Sheila Johnson Shares Her Best Advice For Finding Your Purpose

Sheila Johnson

The president of WNBA’s Mystics shares her career — and life — advice

For our January motivation series, Wake-Up Call has been exploring the concept of “purpose.” Today, we’re wrapping things up with the incredible Sheila Johnson. She’s the co-founder of BET, CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, and president of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. Here, Sheila opens up about how she found her purpose.

Lisa Ryan, editor: Sheila, you’ve had such a remarkable career. But let’s go back in time. When you were younger, did you know that you wanted to be a leader in business and sports?

Sheila Johnson: My career really took me by surprise because I started out really as a classical musician — a violinist. My parents were excellent musicians, so I was surrounded by music growing up. Music really took over my life starting in elementary school, moving into high school, and then eventually at the University of Illinois School of Music, where I went on a full scholarship and played with the university orchestra.

I thought I was just going to be playing in orchestras for the rest of my life. Then the reality hit — and I’m not disparaging the arts, but I wish they paid better. I’ve continued to play the violin and do to this day, but realized very early in my performance career that I needed to make some money. I always tell graduates: You have to be the CEO of your own life. I went door-to-door teaching violin until I could save enough money to buy a house, where I could then base my business.

So I did start very early in my violin career realizing that I had to learn to make money and I have to tell you — going from a teaching job making $7,200 a year to starting my own business in my own home, I went up to $68,000 a year.

From there, your career took you to eventually co-found BET, Black Entertainment Television. What inspired you to start that network? What gap were you seeing in the market at the time?

Well, first of all, it was in the early-to-mid ’70s, during the birth of all cable. My ex-husband was lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association. He was taking a senior citizen up on the Hill, who wanted to start a senior citizen channel. He couldn’t get the funding, and he went to throw it away in the trash. My ex-husband picked it up, and we looked at it. We crossed out “senior citizen” and put “black” in there.

We realized that there was no one out there who was thinking about starting a cable channel that really represented the African American voice. Now, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but we took the proposal to John Malone. He thought it was the best idea since sliced bread, and immediately started funding us all the way until our sale of Viacom. He got paid back royally. So it was quite a journey. The brand is as strong as ever, even though Viacom’s got it now, but it filled a void within the African American community.

Now my issue with it: I wish we had been able to keep on more news programming to really represent the African American voice — because my dream was to have it become the black CNN. It really became more of a video market. I just think that we squandered a huge opportunity to really make a difference, because what we’re seeing now is the African American voice is disappearing. You see it every now and then with the talking heads on CNN or late night television, but it’s just not the way I envisioned it.

So that was the second act of my life. And now the third act is the hospitality business.

That’s right! After BET, your career took a turn to hospitality — including sports. Now, you’re the president of the WNBA’s Mystics. Can you tell us about your path to sports?

It was being in the right place at the right time. My lesson in life is never burn your bridges. So a very dear friend who owned the Wizards and the Capitals brought me into his office one day. He said, “Sheila, I’ve admired you. I want you to be the face of the Washington Mystics.” And I said, “Well, what does that mean?” He says, “I want you to buy it.”

There had never been a woman, at that time, that had been offered that kind of a position. I had the money to do it and I said, “You know what, let me see the financials.” And he said, “Well, the team doesn’t make money.”

I realize a lot of teams don’t make money. It was more the idea of being led into that old boys club. So my attorney and I set up a call with Ted Leonsis, who I knew had first right of refusal of the Wizards. He had already bought the Caps. I told him “I don’t want to be an owner of the Mystics — but I would like to be a partner with you. And eventually when you get the Wizards and the Washington Capitals, you can get a twofer here: A woman and an African American.” He laughed, and he said, “I think it’s a great idea.” So I have to give Ted Leonsis real credit for really helping me break that glass ceiling.

And how did it feel to see the Mystics win the WNBA championship this year?

It was amazing. To this day, I watch clips from that time. It was probably one of the most stressful few weeks, going into the finals. When it came down to one game — you know, this is ESPN dream game because we were so evenly matched. In the last three minutes, it could have gone either way, but I sat next to the team and, and I could hear Elena Delle Donne saying, “We have got to kick our defense in. If we don’t, we could lose this.” I knew instinctively that we were going to make this work. They got out on the floor, they shut them down, and we won that game. I started crying. Just talking to you now, I still get goosebumps. It was probably one of the greatest thrills of my life.

Now, when you look back at your truly incredible career, that has touched on so many different fields, what would you say is your purpose?

My purpose in life is to continue to be an example as a leader. I work with so many young people, and I have over 3,000 employees. I want to be an example to them of how you really lead a company: With integrity, with courage, and with passion. I want them to take those examples to lead the rest of their lives.

What would you say to anyone who is still searching for their passion?

It’s all an individual journey. Everybody grows up in different families and in different situations, and they’re going to have to figure out who they are and what is their passion. Once they do find it, they must have patience and faith that if it’s something they really, really want to do. If it’s a journey, it’s not something that happens right away.

Also, once they do find their passion, they have to make sure that they are very careful about who they bring around them. You want to make sure you don’t bring people into your orbit that have another agenda or they’re going to steal your ideas or steal your enthusiasm or put you down. Believe me, I’ve been on that journey before. I have surrounded myself with the wrong people. You need to surround yourself with people that are going to be respectful, that are going to understand your journey, and they’ve got to be people of character and integrity.

Another passion: Your adopted hometown of Middleburg, Virginia. You founded the Middleburg Film Festival there, where you also built the Salamander Resort & Spa.

My real hometown is outside of Chicago. I moved to Washington — and then to Middleburg in 1996. My daughter is a professional show jumper, and I was out here all the time with, you know, with horses. We’ve really settled into this peaceful, wonderful community. But as I was out here, I noticed that economically, the town was not thriving. I bought a big piece of property that ran parallel to the town, and I decided to build this resort that I really believed in.

Later I got an idea from Robert Redford. I was on the board of Sundance for eight years, and he said to me, “You really should put a film festival here.” So I remembered those words — and sure enough, in 2013, we started this film festival. We opened with Nebraska with Bruce Dern, we had maybe 16 or 17 films — but about 1800 people showed up. We took over the whole town. Now we’re moving into our eighth year. We have had people from Emma Stone to Maggie Gyllenhaal and Noah Baumbach. We’ve had Green Book, Moonlight, The Two Popes, Ford v. Ferrari, The Irishman, Parasite… I call it “the road to the Oscars.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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