SHEILA JOHNSON is an entrepreneur who owns resorts and sports teams and produces blockbuster movies. She also fights AIDS and poverty, plays and teaches the violin and, well, there’s more.
As she breezes down the hallway of the stylish Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Va., owner Sheila Johnson suddenly stops and stoops down to pick up a piece of trash that spoils what is an otherwise immaculate floor. Seeing one of the resort’s employees, she approaches her, not to ask her to dispose of the litter — Johnson takes care of that later — but to ask how she is doing.
Her employees have come to expect that sort of attentiveness from the petite mother of two who happens to be not only the CEO and founder of Salamander Hotels & Resorts but also one of the country’s most influential entrepreneurs. “I have the utmost respect for all of the employees,” Johnson says. “I have smart people around me, and that keeps me focused.”
Besides heading a national hospitality business with four major resorts, Johnson is a powerhouse in the sports world. She serves as vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, making her the only African-American woman to own a stake in three professional sports teams — the NHL’s Washington Capitals, the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. She also holds the distinction of being the only African-American woman on the United States Golf Association Executive Committee.
She gained financial success by co-founding Black Entertainment Television in 1980 with her then-husband, Robert, and they later sold the network to Viacom for a price tag The New York Times reported as more than $2 billion. Sheila, who was divorced from Robert in 2002 and is now married to Arlington, Va., judge William Newman Jr., has continued to work in television and film, serving as the executive producer of four documentary films and last year’s blockbuster feature, Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
This level of success could breed arrogance, but that’s not in Johnson’s nature, which speaks more to comfort and confidence than flash and pretense. “She doesn’t flaunt who she is,” says Earl Stafford, one of Johnson’s partners in Monumental. Johnson uses her success to help others, especially women and children, through her generosity and philanthropy.
For more than six years, she served as global ambassador for the humanitarian organization CARE, helping women around the world fight poverty. She sells a line of scarves featuring many of the photographs she captured on her trips, with 10 percent of the proceeds going to the Lady Salamanders, a homeless women’s soccer team she founded in 2008 after making the documentary Kicking It, which advocated sports as a way to fight homelessness and addiction.