How Billionaire Sheila Johnson Is Transforming Communities Through Philanthropy

Jackie Robinson Foundation 2019 Annual Awards Dinner

NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 04: Sheila Johnson speaks onstage during the Jackie Robinson Foundation 2019 Annual Awards Dinner on March 4, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Jackie Robinson Foundation)


Mar. 19 2024, Published 3:19 p.m. ET

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Businesswoman Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of BET and renowned philanthropist, has continued to use community-oriented initiatives to transform and improve the lives of others.

She has remained committed to grassroots efforts through initiatives that focus on economic empowerment for low-income dwellers in marginalized communities across different states. Here are some of her most impactful initiatives helping people around the country.

The First African American Woman Billionaire

Source: Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Women in Sports Foundation

Sheila C. Johnson accepts her Billie Jean King Leadership Award at the Women in Sports Awards Gala in New York City.

In the early 2000s, Johnson was the first Black woman to be declared a billionaire in the United States after selling her stake in Viacom for almost $3 billion. 

She is the co-founder of BET and one of her generation’s most notable hospitality businesswomen. Her Salamander Resort & Spa remains one of the largest in the country, and she’s also written many inspiring books to motivate rising entrepreneurs.

However, it’s her work in the community where she has made the biggest impact.

Supporting Education And Women’s Empowerment 

Johnson is known for advocating for women’s rights, especially in the workplace. Today, she supports diverse programs designed to uplift women in leadership positions.

“Besides the arts, I’m a longtime supporter of education,” she told NBC News. “I’ve been engaged with young people at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. So far, we’ve worked with 40 students; we hold leadership retreats with people like John Lewis and Donna Brazile.”

In 2006, Johnson was named a global ambassador for CARE, a leading aid organization that fights global poverty by empowering women.

She went on to raise over $8 million thanks to her I Am Powerful” campaign. 

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“We take for granted in this country things that we do have,” Johnson said about the global initiative’s mission. “And one of the reasons why I’ve sent these Jackie Robinson students over there is so they can see what’s really going on globally, to get more of a global perspective, so that they can then bring those lessons back to help others, and we can start strengthening these young people to become leaders.”

Encouraging The Value Of Arts And Culture Programs

Johnson is the founder of the Middleburg Film Festival, which she started to bring film to the small town in Virginia, where Johnson has lived for over 25 years. Since Middleburg does not have a movie theater, the films are screened at Sheila’s Salamander Resort. 

“As an avid filmgoer and film producer, I’ve seen over and over the power of films,” she shared on the festival’s website. “Movies have a rare and magical ability to inspire, educate, engage, and entertain. They lift us up out of our everyday lives, help us see others’ points of view, and build new and much-needed bridges of empathy and understanding.”

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Advocating For Community Development

Johnson’s commitment to uplifting underserved communities runs deep. She has supported dozens of local communities across the country. 

Her community development initiative, the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, promotes development in Black communities. It includes job creation opportunities aimed at enhancing community living standards.

“Philanthropy is very important to me,” she told Middleburg Life. “It really helps me a lot psychologically to know that I’ve done my fair share of trying to lift others.” 

Using Her Position To Combat Social Justice 

Johnson is always at the forefront of advocating for increased social engagement, especially among minorities. She has used her position to encourage active participation in politics, social justice, and equality. 

“I experienced firsthand racism at its highest level,” she told the local news outlet. “I did not let it stop me… I’m a grandparent now, and if things don’t change, I worry about [my grandchildren’s] future.” 

Johnson’s commitment to serving others has left a mark on many and is a true testament to the power of giving back. Thanks to her selfless attitude, she is not only a driver of change but leaves behind an impactful legacy we can all learn from.  

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