Ask Sheila Johnson what she was like as a child, and it doesn’t take long to get a picture of the qualities that helped her become America’s first Black woman billionaire. Around age 11, for instance, she started waking up at midnight to practice the violin—in part so that her fledgling string work wouldn’t disturb her family during the day.
“They didn’t enjoy listening to me as much as I enjoyed playing,” the 74-year-old says, sitting in the airy presidential suite of the Salamander Hotel in Washington, D.C. Her hospitality company—the Salamander Collection—teamed up with a British property-management firm last year to buy the building from the Mandarin Oriental Group in a deal widely reported to be worth $140 million.
“I’ve always been this way; I don’t know why,” she says. “I really would keep my priorities in order. If I had a goal in mind, that’s what I was going to do.” True to form, she eventually mastered the instrument, earning a music degree from the University of Illinois in 1970.
And though her parents’ professionalism must have rubbed off—her late father, George Crump, M.D., was among the nation’s first Black neurosurgeons; her mother, Marie, was an accountant in an era when working outside the home was uncommon for the wives of men in white-collar jobs—Johnson’s innate determination and resilience would propel her through three extraordinary professional arcs. First, she was an award-winning violin teacher, starting and leading a Washington, D.C.–area children’s orchestra that performed internationally. Amid that work, she cofounded Black Entertainment Television, which she and her then-husband, Robert, sold to Viacom for $3 billion in 2001. And since 2005, she has been assembling a portfolio of luxury hotels. Today, the Salamander Collection owns and operates seven five-star resorts from Aspen to Anguilla. She’s also 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.
As high-achieving people are wont to do, Johnson details how she made it all happen in Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph, her first book, published last month. It’s the kind of tome that might one day be assigned in MBA programs. Class title? “How to Make It to the Top, Then Pivot Like a Pro.”
But its pages also make clear that achieving great business success doesn’t guarantee a rosy personal life. Johnson, fed up with Robert’s infidelity and other mistreatment, suggested that they sell their TV behemoth not simply to cash out their lucrative shares but to disentangle their financial interests and smooth the path for their 2002 divorce. And even though she describes the process as amicable, it wasn’t exactly painless.
“The sale of BET sapped everything out of me,” Johnson says plainly. “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.”
In the meantime, she started looking for ways to help her adopted home of Middleburg, Va. “I built a performing-arts center because I had the means to do it,” she says. “I took the [local] gun shop, which had a Confederate flag in it, and turned it into a wonderful market. Once I started getting rid of the toxicity in my life, the doors started to open.”
That’s when the opportunity arose to acquire the 340 acres on which the Salamander Resort, her company’s flagship property, now sits. Though she had to contend with no shortage of local opposition, including some unvarnished racist name-calling (not to mention the Great Recession, which delayed construction), the resort eventually opened in 2013. In the midst of getting the hotel off the ground, around 2006, her friend Helene Gayle, then the president and CEO of the charity CARE USA, asked Johnson to become one of the organization’s global ambassadors, which involved traveling to Africa and South America multiple times a year to work with impoverished women. It was a perspective-shifting assignment. “Here I was, feeling so depressed and down,” Johnson remembers of the years after her divorce. “And I said, ‘Look, there are people out there in this world that are really suffering with much more than what I’m suffering with now.’ ”
Now the Salamander Resort offers a wealth of diversions for guests. It hosts both an annual film festival—a suggestion from Johnson’s friend Robert Redford, who founded Sundance—and a food festival called the Family Reunion, whose mission is “to nurture, develop, and celebrate racial and ethnic diversity within the next generation of hospitality professionals.”
Similar to her programming strategy, Johnson’s hiring ethos privileges multiculturalism; she wants each of her properties to be a genuine reflection of its surrounding community. At the Salamander, Johnson greets guests with “Welcome to Middleburg’s living room.” She explains, “Whatever living room I’ve built—whether it’s in Charleston, whether it’s in Tampa, whether it’s in Aspen—I just want people to understand that we’re all in this together.”
Her obvious business acumen notwithstanding, Johnson says her proudest achievement is raising her two children: Paige, a champion equestrian, and Brett, a luxury menswear designer with his own eponymous label. Asked what lessons she may have gleaned from them, Johnson turns reflective.
“They taught me how to be a little bit more patient,” she says. “They say, ‘Mommy, you just need to relax a little bit more.’ ” But with another hotel on the horizon (all she will reveal is that it’s “along the waterfront”) and thousands of employees to lead, she may have to wait a while before following that sage advice.