How Business Mogul Sheila C. Johnson Turned a Passion Project into a Luxury Scarf Line

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MN: I noticed that you didn’t name it Sheila Johnson Scarves or any variation of that, do you plan on expanding beyond scarves and into other categories in the future?
SJ: I already have. I have linens and ties that are available at Salamander Hotels & Resorts. I plan on continuing to expand.

MN: Salamanders are a recurring theme that show up in your business ventures. What is the significance of this animal for you?
I bought my farm in Middleburg, VA, from a gentleman named Bruce Sundlun.  He was a war hero and successful businessman who also served as Governor of Rhode Island.  During World War II, he was on a bombing mission when his plane crashed over Nazi-occupied Belgium. For months, he managed to evade capture—and so he was given the code name “Salamander” after the amphibian that can mythically walk through fire.

I was captivated by his story, and I also learned that for centuries the salamander has symbolized strength, courage, and fortitude. For example, if a salamander loses one of its limbs or its tail, it grows a new one. Resilience and perseverance are traits that really resonate with me, both professionally and personally.  So with Bruce Sundlun’s permission, I continued the name, not only for my farm but for my brand.

MN: What is your life’s purpose? Have you discovered it yet?
That’s a big question!  Let me just say that my proudest accomplishment in life is my children.  They are both amazing young people — one an athlete, one a designer — and they both work very hard and don’t take anything for granted.  The job of a parent is the hardest and most rewarding job of all, and I would give up everything I’m doing just to keep my kids in my life.

MN: What advice would you give a young woman who wants to start her own business?
Surround yourself with people who share your vision and don’t have their own agenda.

MN: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
Hire slowly… fire fast.

MN: Who and/or what inspires you?
My family and my employees.

MN: You’ll forever be in the history books as being the co-founder of BET. But you still fly under the radar? Is that by design?
I’m really focused on and excited by all the varied things I’m doing — in my work, in my philanthropy, and with my family and friends.  I have an incredibly fulfilling life, and I feel grateful every day. Whether I’m “on the radar” or not is for others to decide; it isn’t how I think about my life.

MN: What are you most excited about for the future?
I’m very excited about two big things on the horizon:  first, the newest Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, VA, which will be opening in August 2013; and second, the release of the feature film, The Butler, for which I am an executive producer.  The Butler is based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen, an African American who served as White House butler over the course of three decades and eight presidents.  It is directed by Lee Daniels and features an all-star cast including Forest Whitaker, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Oprah, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jane Fonda.  I was present for much of the shooting in New Orleans, and I can tell you, it’s going to be great.

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Sakita Holley is a lifestyle writer and the founder of House of Success, a lifestyle PR firm based in New York. You can tweet your thoughts about this story directly to the writer, @MissSuccess.

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