Johnson’s violin-related enterprises shored up the family’s finances when she and Robert were in the startup phase of BET. “It was a time when all cable networks were starting and no one was paying attention to the African-American voice,” she says.

Everything she does reflects what she stands for and who she is in life. At BET, Johnson was instrumental in the creation of the award-winning show Teen Summit, which covered issues such as drugs, sex and social pressures. “I didn’t like the way women were portrayed in the video market,” she says. “It was a way to get young people more aware of what they were taking in and listening to. The show was important to me.”

She felt the same passion for her role as executive producer on Lee Daniels’ The ­Butler. Johnson became involved financially with the movie when she learned that no one in Hollywood was willing to take on the project. “I operate a lot on instinct, and it’s a movie I knew in my gut was going to work,” she says. “This isn’t just an African-­American film. I wanted it to cross all cultures.”

NOW YOU KNOW: According to, Lee Daniels’ The Butler had an estimated $30 million budget and has grossed more than $116 million.
Johnson knew she was opening a different type of door when she bought into the sports world. She was originally asked to purchase the Mystics, who had been losing money. “I did a better business deal by buying into the Wizards and the Capitals. It keeps it all under one roof,” she says. “It gave me a stronger cushion to operate the women’s team and give them sustainability.”

Not one to be intimidated easily, Johnson finds that many businessmen tend to second-guess her decisions. “They are insecure if you are a smart woman,” she says. “You have to go in with your eyes wide open and study who you are dealing with. You sit back quietly and understand how they operate and where you fit in.”

Even though she appears fearless, there was a time in her life, after her divorce, when she worried about not being able to take care of herself. “No woman should put herself in that position,” she says. “You have to have the foresight and the smarts to figure out how you are going to take care of yourself. Your future is never guaranteed. I don’t think women think of that.”

Anyone who doesn’t know Johnson and what she has accomplished would still know there is something “special about her,” says Stafford, Johnson’s business partner. “She is a true American success story. I say that from the bottom of my heart. I really do believe she has an ‘S’ on her chest, and it doesn’t stand for Sheila. It stands for Superwoman.” 

JOAN TUPPONCE is a writer living in the Richmond, Va., area who has written for Seventeen, Sports Illustrated and O, The Oprah Magazine. She is a frequent contributor to American Way.