Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:12 am

At home: Sheila Johnson

One of the leading African-American entrepreneurs talks about making films and owning professional sports teams
Sheila Johnson at her home in Virginia©Stacy Zarin Goldberg

Sheila Johnson at her home in Virginia

Just north of the town of Middleburg, in the heart of Virginia fox-hunting country, lies a half-hidden estate. Marked only by wooden gates and a discreet sign for Salamander Farms, it is reached by following a lane lined with low stone walls and horse paddocks. The owner is Sheila Johnson, entrepreneur and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET).

Now chief executive of her own company, Salamander Hotels and Resorts, Johnson has holdings that include a string of luxury hotels, golf resorts and an aviation business. She is also the first female African-American owner of three professional sports teams, with stakes in the Washington Capitals (National Hockey League), the Washington Wizards (National Basketball Association) and the Washington Mystics (Women’s National Basketball Association).

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I drive past a security guard and arrive at the main house, a sprawling 19th-century, colonial-style building. Johnson greets me warmly and leads me into a leather-lined library. Through the windows, clouds lift briefly to reveal landscaped gardens and a pavilion, with hills hovering in the background.

“It has beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” she says. “But I had to rebuild this house from ground to top ... I added 8,000 sq ft. I can be anywhere in the world, come back and enjoy what I’ve been able to create.”

Outside, to our left, I catch a glimpse of grazing horses. “This is also a horse farm so we built a 24-stall stable for Paige’s horses,” she says. Paige is her 26-year-old daughter and prize-winning show jumper. Brett, her 22-year-old son, is a shoe designer.

Johnson’s mother, a former accountant, also lives on the estate, in a three-bedroom red wooden house. “I visit her every day when I’m not travelling,” she says. “I spent my childhood moving around. My father was a neurosurgeon and couldn’t get work in white hospitals, so he worked with the Veterans Administration. We moved every 10 months. It gave me resilience. I can sit in any room and talk to anyone.”

In her youth, Johnson was a gifted classical violinist and studied music at the University of Illinois. “Paul Rolland was my teacher. He helped bring Suzuki [the teaching method] into the country. The goal was to get instrumental music into public [state] schools.” While at Illinois she also met her first husband, Robert Johnson, and they were married in 1969 when she was 21.

The sitting room©Stacy Zarin Goldberg

The sitting room

From an early age, Johnson displayed an entrepreneurial instinct. As a low-paid, private school music teacher in Washington (where her husband worked at a television station), she launched a side Suzuki venture from her basement. And in 1978, the Johnsons founded BET.

“We started at the right time and had an angel investor.” Sheila became executive vice-president and board member. “My vision was to create the foremost African-American network,” she says. “Entertainment was a big part of it but I’m an educator first. I wanted to put on educationally informative shows that directly related to teens and kept the African-American community in tune with the issues – not only in our own country but globally.”

The Johnsons sold BET to Viacom for $3bn in 2000 and it has since become more music-focused. Did the channel live up to its promise? “No, but it’s a network that is still evolving. I hope that it will eventually live up to its vision. I created youth talk shows, such as Teen Summit. But music videos are inexpensive to put on air – ratings are high and they generate revenue, while advertisers are happy because they target the under-35s, who buy products, and then you get eyeballs creating mindless programming. Media needs to be responsible for the messaging it’s sending to this audience.”

What could have changed the direction of BET, I ask Johnson, who is no longer involved with the network? “We should not have pigeon-holed ourselves into just one area of the African-American experience. We need to broaden our vision, see the global picture.”

The wine cellar©Stacy Zarin Goldberg

The wine cellar

We leave the library for a house tour, which includes the wine cellar and a tasting room that has a 1932 painting by Knute Heldner. From there Johnson takes me to see her favourite part of the house: the master suite. “I have everything I need in here,” she says, before leading me into a three-room area decorated with rare botanical prints and a Regency library table. “It’s my sanctuary,” she says.

She tells me that the idea of starting a hotel and management company came to her after her divorce in 2002. “I was married for 33 years. I had to regroup ... Every day during the BET years I was entertaining at the highest levels. I enjoyed welcoming people at home, and I thought I could do it best with my own company.”

Johnson bought 340 acres of Middleburg land from the estate of socialite and US diplomat Pamela Harriman. “That’s when I decided I was going into the hotel business. It took six years to get permits to build a resort there. In the meantime, I bought golf resort hotels in South Carolina, the Dominican Republic and across Florida. I have a PGA golf course in Palm Harbour, Florida, ranked in the top 10.”

An aim of buying the all-women’s professional basketball team, the Washington Mystics in 2005, was to raise the profile of women’s sports. “The first thing I did was upgrade the women’s locker rooms. They were pathetic. Here the men had beautiful lockers with TVs,” she says of the sibling team, the Washington Wizards. Johnson also acquired ownership of the Washington Capitols, recent Stanley Cup Contenders. She says her years in TV helped her as a team owner. “Sponsorship is like advertising. Filling seats is like the Nielsen ratings. You want as large an audience as possible.”

The kitchen and dining area©Stacy Zarin Goldberg

The kitchen and dining area

Since 2005 Johnson has been married to William T. Newman Jr, chief judge of the Arlington Circuit Court. She is currently focusing on her businesses, including the opening of her Middleburg resort next year, and there is also a foray into film. A Sundance Film Festival board member, she produced a documentary, The Other City (2008), directed by Susan Koch, on the current HIV crisis in Washington. “We exposed a local epidemic on par with Uganda.”

A feature film is next, with Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey rumoured to be involved. “It’s an all-star cast,” is all she’ll say. “It’s about the first African-American butler in the White House, and it spans Eisenhower to Reagan.”

As one of the leading female African-American business owners in the US, can Johnson share any secrets to her success? “I’m from the Midwest where the work ethic was so important. I’m not afraid of failure,” she says, before adding, “You have to be capitalised. Too few African-American women with good business ideas are capitalised.”

The interview comes to a close and Johnson offers to drive me in her Mini Cooper to another venture: a local café she created that serves her own homegrown food. “It’s all farm to table.”

We drive past the stables, a horse ring and small barn. “It’s the original building on this property. All this was once owned by the Episcopal Church.”

In downtown Middleburg, Johnson pulls up in front of a colonial-style building with a window display of cakes and Italian pottery. “This was a gun shop. And it had a Confederate flag. I was so repulsed that I bought the building and gutted it. It’s called Market Salamander now.”

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Favourite things

On her farm Salamander

“It was the name of this farm when I bought it. The salamander is the only animal that can walk through fire and still come out alive,” says Johnson, who adopted the name for her company. “If you cut off the salamander’s legs, they regenerate. Salamander means courage, fortitude and perseverance.”

On scarves

“I do a lot of photography,” says Johnson, who has started to design scarves with prints taken from her photographs. “The images are digitally put on silkscreen. The scarves are made of a mixture of silk and cashmere, called modal.”

She adds that art and business should not be mutually exclusive. “CEOs of large corporations should have more people around with creativity. Artistic people are problem-solvers. They’re big thinkers.”

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