A Woman of Many Firsts

Apr 1, 2010


An Interview With Sheila C. Johnson

Sheila C. Johnson's Market Salamander, a specialty food store in Middleburg, Virgina, is part of Salamander Hospitality. Photo: Ian Wagreich

Sheila C. Johnson is an entrepreneur and philanthropist whose accomplishments span the arenas of hospitality, sports, TV and film, the arts, and humanitarian causes. The co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and president and managing partner of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics is now in her “third phase of life,” which includes working on her latest venture, Salamander Hospitality, LLC, a growing portfolio of luxury properties and lifestyle businesses. Free Enterprise staff writer Sheryll Poe caught up with Johnson ahead of her speech at America’s Small Business Summit on May 18 in Washington, D.C.

Free Enterprise: What inspired the creation of BET?

Sheila C. Johnson: There was a lack of minority representation on the regular networks, and minorities were not portrayed in a very positive light. At the time, everybody was starting a cable network, and we saw an opportunity there. Where the network has gone now is sad. In the regular media, not just BET, you have to pander to get advertisers and eyeballs. I would love for BET to be a much more informative network, but that doesn’t pay the bills. That’s the reality of the situation.

FE: What attracted you to the hospitality industry, and what are your biggest challenges?

SCJ: Believe it or not, hospitality is similar to entertainment. It’s just a different approach. When you are in the entertainment business, you’ve got a major property that you’ve got to continuously sell to advertisers and make sure that you have eyeballs watching the product. Hospitality is the same thing; you’ve got a core product that you’ve got to continue selling through marketing and PR to make sure you’ve got “heads in the beds.” The biggest challenge is helping others see your vision and constantly building a community of support.

FE: Where did the name for Salamander Hospitality come from?

SCJ: It was the original name of my horse farm. The salamander is the only animal that can walk through fire and still come out alive. I chose the salamander as my brand because I knew that the struggles ahead of me were going to be great and will continue to be great, but I want to persevere.

FE: How has the economic downturn impacted your business?

SCJ: Almost every hotel under construction and talk about new construction have stopped. For example, we’ve slowed down construction on the resort I’m building here in Middleburg [Virginia]. We are 65.5% finished, but you never want to open a hotel in a bad economy because you can never recover. So while I really wanted to open this year, I’m postponing until 2012.

On average, across all three of my properties, we’re seeing anywhere from a 30% to 40% decrease in revenues. We’re having problems getting people in. We’ve had to discount our room rates to get families and leisure travelers in there, which really concerns me because once this is over we’re going to raise those rates in order to survive.

FE: From a public policy perspective, what is the biggest impediment to your business?

SCJ: I’m worried about health insurance reform. I don’t know where that’s going to take us. It’s going to have a huge impact on small businesses. I have 1,100 employees, and I’m paying through the nose for insurance. I keep it because that’s what’s going to attract better employees. Also, we’ve got to get banks to start opening up and lending so that we can get these hotels back on their own two feet. I don’t want to continue to use my own money—I need help from banks too.

FE: You have an ownership stake in three professional sports franchises—the Washington Mystics, Washington Wizards, and Washington Capitals. How does a woman effectively operate in the male-dominated sports world?

SCJ: You have to stand up for what you believe in, from locker room space to sponsorships. If you only knew what I went through to try to get money to support my team! NBA teams and hockey teams get millions and millions of dollars in sponsorship money. But for women? I have to constantly throw myself across corporate desks and say, “Look, women spend $23 billion a year, and in five years, it’s going to be $28 billion. We are the decision makers on buying in this country. What part of this don’t you understand?”

FE: Tell us about your philanthropic activities.

SCJ: It started back at BET when I did Teen Summit [a television show about everyday issues of teens]. In my third act of life, I became a global ambassador for CARE. I traveled the world and saw disparity, especially among women, with regard to poverty levels, gender-based violence, and dying in child birth. If we don’t empower women, who are the backbone of our community, you’re going to see a complete dismantling of our global humanity. Here at home, within inner city communities, you see the disparity among young women. I want to give back to my own roots, start to make some kind of impact, and provoke dialogue about neglected communities in this country. That’s where my heart is.

FE: Which women have inspired or mentored you?

SCJ: There are many women whom I admire and learn from. I watched Billie Jean King and her fight in tennis. I’m a great admirer of Hillary Clinton. I feel she’s fought many uphill battles and still is. Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice. I admire women who work for me—not only for their loyalty but because of the love and trust we have for one another.

FE: What is the best piece of advice you could give to small business owners or entrepreneurs?

SCJ: Be very careful whom you hire. There are a lot of toxic people out there who want to empty your bank account. Do your homework and check their backgrounds.

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