accordia Global Health Foundation’s International Council, supporting efforts to eradicate infectious diseases in Africa. To help support emerging leaders primarily focused on eliminating disparities in underserved African American communities, she endowed the Sheila C. Johnson Leadership Fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.

During African American History Month, Maryland Women’s Business Center celebrates Sheila Johnson and her lifetime of entrepreneurial achievements in the areas of music, media, hospitality, sports, and leadership. Her professional and philanthropic efforts have inspired tremendous positive change for women, especially women of color, marginalized communities, and underserved populations. In this same entrepreneurial spirit, MWBC continues to help women build successful businesses and achieve financial independence through training, counseling, and resources.

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