Sheila C. Johnson has built an empire and living legacy that is more than worthy of the accolades and positive adjectives that are so often used in her presence. That legacy includes co-founding BET, running Salamander Hospitality’s bevy of hotels and resorts, producing prominent documentary and feature-length films (she’s currently an executive producer for Lee Daniel’s feature film The Butler), becoming America’s first African-American female billionaire, and becoming the first African-American woman to own a sports team (Washington’s Mystics, Wizards and Capitals).
And now, this serial entrepreneur and philanthropist is getting into the fashion game with the Sheila Johnson Collection, a line of luxury scarves that feature one-of-a-kind photographs from her travels.
I recently caught up with Mrs. Johnson to learn more about the Sheila Johnson Collection and its philanthropic mission, the story behind the recurring salamander theme in her businesses, and what her advice would be for young women who are interested in starting their own businesses.
Madame Noire (MN): How would you describe the Sheila Johnson Collection to someone that was hearing/reading about it for the first time?
Sheila Johnson (SJ): It reflects my passion for beauty, women’s empowerment, and artistic expression as captured through the lens of the camera.
Everywhere I go, I take my camera. It forces me to slow down, and really look, and really see. And what I’ve seen is so inspiring, from the raw beauty of the natural landscape in my hometown of Middleburg, VA, to the courage of Haitian communities as they rebuild from disaster, to the resilience and strength of women in Africa. I’ve tried to capture those moments in time through my photography, and to share those stories with other women and men through wearable art.
MN: You’ve experienced considerable success with both BET and Salamander Hospitality. Why launch a new business at this stage in your life?
SJ: I am a woman who does not like to sit still. When I see opportunities where I can continue to express myself and continue to challenge the boundaries of sharing my life with others — that’s what gets me out of bed every morning.
MN: In a recent interview you shared that photography has been one of your passions for a long time. What made you choose scarves as the medium for you to share your photos?
SJ: A scarf creates a lasting emotion of feeling nurtured and embraced. Scarves give warmth and tenderness, plus they are accessories that women can use anytime and anywhere. I wanted to draw on that feeling of closeness to give meaning to the stories represented in each scarf.
MN: You also revealed that you recently formed a street soccer team called the Lady Salamanders and that proceeds from the Sheila Johnson Collection will benefit the team. How did you get involved with the team and how have these women impacted your life?
SJ: I first became aware of the street soccer movement when I served as executive producer of the documentary film Kicking It, which premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. I was inspired by the story of the players in that film, and realized there wasn’t the same focus on the women as on the men, even though they were struggling with the same problems of homelessness and addiction. Through the eyes of these women, you understand how vulnerable life is—and, also, how resilient the human spirit can be. I wanted to help support and empower them as they worked to overcome their challenges, find employment, and build stable, hopeful lives. So I sponsored and helped start the women’s national team, which is called the Lady Salamanders. I’m proud to say, they recently returned from Mexico City, where they competed in the Homeless World Cup!