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7 things I learned from the first black female billionaire (no, not Oprah)

Mary Johnson, Editor
Sep 16, 2014, 5:19pm EDT Updated: Sep 17, 2014, 10:00am EDT

Editor's note: Bizwomen editor Mary Johnson is reporting from New York City, where she is attending "Game Changers: The Intersection of Women and Sports," presented by the SportsBusiness Journal (a Bizwomen sister publication).

Sheila Johnson wasn’t able to take advantage of Title IX, the 40-year-old federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in education.

She was in college at a time when it was OK for girls and boys to be treated differently. And it kept her off the field.


Sheila C. Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), was the keynote speaker at the Sports Business Journal's Game Changers conference in New York City.

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“Like a lot of women my age who grew up in the pre-Title IX days, competing wasn’t really an option for me,” Johnson said. “So I got as close as I could. I was a cheerleader, which frankly I loved.”

But for Johnson, co-founder of the BET network and now CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, college wasn’t her last opportunity to get involved in sports. She’s the vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment and president and managing partner of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

She serves on the executive committee of the United States Golf Association, and she gave the keynote address at the Sports Business Journal’s “ Game Changers: The Intersection of Women and Sports” conference in Manhattan on Tuesday.

Johnson had a lot of things to say when she took the stage at the event, but here are seven that stood out during her thoughtful and inspiring speech.

People who break down barriers start early.

Like Johnson said, she was a cheerleader in college. She didn't play a sport. But for her, picking up her pair of pompons was legendary.

She was the first African-American cheerleader at the University of Illinois.

Now, she’s a billionaire, reportedly the first black female billionaire in the United States. (That’s right, she beat Oprah to the punch.) And she’s the only African-American woman to have an ownership stake in three professional sports teams: the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals, in addition to the Mystics.

“It’s no secret that pro sports is traditionally an old boys club, and let’s be honest, I’m no definition of a good ol’ boy,” Johnson said.

Playing sports is valuable leadership training.

Johnson threw out an interesting stat during her speech: 96 percent of women in the C-suite played sports at some level.

Those are the women who need to speak out about how important sports can be in shaping a career, she said.

“Let’s get them to share their stories that, even if you’re not an elite athlete, the benefits of playing sports can follow you your whole life,” she said. “Let’s get the world talking about women’s sports, and let’s make sure everyone understands why it should have a place on the agenda and why it should have a priority.”

Success is relative.

Johnson bristled at the notion that women’s sports are somehow lagging behind the success of men’s sports.

“Think about it this way: The NBA was founded in June of 1946. By 1952, attendance was just over 3,500 people, fans, during the regular season,” she said.

By its 10 th season, the NBA was excited to hit 4,000. The 8,000 mark eluded the NBA until its 26 th season, she added.

“Now we (the WNBA's Mystics) get pressure if we only have 4,800 in our stands, and during playoff time, we can go as high as 10, 12,000. And we are in our 17 th year,” Johnson said.

There’s a big difference between the men’s locker room and the women’s locker room.

Johnson said one of the biggest challenges is making sure women’s sports have the resources they need to succeed.

She talked in particular about the first time she saw the locker room of the Washington Mystics. She’d just come from the Washington Wizards locker room, which was all high tech and modern and huge with pool tables. It was so plush that it said to anyone who entered that these athletes had made it, she said.

“Exactly what you would imagine a professional sports team would or should have. And it’s also what a professional sports team deserves to have,” she said. “Then I was taken in to the Mystics locker room. Couldn’t believe it.”

The women’s locker room was as big as the stage Johnson was standing on (translation: not big). The technology was far out of date, if it was there at all, she said.

“Now what made me so upset … it was the message that was being sent,” she said. “It said women are not valued or taken seriously. It said, ‘You’re going to have to work twice as hard for half as much.’”

That has since changed. Johnson engineered a total remodel of the space.

“It’s still about as big as this stage, but at least it’s decent,” she said.

Golf — yes, golf — is paving a path to equal billing in sports.

“I know what you’re thinking. For most of its history, golf has not been the poster child for gender, racial or economic diversity,” Johnson told the crowd Tuesday.

But she assured them: The United States Golf Association is “boldly embracing an agenda to turn the links into a place where everyone feels welcome.”

Johnson, who sits on the executive committee of the USGA, was in the meetings that led up the organization’s monumental decision to combine the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Open tournaments this year. They were held back to back, and it was a deliberate move to provide an equal stage for men and women, to showcase all the talent on the same playing field, Johnson said.

“The best part is the U.S. Women’s Open television ratings increased by over 100 percent. It was a great day for women athletes, and it was a great day for all athletes.”

Soccer can help people kick addiction.

Johnson was the executive producer on a documentary titled “ Kicking It,” which looks at how playing soccer changed the lives of homeless people.

When she did the film, she realized that no women were involved, and a lightbulb went off. Johnson has since launched nine soccer teams comprised entirely of homeless women.

“I’ve been able to raise money for them that helps kick addiction through sports, that gets them back gainfully employed and that gives them their self-worth back,” Johnson said.

Salamanders are really, really tough.

Those soccer teams Johnson started are called the Lady Salamanders.

Her company is Salamander Hotels & Resorts.

Salamanders are kind of her thing.

“That has been my brand in building my company,” she said.


Legend has it that salamanders are the only animal that can walk through fire and still come out alive. And when you chop of their limbs, she continued, they regenerate.

In other words, they’re tough. Like Johnson.

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Bernell Hooker

Bernell Hooker is the Founder and CEO of Images of Us (IOU) Sports; a non-profit organization that empowers girls and women through education and sports. "Think of yourself as an athlete. I guarantee you it will change the way you walk, the way you work, and the decisions you make about leadership, teamwork, and success." - Mariah Burton Nelson