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Inside the Billionaire Journey of BET-Co-Founder Turned Luxury Hotel Mogul Sheila Johnson

Businesswoman Sheila Johnson can add the title of author to her ever-growing list of accomplishments. The book chronicles her extraordinary life, a life in which a proclivity to work hard for whatever she wanted might secure her a future at the billionaire table.

Sheila Johnson (Photo via Instagram @cbsmornings)

The new book by the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, “Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph,” details Johnson’s life of growing up with two professional parents. Her late father, George Crump, M.D., was among the nation’s first Black neurosurgeons; her mother, Marie, was an accountant. Growing up in their house, she modeled excellence, even picking up the violin at the age of 11, practicing at midnight so she would not disturb her family, and using that gift to eventually, in 1970, earn a music degree from the University of Illinois.

“Walking Through Fire” illustrates how Johnson’s life is divided into three different acts, centered on the arts, business and the hospitality industry.

In her first career, she served as a violin teacher at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., and, in 1975, founded a 140-chair children’s orchestra called Youth Strings in Action — one that was so gifted the members were invited to tour and travel internationally. Her work was so highly recognized that she received the country of Jordan’s top educational award, which was given to her by that nation’s King Hussein.

After meeting Robert Johnson in college, she married him the year before she graduated. Ten years after graduating college, the two of them started the BET cable network, where she served as executive vice president for corporate affairs and creator of the popular show “Teen Summit.” She left her professional post at the company in 1999, but maintained her ties with the company until it was sold to Viacom for $3 billion in 2001. 

“The sale of BET sapped everything out of me,” Johnson recalled. “It took me a couple of years to, as my mother would say, get my power back — to really sit back and figure out what I wanted to do. And I couldn’t think of anything.” 

A year later, she would divorce her then-husband, citing his infidelity as one of the reasons she decided to leave.

After divorcing her ex-husband, she made a strategic decision to diversify her business interests. In 2005, she ventured into luxury hotels and entertainment investments with her new company, the Salamander Collection.

She acquired a Northern Virginia farm in Middleburg, transforming the 350-acre estate into the 85,000-square-foot Salamander Inn & Spa, a French country resort. Johnson also established Salamander Hospitality, a hotel resort and spa management firm. Today, the Salamander Collection oversees seven five-star resorts, from Aspen to Anguilla, as well as the Innisbrook Golf Resort with its four golf courses near Tampa, Florida.

In addition to these resorts, the crown jewel of her portfolio is The Salamander Hotel, a luxury hotel in Washington, D.C.  The property was acquired in 2022 from the Mandarin Oriental Group in collaboration with a British property management firm, a transaction reportedly valued at $140 million, according to The Robbs Report.

She also is moving to buy another hotel on D.C.’s waterfront.

In addition to the hotel and resort properties, Johnson made history as the only Black woman to own stakes in three professional sports teams: the NHL’s Washington Capitals, the NBA’s Washington Wizards, and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. 

While she is a successful businesswoman, with an estimated net worth of $750 million according to Celebrity Net Worth, her greatest pride is being a mother to her two children. They taught the always-working overachiever to be patient.

“They say, ‘Mommy, you just need to relax a little bit more,’ ” a life lesson that she holds dear and values very much.

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