Quick: Who is the first billionaire among African-American women? It isn’t Oprah. It’s Sheila Crump Johnson, the Chi-town native who cannot seem to sit still. Overseeing luxury hotels and basketball franchises? No problem. Endorsing the man from Honolulu, Hawaii as the next U.S. president? Easy. Agonizing through a break-up? Common. Recovering from a high-profile divorce to come out stronger than ever? Triumphant.
Women cling to her because she refuses to let gender roles trivialize her. Men admire her because she handles her business. Someone in Johnson’s position could easily lounge around and live off the funds accumulated through the success of BET, but again, sitting idly is not the modus operandi of the University of Illinois graduate.
She is currently married to the Honorable William T. Newman Jr. Her favorite movie stars Edward Norton. She has a well-kept secret – hint: think of Patti LaBelle’s “other” talent – and she has some poignant words to women about heartbreak. Ladies and gentlemen, bringing to you…. Ms. Sheila Johnson.
Clutch: What consumes most of your time these days?
Sheila C. Johnson: I am launching what we hope to be a five-diamond, five-star resort in the Virginia horse country, near Middleburg. That, and my charitable work, which includes a lot of time with CARE, for whom I travel the world as a global ambassador.
Clutch: You and Oprah are considered pioneers among Black American women. Holding such a responsibility of all eyes on you has to be burdensome. How do you handle that?
Sheila C. Johnson: In his campaign, Senator Obama is preaching the gospel of responsibility. All important decisions carry with them consequences, and all great gifts carry with them responsibility. What I find hard to fathom is how many people in the world today run from responsibility. In fact, listen to the attacks on Senator Obama for his call for Americans – especially African American men – to stand up and take responsibility for their lives and their actions, and you’ll get a taste of how incapable some people are of handling any level of what life demands of them.
Clutch: The marginalization of women has been constant fodder for discussion groups among women. What part can, and should, women do to offset and create a more powerful image of themselves?
Sheila C. Johnson: Women must create identities for themselves which are distinct and separate from the men in their lives. Women have had it ingrained in themselves through years of social and cultural conventions to become part of a man’s life, and in the process of doing that many have left big pieces of who they are as people at the doorstep.
Clutch: As a woman, did you ever feel that you were not given the credit that you deserved as a significant driving force behind BET?
Sheila C. Johnson: No question, but that’s slowly changing.
Clutch: Growing up in Chicago, did you ever imagine that you would be the impetus (along with your former husband) of a multi-billion dollar empire that is BET?
Sheila C. Johnson: I really mean this from the bottom of my heart, but never in a million years.
Clutch: You were quoted as feeling alienated by the increasingly raunchy direction of BET. How do you feel about the current state of BET programming?
Sheila C. Johnson: I really don’t watch it anymore. But I will say that from what I can tell so many hip hop videos continue to perpetuate the notion that women are little more than set pieces in the lives of men.
Clutch: Despite a public divorce from Bob Johnson, you have not stopped making moves. There are millions of women who have experienced the pains and rigors of divorce. What do you tell those women who have met heartbreak on how to move forward?
Sheila C. Johnson: Divorce may feel like the end, but it’s only the start of the rest of your life. And if you have a sense of yourself and truly know who you are as a woman and what makes you most excited about getting out of bed each morning, I promise you: the next chapter of your life can be even happier, more important and far more fulfilling than the last.
Clutch: Your philanthropic efforts are well-known. Many people with money don’t feel as obligated to give back. What makes you different in this regard?
Sheila C. Johnson: I am the way I am. My father and mother taught me to share, and it’s not much more complicated than that – unless, of course, you want to also consider the part about me making the world a better place.
Clutch: What moves do you have on the horizon?
Sheila C. Johnson: My film production efforts and my attempt to bring about social change through targeted, compelling documentaries will undoubtedly find a higher gear in the weeks and months ahead.
Clutch: What is Sheila C. Johnson’s legacy? What does she want it to be?
Sheila C. Johnson: I’m not sure what it is. That’s for others to decide. What I want, however, is to be at the epicenter of a social revolution, one in which women the world over emerge as leaders and agents of change. If I get recognized for my small role in helping that revolution come about, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that when I take my last breath I will do so knowing I tried my best to leave this world in a little better shape than I found it.
Clutch: Your passion, from what I read, is music. What is your involvement in teaching young aspiring musicians?
Sheila C. Johnson: I don’t teach anymore. But you talk about planting seeds; I cannot tell you how many successful young people have come up to me recently and told me that the lessons they learned in music class – mine or others – have been, forgive the pun, instrumental in their achieving as much as they have in life.
Clutch: What do you find yourself listening to mostly on your iPod?
Sheila C. Johnson: I still love classical music, and my taste runs the gamut.
Clutch: What are three adjectives that best describes you?
Sheila C. Johnson: Passionate. Relentless. Loving.
Clutch: What is something that most people don’t know about you?
Sheila C. Johnson: I am one hell of a cook.
Clutch: Complete these five sentences.
Sheila C. Johnson:
1) The best movie I have ever seen is…The Illusionist.
2) The most important possessions in my life are…my children (though I don’t possess them as they possess me; or at least my heart).
3) Barack Obama is…the guy whose picture you find when you take out the dictionary and look up the term, “world leader.”
4) The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is…haul my aching bones over to the treadmill.
5) The last thing I do before I go to sleep is…read some good escapist fare, like David Baldacci or John Grishman.
Clutch: How would you sum up your outlook on life?
Sheila C. Johnson: In a half-empty-glass sort of world, I’m the little girl whose cup runneth over.