Justin Kriel
“Sheila has a strong emphasis on supporting women,” says Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker Susan Koch of Cabin Films. “That is important to her in everything she does.” Koch worked with Johnson on Kicking It and The Other City, a film about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Washington, D.C. “HIV is a serious issue for African-American women,” Koch says, “and Sheila realized she wanted to use her voice for this issue.”

During filming of The Other City, which was released in 2010, Johnson learned about Joseph’s House, a home in Washington, D.C., for homeless men and women who have HIV or AIDS. “Sheila was constantly going over there and visiting. She would drop off food,” Koch says. Johnson never told Koch or anyone about the visits. Koch learned about them from Joseph’s House employees. “Sheila wants that personal connection,” Koch says. “That speaks to who she is.”

Johnson’s hands-on style was obvious last summer, when she hosted her Salamander Resort & Spa management team at a Mystics game in Washington. The gathering was held in the courtside party zone. As she normally does at games, Johnson scanned the stands of the crowded arena. She noticed a fan behind her group who looked unhappy, so she made her way up the stands to ask if everything was OK. When he told her he was disappointed because her gathering was blocking his view, she “grabbed the guy out of the stands and brought him down to the party zone and set him up with food and beverages,” says Prem Devadas, president of Salamander Hotels & Resorts. “That showed everybody on our team what you have got to do to make your guests (or in this case, fans) happy. It spoke volumes.”

Johnson adopted her Salamander brand after purchasing her home near Middleburg in 1999. The salamander is known for its regeneration of lost limbs, and Johnson identifies with that type of resilience. “I am not just a salamander,” she says of the will to reinvent yourself. “I am a woman of courage, perseverance and strength that has the ability to reach out to everyone and bring them into my world.”

She traces her own resilient nature back to her childhood. Even though her father was a doctor, the family struggled. “I listened to my parents talk about how the bills would be paid and how they would live from paycheck to paycheck,” she says. “That left an impression.”

The genesis for her entrepreneurial efforts was a metal potholder frame. When she was in middle school in Maywood, Ill., she taught herself how to make potholders and then sold them door to door. She deposited all the money she made into a piggy bank. “I am a saver,” she says. “I still have piggy banks around.”

In high school, she learned what she calls survival techniques — cooking, sewing and typing — and used her typing skills in various jobs during college at the University of Illinois.

Johnson’s lifelong philosophy of “everything you do opens a door for something else” has served her well. An accomplished violinist,­ she used her skills and training to teach her own variation of the Suzuki method of violin instruction. Later she started her own company for teaching the violin. She formed an orchestra called Young Strings in Action in 1980 and later traveled with the students to perform for Queen Noor and the late King Hussein at the Jerash Festival, a cultural event in Jordan. “We were the only children to perform at that festival,” she says, noting that the affiliation led her to start the Amman Music Conservatory in Jordan.