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Celebrating Black Business Leaders - Sheila and Robert Johnson

Note: During Black History Month, we are sharing some of our most-admired black business leaders. If you would like to nominate someone, please let us know!


Sheila and Robert Johnson are America's first black billionaires. They met at the University of Illinois and married in 1969. After college, Robert began working in the small world of television. In 1970, he was a lobbyist for cable TV and saw a chance to create a channel specifically for black audiences. In1980, Robert and Sheila launched Black Entertainment Television (BET).


In the beginning, BET had only two hours of programming, but as it gained popularity in North America and the Caribbean, it began to expand its lineup. Music videos played a large role, but they soon added talk shows, sports, comedy, and political programs.

BET became so successful that in 1991 it became the first black-owned business to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It stayed on the stock exchange until 1998 when Robert and other investors bought it for private ownership. In 2000, BET sold to Viacom for $3 Billion. When the sale was finalized in 2001, Sheila and Robert became the first black billionaires.

While their marriage ended in 2002, they still succeeded in their own endeavors. Sheila now owns a hotel and spa firm called Salamander Hospitality. She is active in the film industry, earning Executive Producer credits on films The Powerful Noise and The Butler. Sheila is also the only black woman to own stakes in three sports teams (WNBA Mystics, NBA Wizards, NHL Capitals).


Robert remained CEO of BET until 2005 when he formed his own umbrella company, RBJ Industries. The company operates broadly in the media, sports, gaming, real estate, and hospitality industries.




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