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America’s First Black Woman Billionaire Promotes Diversity In The Arts And Beyond


It’s been 41 years since the owner and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts co-founded the BET network with her then-husband Robert Johnson, creating a national platform for African music videos, TV shows and films. Americans at a time when they were often excluded from the airwaves.

Today, the 72-year-old hotel mogul and co-owner of three professional sports franchises in Washington – the Wizards, Mystics and Capitals – celebrates the Black American experience on stage, as a funder and ambassador. of “Grace,” a new musical created by acclaimed composer and playwright Nolan Williams Jr. and executive producer Dale A. Mott.

Johnson, who declined to say how much she invested, says “Grace” pays homage to black culinary history as well as black women’s entrepreneurship – two central themes in her own life – while telling the story. of an African-American family in Philadelphia debating what to do with their century-old restaurant following the death of the family matriarch.

“If you listen to music, it makes you cry,” Johnson said of “Grace” in a recent CNN Business interview. “It’s like putting it all together so people can see the importance of promoting our African American leaders, really listening to all of these talents. I’m so proud to be a supporter.”

Johnson and celebrity chef Carla Hall are just two of the top twelve investors in “Grace”. In August, part of the cast will perform one of the musical numbers from the play at a “Family Reunion” event promoting diversity in the hospitality industry at Johnson’s Forbes, a five-star, 340-acre Salamander Resort & Spa. in Middleburg, Va. – one of his company’s five luxury resorts in the United States and Jamaica.

The full-length musical is set to debut at a Washington-area theater in the spring of 2022, and Johnson has said she hopes the play will eventually reach Broadway.

“We need to send a message about diversifying Broadway,” she said. “We have to support the black theater. There is just a lack of representation there.”

Not defined by its results

Johnson and her ex-husband closed their BET sale to Viacom in 2001 for an estimated total compensation of $ 3 billion, making her the country’s first black woman billionaire. The couple divorced in 2002. While Johnson understands the historical significance of her net worth, she doesn’t like to dwell on it.

“People cannot be defined by their bottom line, their bank balance,” she said. “I think that’s wrong and I really want to walk away from it. There are a lot of billionaires, multi-billionaires, trillionaires, but that’s what they do with their lives and how they give back to the community. [that matters]. “

America’s First Black Woman Billionaire Promotes Diversity In The Arts And Beyond

Turn lemons into lemonade

It was this worldview that helped Johnson navigate his luxury hotel and sports teams through the worst of the pandemic, when Covid-19 and related government closures and mandates decimated the revenue streams of both industries. .

Initially, Johnson’s management team laid off some hotel staff, but tried to make the most of a bad situation after returning to her Salamander location in Middleburg only to find that the main entrance had been padlocked by management when it was temporarily closed at the beginning of last spring.

“I could have been very upset about it, but I walked into a side door and called my general manager,” Johnson recalls. “I said, ‘I want you to bring 11 people back to work.’ We found the silver lining in that dark moment and it was called “deferred maintenance”. “

A spokesperson for Salamander Resorts said the majority of the resort’s 369 employees were laid off last spring due to the pandemic, but the company continued to pay for its benefits and health insurance. The station received an estimated PPP loan of $ 3.6 million in April before reopening in June, the company confirmed. Salamander says 100% of his P3 funds have been used to pay his staff.

“This meant that they were able to get many employees back to work safely and quickly, and many months later they are still hiring staff as demand continues to improve,” a spokesperson for the company by e-mail.

Johnson has found additional ways to use his Middleburg complex while supporting diversity in the arts during the pandemic, which has closed theaters and performance venues across the country.

In October, she hosted outdoor screenings for the Middleburg Film Festival which she had previously founded on her precinct. The resort will also host performances from the American Ballet Theater later this year, after the New York-based classical ballet company announced the cancellation of its spring and summer performance schedule.

“We have 21 wonderful dancers that we bring in,” Johnson said. “We had to find alternatives to make it work.”

America’s First Black Woman Billionaire Promotes Diversity In The Arts And Beyond

Advocacy for more black hotel managers

Johnson also challenged the hospitality industry to increase the number of senior and black executives in its ranks, an issue she addressed during her opening address at the Virtuoso Travel Week conference in last year and in recent conversations she’s had with other U.S. leaders. Association of hotels and accommodation.
African Americans, who make up about 13% of the U.S. population, made up nearly 19% of hospitality industry workers, but only 1.5% of industry leaders in 2019, according to a 2020 study conducted by the Castell Project, a non-profit organization that advocates for women in executive leadership of the hospitality industry.
Johnson says she is one of only two CEOs of black hotel chains in the United States that she is aware of. (The other is the founder and CEO of Sojourn Accommodation, Kristin Kitchen.)

“It was uncomfortable for me personally,” Johnson said of being one of the few CEOs of black hotel chains.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the number of staff Salamander Resorts employs.

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