You may know Sheila Johnson as the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and America’s “first Black female billionaire.” What you may not know is that her road to success was not paved with platinum. In her new memoir, Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph, Johnson details the origin of how she became one of the most influential, powerful, and resilient leaders of our time. Walking readers through the first act of her life – childhood, and her second act – meeting Bob Johnson and starting BET in 1980, Sheila portrays a woman who has struggled through hardship and adversity. At sixteen years old, Johnson’s father decided to leave his wife for another woman, which sent Sheila’s mother into a negative downspin and broke her trust with people. Johnson swore to never give her power to a man in the same fashion, but that’s exactly what happened in her 33-year marriage to Bob Johnson.
Now in her third act in life as CEO and founder of Salamander Resorts and Hotels, Johnson’s book describes how she has found love again, become the first woman to own stake in three professional sport franchises, and continues to expand her influence in the philanthropic and business worlds. She is a testament to the power of resilience and the importance of growing from experiences to make changes in yourself as well as in the world.
Poet and novelist Charles Bukowski wrote, “Things get bad for all of us, almost continually, and what we do under the constant stress reveals who/what we are.” Johnson reveals who she is by putting her heart on paper, and we all will become stronger after finishing her book. I spoke with Sheila Johnson over video from her Salamander Washington DC property.
Noël Burgess: How did you choose the name Salamander for your hotel brand?
Johnson: The person I bought it from only owned the farm for about 8 months. The farm’s name was Coswald. I was told you shouldn’t change the name of a farm, but there was no way I was keeping that name. I asked what the previous name was before Coswald and it was Salamander. That owner was a WWII fighter pilot who was shot down over Nazi-occupied Belgium. His entire unit was captured, but he was able to escape and make it across into allied territory in France. He fought for the French Resistance and they gave him the code name Salamander as it is the only animal that can walk through fire and still come out alive. I love that story so much because if you do cut off its limbs, they will regenerate, which resonated with me. I was going through a point in my life where I was walking through a lot of fire and I was going to come out ahead of that.
Burgess: “Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Triumph” was just released, what were you gifted from writing this book?
Johnson: Healing. I had been through a lot and it’s not a case where I’m airing my dirty laundry. I’m talking about what really went down. It’s their dirty laundry. It’s their problems, which were heaped on me and my children, and I wanted to tell my story. There have been so many other stories out there that weren’t true and I wanted people to understand what I did with BET. I really wanted to push my ex-husband [Bob Johnson] out there to give him the face of BET. I was going to be his cheerleader; I was going to be his rock. I was going to be his backbone and to make sure that he was going to be successful. And in the case of all of that, as we moved forward, I got erased. I was losing my identity and the work that I had done with BET. So, it was important that I wanted to tell my side of the story.
There were so many people that said, “Look, you have got to tell your story,” you know, and the beauty of all of this, even though I went through the adversity that people will read about in the book, the inspiration that I wanted to get out there is no matter all the headwinds that you come into, all of the pitfalls that you’re going to go through, never give up your dreams, follow your passion, and what adversity does is, it makes you stronger.
Noël Burgess: With your experience and the resources at your disposal, why hotels?
Sheila Johnson: My daughter was a really well-known show jumper and I was visiting the village of Middleburg, VA quite a bit. I would stay at the Red Fox Inn and came to really enjoy the area, but I noticed they just didn’t have an economic anchor. I’ve always been in love with hotels, especially luxury. I’ve been intrigued, especially over in Europe, on how those hotels are set up, the quality of service, and the ambience and environment that they create. I was going through a transition in my life and I wanted to settle down in a place where I knew I could be happy. I was drawn to that area so once I decided to settle down there, I realized I wanted to help make the area better.
I bought 340 acres and decided I was going to build the most beautiful resort. Also, the proximity of Dulles Airport being 30 minutes away and DC an hour was advantageous. There really wasn’t a close destination for members on the Hill or corporations out of Washington. In the beginning my focus was on the spa as I wanted the property to be a health and wellness retreat, which has really blossomed. But also, people just love the area and they love the resort itself and what it offers.
Burgess: I heard you met some resistance from the town in the beginning when you wanted to build?
Recently, Loudon County gave me a very prestigious award and I delivered a speech, thanking them for the award and how I was going to covet this award. But I also wanted to remind them of what they put me through. I mean, the town is now one of the wealthiest historic towns in the state of Virginia because of the tax revenue that they get from Salamander. They used to call me the ‘rabble rouser’ and tell me what I couldn’t do, but look at us now. Together we put Loudon County on the map.
Burgess: What does the title “First American female Black Billionaire” mean to you?
Johnson: Well, first of all, I find it to be a burden. When people do label me with that, I kind of bristle because there are a lot of very wealthy people out there, but it’s how you conduct your life, how you use your money, how you really help and get engaged in community. And I call that the ‘double bottom line.’ Maybe the title will always follow me, but it’s annoying. I don’t know which way people want to take it, but I want to make sure I live my life to the fullest and am able to help others.
Burgess: What’s next for Salamander?
Johnson: We are so focused on the DC, Aspen, and Jamaica properties with those renovations. Also, the Middleburg Film Festival in October which is going into its 11th year. There are so many top films this year including Rustin, based on Bayard Rustin the architect of 1963’s momentous March on Washington. And we just wrapped the 3rd annual Family Reunion with 40 of the top chefs of color from all over the country. Over the 3 and a half days we had panel discussions on financing restaurants, food from the African diaspora, and Black-owned businesses.