The ‘third act of my life’

Sheila Johnson shows her entrepreneurial flair in new ventures

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires

Sheila C. Johnson hasn’t taken on the entire world — just a big slice of it.  From business to sports, arts, filmmaking and philanthropy, Johnson is enjoying what she calls “this third act of my life.” 

Johnson, 64, has married for a second time. Her husband is William T. Newman Jr., chief judge of the Arlington Circuit Court. This marriage, along with a fortune she received from her 2002 divorce from first husband Robert L. Johnson, have given Johnson a freedom she didn’t have earlier in life. (The Johnsons founded Black Entertainment Television and sold it to Viacom in 2000 for a reported $3 billion.)

Plus, her two children are out of the nest.

“It’s given me the freedom to explore, to discover the real me,” she says. During a recent ride through the Middleburg countryside in Johnson’s car — a new Rubicon Jeep — she chatted about her life as she negotiated the country roads she has called home since 1996.

“I think I know myself a lot better,” Johnson says. “I think God puts you through those missteps, and you have to be able to recognize the greater vision God has for you.” After going through a divorce and immersing herself in business ventures, Johnson says she has learned a lot.

“I’ve learned that I have a great head for business,” she says. “Because of my exposure to the arts, I can think more creatively to find solutions. Because I have these doors of opportunity open now, I have more energy, and I’m excited about what lies ahead.’’

What lies ahead is a to-do list that would make most people swoon. Johnson travels back and forth between homes in Alexandria and Middleburg, and sometimes treks around the globe, investing in her passions.

A red-letter date on the calendar now is the Aug. 29 opening of the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg (see story on page 48).  Johnson founded Salamander Hotels and Resorts in 2005 and serves as the hospitality company’s CEO. Besides the Middleburg resort, the portfolio includes golf resorts in Florida. 

Already a woman of many firsts, Johnson is positioned to play a high-profile role in golf as the first African-American woman elected to the 15-member United States Golf Association’s executive committee. The only African-American owner of a major golf resort in the country, Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla., Johnson believes the sport needs to become more inclusive and affordable.

While Johnson plays strictly for fun — she laughs if you ask about her golf handicap — she’s well versed in the business of sports. At Monumental Sports & Entertainment in Northern Virginia, she’s a vice chairman with an ownership interest in three professional sports teams: the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals, and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

In addition to sports and business, Johnson is a dedicated philanthropist who has donated millions to the arts and education. Her major donations include: $5 million to the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education for programs to benefit young children; $7 million to create a new center at The Parsons School of Design in New York, where she serves on the board of governors; and $3 million to endow the private Sheila C. Johnson Performing Arts Center at the private Hill school in Middleburg. One of her newest pursuits combines art, business and charity. Last summer Johnson launched a collection of scarves. The prints on the scarves come from her digital photos. The scarves retail for $475 each, and 10 percent of the proceeds go to one of her charitable causes. 

Another new endeavor that Johnson is talking up is the Middleburg Film Festival. She invested $100,000 in seed money to help launch the festival, which makes its debut at local venues in Middleburg — including Johnson’s new resort — on Oct. 25-27.  The festival will bring in independent films, actors and filmmakers who will discuss their work.

Festivalgoers shouldn’t be surprised if some of the movers and shakers in the “The Butler” show up. This historic drama represents Johnson’s latest foray into filmmaking. She invested $2 million in the project and is credited with helping to bring in other investors after major Hollywood studios passed on the opportunity to finance the film. Based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American who served as a butler in the White House for 30 years, it’s scheduled for limited release in October. Forest Whitaker plays the butler, and Oprah Winfrey plays his wife. 

“Vanity Fair is supposed to cover the whole thing,” Johnson says of the festival. “We can do package deals,” she adds, referring to her resort.  Spoken like a true businesswoman.

Virginia Business interviewed Johnson during a March tour of the Salamander Resort & Spa. The following is an edited transcript.  A videotaped interview is available at


Virginia Business:  Tell us about some of your new business ventures. Didn’t you just launch a luxury scarf collection? 
Johnson: Right now, it’s still in the infancy phase. We have done our website, which we are improving. We have done trunk shows up in Martha’s Vineyard, and we have also done sales in Neiman Marcus over the holidays, and we did very well.

VB: How did you get into the scarves?  I understand some of the proceeds go to a charitable cause.

Johnson: Yes, to my Lady Salamanders.  It’s my homeless women soccer team.  The reason why I decided to do the scarves was really through my photography and from all my travels and in working with people, especially women… I’ve traveled to Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Johannesburg, all through Africa, and I’ve also been to Haiti. I actually went with Donna Karan after the earthquake and did some major photography shoots there. So, I was looking at this photography one day, and I said, you know what? These are really some terrific pictures.  I didn’t want to do a photographic show. I said there’s got to be a much more creative way in which I can tell the story about helping others.  Then a light bulb went off and I was like … wearable art. 

I came up with this idea of putting the photography on clothing, and then I thought about scarves.  So, we went to Florence, Italy, and we met with someone that Donna Karan had recommended who does a lot of scarves for a lot of designers.  When I presented this idea, he said, “I’m just not sure if we can digitize photography on this. I’ll have to shop around and we’ll see what happens.”  So he did shop around, and he found this very special little shop in Prato, Italy, that actually could digitize my photography on to this material called modal.  It’s very important you have the right material because otherwise it just doesn’t work. Modal is an organic material, and the photographs really saturate well onto this material.  When he sent the prototypes to me, I knew I had something. I’ve not only been able to capture what I do philanthropically but also the Virginia countryside. I’ve got lots of beautiful photographs of the Virginia countryside that are also on the scarves.

VB: So 10 percent of the proceeds go to this national soccer team for homeless women? They play on the team?

Johnson: They’re homeless …and they’re fighting addiction. What we’re trying to do is cure their addiction through sports.  This film I did with Susan Koch [the director] called “Kicking It” and also with Ted Leonsis was to tell the story about these issues and how through street soccer we were able to galvanize these homeless people together to start working as a team and kicking their addiction… We just don’t stop with the street soccer. We also work on trying to get them gainfully employed.

VB: Can you say how much money you’ve been able to raise through the scarves?

Johnson: I don’t know through the scarves itself. I would say to date we’ve probably raised close to $50,000 for the Lady Salamanders. They’ve been around for about two or three years. The scarves just started last August.

There is a story behind every one of these scarves. [Johnson demonstrates by putting one on.] This was taken in Uganda at Lake Victoria, near a busy fishing dock. There was a young man sitting on this bike, but further down the way there was a drama team and dance team that was talking, in their language, about the spread of HIV and AIDS throughout Uganda because it has, next to Washington, D.C., probably the highest level .… If the men could get circumcised, it will cut down the infection rate.  So, you have this whole dramatic exhibition going on, and the men are starting to gather. We have buses over here … To get circumcised, they will get on the bus and go on to the clinic. This young man left his bike and went on to the bus… By leaving his bike there, it meant so much that he cared enough to go off.  So, I shot the picture of the bike because I love the fish box on the back.

You can wear it any way you want… It can be a bathing suit wrap.  It can also become a wrap around the head.  We can go completely Africa on you. 

VB: I’d like talk to you a little bit about philanthropy.  You’ve given millions away. What motivates you to give?

Johnson: Whatever moves me.  When I give to something, it has to have a purpose.  I have to feel the passion of that purpose, and I have to see a beginning, a middle, and an end … Even if we’re midway through and if that organization does not follow through with the goal and the mission, I will pull it.

VB: Have you ever had to do that?

Johnson: Oh, I’ve done it, yes.

VB: Would you like to give a specific example?

Johnson: No.

VB: You’ve also worked as a film producer and investor.  Can you tell us about any of your current projects? Isn’t Oprah Winfrey getting ready to star in one of your films?

Johnson: Yes, “The Butler.” They’re editing scenes as we speak.  They’re about three quarters of the way through.  The music will then be added to the film …  I think it’s probably one of the most exciting historical films coming out this year.

VB: What is it about?

Johnson: It’s about the first African-American butler who rose all the way to the top in the White House. They call him the maître d’ of the White House.  It spans eight presidents — from [Truman] all the way to Reagan.

VB: The same man has been a butler to all these presidents?

Johnson: Yes, he comes out of the cotton fields of the Carolinas and is working at a hotel. Then someone saw him and said, “You really need to go to the White House and serve the presidents …” What you have to understand about this film is that it’s not just about that.  It’s about the layers of history that have gone on through every one of the presidents, starting with the Civil Rights movement through the Bay of Pigs and all the other issues along the way … It’s through the eyes of this butler and how it affects him emotionally, personally … and how it affects his family personally…

He loses a son in Vietnam, the oldest son. Another son was supposed to be at Fisk University and became a freedom rider with Martin Luther King. It’s talking about history but through the eyes of an African-American employee in the White House, which makes it so compelling.

VB: What role does Oprah play in the movie?

Johnson: She plays his wife. Forest Whitaker is the star … the butler. There was also emotional turmoil going on within the family where the wife is very jealous of her husband for working in the White House and having the inside scoop. She felt very much left out, which caused her to have an affair.  I was actually on the set. Have you ever seen Oprah like that [she asks, showing a photo on her cellphone]? She’s a hot mess.

VB: Do you have any advice for younger women just starting out in business?

Johnson: There are two important things. You can’t start a business unless you know who you are.  Some people don’t know what they want to do or they copy what someone else has done. You have to have a passion for what you want to do.  Secondly, be very careful whom you bring into your environment. Stay away from what I call energetic vampires. They will take advantage of your ideas, your bank account. They will take everything from you that they can. 

VB: What do you do to relax?

Johnson: I love to read with classical music in the background. I love nonfiction, factual knowledge that shows me how I can improve and grow my business. 

VB: That’s how you relax? 

Johnson: I love movies and cooking , too.

VB: What do you like to cook ?

Johnson: I’m a vegan, so pasta is my favorite. I like to make sauces to go with the pasta. My husband is the meat eater. He likes to barbecue. 

VB: Now that we’re on the topic of sports, what it is like have an ownership interest in three professional sports teams?

Johnson: Fantastic. It’s a vanity play. I love sports.  To be in that elite status as a partner — I have spectacular partners. I’m also the president and managing partner of the WNBA Mystics. I handle them 100 percent. It entails a lot of meetings, budgets, hiring coaches, reviewing the team line up, the sale of tickets, sponsorships. It’s a lot of work.”

VB: Do you have any advice for younger women just starting out in business?  If you were their mentor, what would you tell them?

Johnson: There are two important things. You can’t start a business unless you know who you are.  Some people don’t know what they want to do or they copy what someone else has done. You have to have a passion for what you want to do.  Secondly, be very careful whom you bring into your environment. Stay away from what I call energetic vampires. They will take advantage of your ideas, your bank account. They will take everything from you that they can.



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