Shelia Johnson: Struggle Led to Billions

Today I finished reading Sheila Johnson’s autobiography, Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph. Johnson is the cofounder of Black Entertainment Television (BET).  She became the first Black, female billionaire in 2000 when the company was sold for $3.2 billion to Viacom.

Johnson was the lesser-known BET cofounder, but she’s a serial entrepreneur. She was an accomplished violinist, and before going full-time at BET, she built a music business. She taught music and founded a youth orchestra that performed globally, including for royalty. After BET, Johnson founded Salamander Hospitality, a five-star hospitality company with properties in Jamaica, Virginia, DC, South Carolina, Florida, and Colorado.

Johnson has had outsize success, but her book doesn’t focus on that. Johnson is candid about dealing with insecurities, feeling like an outsider, and experiencing infertility, betrayal, public humiliation, and self-doubt. She’s open about her internal and external struggles, their impact on her, and how she overcame them. Johnson is 75 and has struggled at every life stage since adolescence. She still struggles today, despite being successful beyond her wildest dreams.

Her openness about her struggles and her wisdom are valuable, especially to entrepreneurs. Here are my takeaways:

  • Partner alignment – Johnson is guided by her values. Her BET cofounder, who was her husband, didn’t operate with ethics or values. His words, acts, and decisions created a difficult culture at BET and problems in their relationship. Alignment of values is critical. If you’re setting out to do the impossible with others and aren’t aligned on values, your journey will become orders of magnitude more challenging.
  • Everything starts small – Each of Johnson’s businesses started off tiny. For example, only ten people attended BET’s launch party, and they ate potato chips because they were “pretty broke.” Starting small is part of the journey.
  • Don’t give up – In each business, Johnson encountered massive setbacks. Some of them sent her into deep depression. When things looked bleak and there was no clear path to success, she didn’t give up. She kept moving forward, and continual progress prevented her from getting stuck in her troughs and ultimately led to outsize successes. Survival is often a big factor separating winners from losers—figure out how to keep moving forward so you can stay in the game long enough to win.
  • Experience – Johnson had no media or hospitality experience, but she didn’t let that stop her. She created large companies in both industries by learning as she went along and finding people she could work with who filled her industry knowledge gaps. You don’t always need personal experience to win in a space.

Greatness doesn’t come easy.  Struggle is an inevitable part of the journey. In Johnson’s case, the struggles were sometimes deep and dark. But surviving struggle often leads to outsize success. You learn resiliency and that you’re capable of more than you thought.

I’m glad I found this book. Johnson is a great entrepreneur, and I’m glad she shared her struggles publicly.

You can listen to audio versions of my blog posts on Apple here and Spotify here.