BET co-founder Sheila Johnson already made history in television. Now she’s making major moves in Hollywood.
Way back in 1979, Johnson and her then-husband Robert Johnson created the breakthrough network Black Entertainment Television, which was the first ever cable TV franchise targeting African Americans. Then in 2001 the couple sold BET to Viacom in an all-stock deal for $2.9 billion including debt. “Cash from the share sales makes up a large portion of her estimated $700 million net worth,” reports Forbes. Johnson is ranked No. 22 on Forbes new list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women.
Since that time Sheila, 66, has been busy on various projects such as opening the Salamander Resort and Spa in Northern Virginia and a hotel management firm. Now she has a passion for film.
“I really believe that African Americans have lost their voice. That’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing in the general mainstream media. There’s not that area where we can come together and really talk about a Ferguson [Missouri] or talk about what’s going on in the police community and all the racial turmoil. BET was supposed to be that voice. And we don’t have it,” said Johnson, who also owns stakes in three D.C.-based professional sports teams (the NBA’s Wizards, the NHL’s Capitals and the WNBA’s Mystics) and a private jet charter service.
Johnson has also been funding documentaries and films focusing on the African-American experience, including Lee Daniel’s The Butler, in which she was the first investor. Johnson invested $2 million into the production, and then said she wanted to encourage other prominent African-American philanthropists and celebrities to also invest in the film.
It was not only a fulfilling investment, it was a wise one. The Butler earned roughly $200 million at the box office.
Currently Johnson and The Butler producer Pam Williams have partnered on several other projects, including a TV miniseries based on a forthcoming book about Thurgood Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Other projects include the story of the 1980s Cadillac-favoring “Welfare Queen” who stole multiple identities in order to get more benefits.
“The men get all the credit for everything. We get airbrushed out of their lives,” she says. “I think that more than anything the perception out there was that I did nothing: That I just sat home and ate bon bons and did nothing but helped the family grow financially or emotionally, and that I think was the most painful part of all.” When she and Robert co-founded BET money was so tight Sheila made money on the side teaching private music lessons. And while she didn’t begin as an executive at BET, she reveals she signed for the company’s first loan and she was one of three original board members.
In 1990 Sheila joined BET full-time as vice president for corporate affairs and in 1991 the Johnsons took the company public making it the first African-American-controlled firm listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Then in 1990 they took it private.
“It’s champions like (Johnson) who put their money where their mouths are and say, ‘I’m going to keep funding African American voices and TV shows,” says the Butler producer Williams, “and hopefully she’s not alone in that.”