Sheila Johnson grew up middle class in Maywood, Illinois, playing the violin and loving the arts. She never could have guessed the path her life would follow — including becoming cofounder of the Black Entertainment Network, which launched in 1980, with her then-husband Robert Johnson.
Business-wise, their partnership was a triumph: Viacom bought the network for $3 billion in 2001, and Johnson became the first Black female billionaire. Personally, the Johnsons’ union was less wonderful. Robert was often emotionally abusive and unfaithful (she calls his behavior “severe betrayal”); they finally divorced after more than 30 years of marriage. But this “toxic” part of her life, she believes, helped make her stronger.
She recounts this in her new memoir Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Triumph (September 19), as well as her later success as the CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts and co-owner of three professional sports teams in Washington, D.C.
Here’s what she told AARP about her life and career.
You are described by Forbes as one of America’s richest women. What does that feel like?
I hate to be defined by money, first of all. It’s more about the journey I’ve been able to go on and coming out well at the end.
What would you say to young people about finding success?
There is no way in the world that you can move forward without knowing who you are. As I got to know myself better, I was able to go on another path but keep the foundation of my arts 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.
In your new memoir, Walk Through Fire, you talk about those acts: as a musician, then working with your now-ex-husband to establish BET, then a painful divorce and reemerging in the luxury hotel business. That’s quite a journey.
The first act of my life is the concert violinist. I [became] a first-chair violinist of the Illinois All-State Orchestra. I enjoyed doing it. I knew that was what was defining me at the time. And as other doors have opened and as I have gotten to know myself better, I was able to walk through those doors.