Remember when Beyoncé danced to O.T. Genasis’ hit song “Everybody Mad”? She had the entire “Coachella” audience screaming the iconic line, “I been getting to the money.” Although this is on brand for the Houston, TX, native, a long history of successful Black women can say the same thing about success. This is where Sheila C. Johnson enters the chat.
Johnson is the first Black woman to become a billionaire, and her journey toward that fortune is just as fascinating as it is history-making.
Born in 1949 and originally from McKeesport, PA — Johnson had a father who was a prominent neurosurgeon and a mother who was an accountant, per Black Past. Both career successes would prove to be a marker for Johnson’s accomplishments throughout her life.
According to a Forbes profile, her parents enrolled her in an all-white Kentucky elementary school before desegregation. As a student, she pursued a love for music, becoming a concert violinist during high school.
Johnson’s love for music would carry over to college, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. During her undergraduate study, she met her first husband and former business partner, Robert Johnson.
Upon graduation, The Wall Street Journal reports, Sheila Johnson began a robust career in music, teaching lessons, writing music textbooks, and founding her own student orchestra. Simultaneously, her husband was lobbying for cable television companies, something that inspired him to enter the business himself. This insight materialized, and the couple launched Black Entertainment Television, better known as BET, in 1980.
The cable station would go on to have a successful launch, reaching 18 million subscribers by 1984, according to The Wall Street Journal. However, the company failed to reach profit due to a lack of advertisers. After some time, this would change, and by 1991 the cable network went public and reached an estimated value of over $470 million.
Johnson, along with her former husband, led BET through the creation of original programming aimed at BIPOC audiences and made the network a household name. A part of her vision was to be very intentional about the type of programming BET produced. She outlined her approach as an executive at the media company during a recent interview with AARP.
“I wanted to ensure we had the best programming out there,” she told the outlet. “I thought the video market and the way it was portraying women was horrific. I didn’t want young women to think they had to behave like that in these videos for men. I fought that.”
By 2001, BET had reached a point of success where larger businesses were interested in the brand. The Black-owned media company would sell to Viacom for $3 billion, per The Wall Street Journal. The sale set the now 75-year-old into billionaire status, but her journey continued.
In 2002, after her divorce from Robert, Forbes reported that Johnson took her shares from the Viacom deal to invest in Florida and Virginia hotels, real estate, and horses. And later, in 2013, she opened the Salamander Resort & Spa, now called Salamander Middleburg, per the Wall Street Journal. Named after her spirit animal, this new venture boosted the local economy of Middleburg, VA, with an increase in sales tax revenue by 30% within 5 years.
According to the outlet, Johnson continued to expand her real estate through a partnership with global private equity real estate manager Henderson Park, purchasing the Washington, D.C., Mandarin Oriental hotel.
While the real estate and hospitality industries have been a significant part of her story since she departed BET, Johnson also leveraged her earnings to become co-owner of three professional sports teams in Washington — WNBA’s Mystics, NBA’s Wizards, and the NHL’s Capitals.
The diversification of her portfolio doesn’t stop there, as she maintains a massive fortune. According to Celebrity Net Worth, Sheila Johnson’s current estimated net worth is $850 million. As she’s grown personally and financially, she now fully embraces what she considers the third act of her life.
“There is no way in the world to move forward without knowing who you are,” Johnson explained to AARP. “As I got to know myself better, I was able to go on another path but keep the foundation of my art career. Now I’m in Act 3 of my life, as a 70-plus-year-old woman. And this is the best part of my life because not only do I really know who I am, I have a vision of my future.”
Additionally, Johnson released a memoir in 2023, “Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph,” detailing her life’s journey and the secrets to how she keeps moving.
“Learn to take risks. Also, failure is OK,” Johnson stated. “That’s how you learn, no matter what age you are. I still fail at things every day. But I’m, like, ‘OK, let’s try to go in a different direction. It’s all right.'”