The Connector

African women who sell their handmade purses on roadsides near their villages. American art students who teach them how to make their bags more marketable. Would-be entrepreneurs in need of startup money. Banks, private donors, business school graduates all working together to launch a micro-lending program.

At the center of these varied groups, interests and activities, and many more, is Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, entrepreneur, mother of two and committed philanthropist. Rather than just sitting on boards or lending her name to charitable undertakings, she rolls up her sleeves, does her research and keeps her eyes open for unfilled needs—the bigger the better. Then she leverages her resources and contacts and fills those needs. One acquaintance describes her as a “fulcrum.”

Johnson has broken through barriers and achieved many firsts in her lifetime. The sale of BET to Viacom in 2000 made her and co-founder and former husband Robert L. Johnson very wealthy. Sheila Johnson used her earnings from the BET deal to pursue several entrepreneurial ventures, most notably her company Salamander Hospitality, which comprises luxury properties in South Carolina, Florida and Virginia, where she lives.

She also earned an invite into what she calls the “old boys network” of professional sports, resulting in her ownership in the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals—making her the first African-American woman to be an owner or partner in three pro sports teams.

But Johnson doesn't measure her success in records or even dollars and cents. Instead, she places value in the number of lives she can touch, the connections she can foster. (Read How Entrepreneur Sheila Johnson Leverages Relationships.)

As I have gotten into my professional life--whether it was from playing the violin, or starting BET or what I am doing now—I feel as though I’ve got so much to offer,” she says. “I want to always be able to give a piece of myself in some kind of way and to connect people with others.” Johnson says such humanitarian leanings have been lifelong: She remembers making friends with the janitors and cafeteria workers at her Chicago-area junior high and high schools, as well as performing her violin for senior citizens during the holidays.

“And that was my way of connecting and sharing and bringing so me joy into their lives, even though one lady said, ‘I don’t want to hear that crap anymore,’ ” Johnson recalls. “She just cracked me up, and I would just give her a big hug. Even that connection was very special.” The people skills developed in those formative years proved useful, especially during her time with BET, when Johnson worked closely on Teen Summit. The award-winning talk show, which debuted in 1989 and ran through 2002, served as an open forum for youths to discuss everyday issues.

“One of the biggest things that I am very proud of is that show,” she says. “I was able to reach out nationally and into the Caribbean to really be able to start a dialogue among teens. ... The show was able to open up lines of communication, and I remember so many young people saying, ‘All we want is someone to talk to and be honest with.’ ”

Understanding teen issues and trying to buoy the nation’s youth—especially in her own backyard of Washington, D.C.— remains a top priority for Johnson. And she recently echoed the lessons from her Teen Summit years when she welcomed 800 young people to D.C.’s Verizon Center for HIV testing and a panel discussion.

“So maybe we’ll turn three people around,” she says, “but at least I was able to connect with those two or three teenagers.”

In the face of staggering infection rates that continue to climb, Johnson was inspired to create a documentary, The Other City, about the AIDS crisis in D.C. Her fourth film project to date, the movie premiered to much acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2010.

“If I see something that I instinctively know I’ve got to do something about, I go for it,” Johnson says. “Making this film and actually being behind the camera and going into the situations of these victims, I really have felt like I needed to stay in their lives in some kind of way to help them. They were able to open up their lives in a transparent way to hundreds of millions of people— this is the least I can do, to stay in touch with them and continue to help them in some way.”

Johnson also strives to connect with the young employees within her business ventures, including the sports teams. She says she hopes to be a role model—and not a mentor—for those in need of guidance.

“I think the word ‘mentor’ has been overused,” she says. “Mentors and role models are different. Because if you show young people how to behave and how they are to live a life of honesty and responsibility, they are going to learn more from that than if you say, ‘OK, I’ll take you under my wing,’ and you meet with them once a month or something. They need to see role models, and we don’t have enough of them out there.”

Empowering women has been another recurring theme in Johnson’s life, whether indirectly through setting examples as a pioneering businesswoman, or directly, like through her efforts with CARE. The global humanitarian organization named Johnson a global ambassador in 2006, and the following year she issued the “I Am Powerful” challenge with a $4 million gift. The program asked individuals and businesses nationwide to join a global movement to empower women in the fight against poverty. Matching donations dollar for dollar, Johnson helped raise more than $8 million for the cause in less than a year.

Through CARE and other efforts, she hopes to send women a message of self-respect and independence. “Women have to respect themselves, take responsibility for their lives, have some humility and make sure that they stay focused on their goals,” she says.

It was through her work with CARE that Johnson learned about the African women who make handbags, as well as others who fashion beautiful jewelry out of scrap materials such as newspaper. As chair of the board of governors of Parsons The New School for Design in New York (where she funded an entire design center), Johnson provided a grant for Parsons artists to develop a business plan to help the African artisans make their handbags more marketable. Considering all of Johnson’s varied goals, as mother, businesswoman and philanthropist, it’s not surprising that she has an incredibly hectic schedule. She says each day and each week may be different. During a conversation last fall, she said she had been focusing on “rebuilding my front office with the Washington Mystics.” There may be weeks when she’s traveling, checking in on her hotels. On any given day, she may spend hours in meetings, then catch a game in the evening, inviting other business leaders to join her in her box and afterward, visit with the players in the locker room.