When society speaks of African-Americans who have contributed so much to American life, culture and business, Sheila Johnson’s name is definitely an honorable mention. The first Black woman billionaire didn’t create her empire in one day, but instead laid years of dedication and integrity as a solid foundation ahead of time.

Sheila Johnson was born in 1949, in Mckeesport, PA, but due to the nature of her father’s career as a neurosurgeon, her family moved around often. Her parents enrolled her in an all-white school in the early 1950’s, in Kentucky before desegregation was federally mandated. 

Due to her fair skin, most of her classmates assumed she was white. Her family moved around a few more times, but settled in Maywood, Illinois when she was in 5th grade. The school district required every student to play an instrument and she took a particular liking to the violin. She continued playing the violin which secured her a full scholarship to the University of Illinois to study music. Interesting enough, she was the first Black student in the music department, as well as the first Black cheerleader at the university.

After graduation, Sheila got married to Robert Johnson, also known as Bob Johnson of BET, and they moved to Washington D.C. Robert worked as a lobbyist for the cable TV industry, while she worked teaching music at a private school.

Sheila signed for the company’s very first loan in 1979 and was extremely vital in getting the network started. The company made history as the first African-American controlled company listed on the New York stock exchange in 1991. The Johnson’s took BET private in 1998 for $1.3 billion dollars, with Viacom buying them out for $2.3 billion dollars.

“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,” Sheila told Katie Kouric. “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.”

In 2002, Sheila and Robert parted ways and she sold her shares in Viacom to invest in other ventures such as a string of hotels, real estate and horses. She also founded Salamander Hotels and Resorts. She continues to champion Black voices with accomplishments such as being the executive producer of Lee Daniel’s ‘The Butler.’

The 73-year-old mogul continues to flawlessly add groundbreaking accomplishments to her resume. Most recently, the business woman is part owner of the NHL Washington Capitals, a part of the NBA Washington Wizards, and has a stake with the Mystic of the WNBA. All of these accolades have collectively made Johnson the first Black woman billionaire.

“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.”