An accomplished musician, entrepreneur, philanthropist and businesswoman, Sheila Johnson is now tackling the hospitality industry in what she refers to as her “third act.”
By Tiffanie Wen
Sheila Johnson can sometimes be seen walking throughout her company’s flagship 340-acre Salamander Resort & Spa in the historic town of Middleburg, Virginia. Though the entrepreneur and businesswoman oversees a growing portfolio of luxury properties—including three Golf Collection Resorts, and The Henderson, a new 170-room luxury beach resort in Destin, Florida—the equestrian-inspired property located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains is her local headquarters. It’s where Johnson, the founder of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, works closely with her management team and greets high-profile guests like Michelle Obama.
Johnson says the stunning mountains and natural surroundings serve as daily source of inspiration. Salamander Resort & Spa, which took 11 years to design and build, was completed in 2013. It closely resembles her own home, a renovated 19th-century house set on a 165-acre horse farm in Middleburg.
But before she discovered Middleburg and started what she refers to as her “third act” in life, Johnson overcame a challenging childhood, became an esteemed violinist and achieved nationwide fame for co-founding Black Entertainment Television (BET). The serial entrepreneur and philanthropist, mother and wife, is the only African-American woman to have ownership in three professional sports teams (the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics). She also serves on the Board of Governors of The New School/Parsons School of Design in New York, and is an executive committee member of the United States Golf Association.
Johnson continues to break barriers as a minority and female icon in America, and has now turned her eye toward the hospitality industry—with remarkable results.
Act One: A Mobile Upbringing
Johnson was born in 1949 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. But she wouldn’t call the Keystone State home for long. Her father was one of only 11 African-American neurosurgeons working in America at the time and struggled to find employment. “He was so distraught because he couldn’t find work in hospitals—they just didn’t want black doctors,” Johnson recalls. Eventually her father secured a position with Veterans Affairs. “They transferred us every 10 months, and he would do surgeries on other African-American military personnel. That was our life.”
Because money was tight, Johnson became entrepreneurial at a young age, making and selling potholders door to door. “I was between 5 and 7 years old, and those were the days where we felt safe in the neighborhood,” she says. “And I always loved the arts—I enjoy making things. My mother said, ‘That was the beginning of how you’ve always worked for yourself.’ ”
Moving so often had other positive consequences. Johnson learned to be more resilient, to assimilate in different contexts and get along with all kinds of people.
“Many people stay in one neighborhood all their lives and are a little paralyzed about going outside those boundaries,” she says. “I had no problem doing that from a young age. I love traveling and meeting new people, and that’s probably why I’m in the hotel business today.”
Her experiences also characterize her management style. “Some of the things that set her apart as a leader have a lot to do with her down-to-earth nature,” says Prem Devadas, president of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, who has worked alongside Johnson since 2005. “She is comfortable with dealing with people at all levels—from the boardroom to the hourly employees in our organization. And it’s really recognized and appreciated by all.”
By fifth grade, her family settled outside of Chicago. Johnson started playing and excelling at the violin, ultimately earning a scholarship to study music at the University of Illinois, where she started what would become a lifelong exercise of breaking down barriers to minorities and women: She was the only African-American in her department and the first African-American cheerleader at the school.
Act Two: Fame and Fortune
It was also in college where she met Bob Johnson, whom she married after graduation in a wedding that cost $50. In the early years of their marriage, she taught violin at a private school to help support the family, but soon realized she could earn more by instructing independently.
“I would go door to door, teaching in homes, until we could finally afford a house to have the students come to me,” she says. “I kept very strict records, and it was amazing how much money you could make as an entrepreneur, working
That was just the beginning of her adult entrepreneurial career. In 1980, she and Bob launched BET, the first regular programming to target an African-American audience. What started as a two-hour block of programming expanded to a 24-hour cable TV franchise within just a few years.
Sheila, who Forbes has called “BET’s unsung co-founder,” served on the board, worked as vice president and created a show called “Teen Summit,” which brought together young people to discuss pertinent issues. But because of advertising sales, the station increasingly broadcast music videos and explicit content over the years. In 2001, the couple sold it to Viacom.
Though the marriage ultimately didn’t last, the legacy of BET would, as would her close relationships with her two children: Paige, a champion equestrian, and Brett, an emerging menswear designer whose collection is sold in select boutiques around the world.
Act Three: The Start of Salamander
When Sheila relocated to Virginia in 1996 following her divorce, she knew she had found a permanent home. “It was at a period in my life when I needed to make that move,” she says. “Bringing myself to Virginia just opened a whole new chapter … and it was great.”
She says she got to know the area over the years when her daughter participated in equestrian competitions there. “I remember driving around back then, especially in the Middleburg area, and falling in love with the environment—the beautiful landscaping and the calmness,” she says. “It was just amazing how peaceful I felt.”
After purchasing a 200-acre farm, Sheila expressed interest in changing the name. She discovered that the previous owner, Bruce Sundlun, a B-17 bomber pilot in World War II, had named it after his codename, “Salamander.” Sundlun later graduated from Harvard Law School and served as governor of Rhode Island. He gave Sheila permission to return the name “Salamander Farm” to the property, and the concept stuck, becoming the name for her hospitality enterprise, Salamander Hotels & Resorts, and the flagship resort.
“I really believe in the double bottom line—and that is giving back to the community. I want to be as successful as I possibly can so I can help others.” — Sheila Johnson
In 1996, Sheila embarked on a five-year renovation of the entire property and more than doubled the square footage of the colonial-style house “with Tuscan flair” in the process. As far as a metaphor for rebuilding from a difficult time in her life, it doesn’t get much better. “It was fun and it was creative,” she says. “It took a lot of stress from me, and I enjoyed doing it. It was a masterpiece, and it was what I needed at the time.”
The house would also be the scene for Johnson’s 2005 wedding to William T. Newman Jr., the Arlington court’s chief judge, and a marriage characterized by fun and mutual support. Though Newman lives in Arlington during the week, the couple manages to spend every weekend together, either on the farm or in Arlington. “He’s my biggest cheerleader,” Sheila says of her husband. “We have so much fun—there’s never a dull moment.”
That joy is a significant part of Sheila’s wellness-focused life, which begins each day with a wake up from her Goldendoodle at 5 a.m., followed by an hourlong walk around the farm. In 2002, she decided to spread her approach to health and hospitality, and purchased the 340-acre tract of land in Middleburg where Salamander Resort & Spa now sits.
Like her land, the property looks out onto the Blue Ridge Mountains. “There’s a natural beauty to the land in the Middleburg area that I think is absolutely breathtaking,” Sheila says. “We’ve got a plethora of different kinds of trees here and wildlife. And when I first walked up to the tract, I saw all the similarities to my farm’s property, and I just knew that that’s where the resort had to go. It was the most natural, scenic area I had ever seen.”
With several design similarities between the resort and her home, they are, in a way, extensions of one another, with Sheila even hosting more intimate events at her private property. Fruits and vegetables grown on her farm and the resort are incorporated into the dining at Salamander Resort & Spa and are sold in a market in town. The equestrian facilities are very similar to one another, and both properties include putting greens and miles of hiking trails. Like her private farm, which she says has plenty of “nooks and crannies where you can kind of disappear and read a book, relax or meditate,” the resort features plenty of areas for a peaceful hideaway or close-knit event.
The fact that Sheila was motivated by the allure of the area doesn’t surprise Della Britton Baeza, the president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation and a close personal friend of Sheila’s. Baeza says that Sheila sees and appreciates beauty everywhere she goes. “She is such a brilliant, creative talent,” she says. “It clearly comes through in her hospitality work and her enthusiasm in her sports and film endeavors and her photography, which is really a hobby of hers—she always seems to have her camera with her.”
Several of Sheila’s photographs are displayed in guest rooms and suites and in public areas of Salamander Resort & Spa. Her dedication to the arts is demonstrated in many of her other endeavors as well, such as the award-winning film “The Butler,” for which she was an executive producer, and her philanthropic work, like the Sheila C. Johnson Performing Arts Theater at the Hill School of Middleburg.
But she says it’s her projects aimed at disadvantaged youth that are some of her most satisfying. “I really believe in the double bottom line—and that is giving back to the community,” she says. “I want to be as successful as I possibly can so I can help others.” Her fellows program at the Harvard Kennedy School, for example, will provide 50 students from underserved communities with full tuition, health coverage and a stipend.
“She has been a tremendous asset for women, minorities and children in everything that she does—both from a work and philanthropic standpoint,” Devadas says. “Those things are very important to our core values at Salamander Hotels & Resorts. We have a real vision now and in the future to increase the number of minorities and women in top-level management positions.”
Those who know her best emphasize that Sheila is one of the hardest workers they have ever met—with an infectious, supportive and thoughtful work ethic and leadership style. With plenty more philanthropic projects and a goal of expanding her hospitality portfolio to at least a dozen hotels in the next five years or so, she shows no signs of slowing down, and pauses only briefly when asked about the potential for an “act four.”
“I think act three is going to take a while,” she says with a laugh.
It’s a Wrap
Salamander Hotels & Resorts founder Sheila Johnson transforms inspiring scenes into wearable art.
Johnson is a woman of many talents and interests, from entrepreneurship to the arts. Her longtime passion for photography inspired the Sheila Johnson Collection, which includes a line of beautiful modal scarves crafted in Florence, Italy. The scarves are printed with one-of-a-kind photos taken by Johnson herself, who carries her camera with her on all of her travels. Patterns include landscapes captured around her home in Virginia, captivating scenes from Haiti, Rwanda and Uganda, and close-ups of leaves, flowers and other natural elements. Each scarf is made by an artisan, so that each piece is as unique as the moment in time displayed in its print. For more information, visit sheilajohnsoncollection.com.