Shelia Johnson’s Journey to Become the First Black, Female Billionaire

One of John Malone’s lucrative investments was a seed investment in Black Entertainment Television (BET). In 1979, he invested $180,000 for a 20% equity stake in BET. He loaned another $320,000, which could be drawn down over time. In 2000, Viacom purchased BET for $3.2 billion in stock. Malone received $850 million, an amazing return.

The founders of BET, Robert “Bob” Johnson and Sheila Johnson, received stock worth $1.4 billion. I was intrigued to learn more about their journeys as founders, especially since they were a husband–wife team with no prior media experience.

Sheila’s autobiography, Walk Through Fire: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Triumph, came out last year, and I started reading it yesterday. She was an entrepreneur before starting BET with Bob, and she went on to start and buy into several businesses after BET. I’m not finished with the book yet, but I can already see that Shelia provides her unique perspective on what happened behind the scenes as she built a billion-dollar company with her husband.

Sheila talks extensively about how Bob, as CEO, didn’t have a vision for BET and lacked values. He focused on generating profits and revenue by any means necessary. While the company was successful financially, BET’s programming wasn’t something she was proud of. The company’s culture was also less than stellar. The misalignment between Sheila and Bob around culture and values is what led to the company being sold. In the end, the outcome was financially rewarding, but the journey to get there was rough on Shelia and her family and left lasting scars on them.

This autobiography is different from others I’ve read. Sheila is candid and raw about the extreme highs and lows she encountered before and after BET. I’m looking forward to finishing it this weekend.

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