As vice chairman of Monumental Sports and Entertainment which owns the Washington Mystics, Wizards and Capitals, Sheila Johnson is the first African-American woman to own a part of three sports franchises. On top of that, Johnson co-founded the BET Network, has become a documentary filmmaker and also runs a hospitality business. Johnson talked about growing the WNBA, her philanthropic work and her business success as part of our Power Players series on women in the sports industry.
espnW: As the managing partner, president and part owner of the WNBA's Washington Mystics, and also an owner of the NHL's Capitals and NBA's Wizards, you're the first African-American woman to own a piece of three teams. What does it feel like to make history?
Sheila Johnson: It's empowering. It really is. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Women do not get this kind of opportunity. I have to give credit to Abe Pollin [former owner of Washington Sports and Entertainment] for giving me the chance to do this and then Ted Leonsis [owner of Monumental Sports] for letting me buy into the teams.
espnW: When you saw that the Mystics' locker room was inferior to the Wizards', you immediately ordered an upgrade. In what ways was the locker room substandard, and what else needs to be done to bring the WNBA up to the level of the NBA?
SJ: The showering facilities were substandard. There was one big shower. Girls need a little more privacy than that. I also added new lockers. Whatever was in there before was just so rundown. It was just awful. No one would want to even change their clothes in there. I was literally shocked when I saw it. It wasn't something I wanted to subject my players to.
For the WNBA, we have to get a strategic business plan together. We need a vision of how we can be more sustainable, and we also need to work on the way men view women in sports. Men respect women, but they don't respect them to the level I would like them to. That social mindset needs to be changed. Men who have daughters are much more open-minded, but there is still a majority of the male public that believes women shouldn't play sports. It's something I deal with all the time.
I really think that the fans of the WNBA are the best fans in the world. They have to understand we still have a long way to go, but we need their support.
espnW: How do we help change the way those men view women's sports?
SJ: I keep talking about it. The sponsorship has picked up this year for the Mystics because we've been out there working. We've been on the road getting companies to believe in us. The media also needs to really help us out. We need to be clever. ... When you have the NBA, throw the WNBA in there. We need to focus on integration.
espnW: Being an owner of three professional sports franchises is a responsibility few can imagine. What's a typical day like for you?
SJ: It's really, really busy. Each day, it could be doing interviews, whether over the phone or doing print interviews. It's a matter of working with the coaches, the team, watching our message boards. We look at what's being blogged about.
I have so many things going on that every day is a little different. Running the Mystics and being an owner is one of the most gratifying things I've ever done. It's a business, and I have to run it as a business. But on the soft side, I've met some of the most incredible women. I'm learning about them every day. I have a 25-year-old daughter and the similarities are there. She's an athlete. They like to win and they're good at what they do, but they have to learn from their failures and thrive on their successes.
I've learned to relax a little more because we're having a tough season with injuries. I've had to develop a thick skin, and I've learned that you just have to roll with the punches.
espnW: When you were growing up in Maywood, Ill., you made purses out of oatmeal boxes and pot warmers, then went door-to-door selling them to neighbors. You obviously developed a knack for business at a very young age. Where did that come from?
SJ: I think it was instilled in me by my parents. I enjoyed making money. My parents taught me that money doesn't grow on trees -- if you want something, you have to go and get it.
espnW: You and your husband at the time, Robert Johnson, launched BET in 1979. What do you think about the network's current programming?
SJ: It needs a lot of work. Unfortunately, it's appealing to a certain age group. It's not the real voice of the African-American community. Our voice is falling off the radar screen and we need to pick up that again. When we launched, we were having dialogue and talking about the news. It really brought the community together.
espnW: You've used your wealth and status to give back to numerous foundations and universities, including your Sheila's I Am Powerful Challenge, which raised more than $8 million in 2007 for CARE, a humanitarian organization that fights global poverty. Of all your philanthropic work, which causes or organizations are you the most passionate about?
SJ: I think the AIDS problem is something that no one wants to talk about but it's affecting young women. Because we're not talking about it, the epidemic is growing. We're seeing a real increase in the epidemic in 13- to 24-year-olds who are not using sex responsibly. They're catching this disease. We're also seeing it through drug use. A lot of women are catching this virus because of dishonesty with their partners.
The other thing that is just as important that I really believe in is film. People like to watch movies and if there's any way I can lend my voice to any of these causes, I really like to do that. I'm on the board of Sundance. We're making some really terrific movies about women for women.
espnW: How have you been able to balance your career with raising your children, Paige and Brett?
SJ: The great thing is that they're older now and they're pretty responsible. They know that I'm there for them at all times. I've got really great people who take care of me. They help me with my scheduling, they travel with me to make sure I'm not being taken advantage of. I have to give them 100 percent credit for that. They watch my back. I've got about 1,100 employees. I keep my thumb on everything that's going on. I meet with them all about once a week. I make sure there's great communication and that we're collaborating.
espnW: What is the secret to all of your business success? Do you have one lesson you can pass along to other women?
SJ: Hire slowly and fire quickly. I always do extensive background checks on the people I hire. Women really have to watch their backs and make sure that they're bringing in the best people. I didn't know the hospitality business, but I hired the best people who did know the business. Surround yourself with the best people.
espnW: You're planning to open the $130 million Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, Va., sometime next year. Your company, Salamander Hospitality, was named for the amphibian, which is able to regenerate lost limbs and survive trauma. Why did you feel the name aptly suited your company?
SJ: When I bought the farm, it was named Salamander. I talked to the previous owner, and he was an Air Force pilot who was captured, so the name applied to his resiliency. And even though I've had a good life, I've had challenges. I've had to reinvent myself. There have been times I've felt like my limbs had been chopped off and they had to regrow. I've learned from my failures. You just try and find the strength to keep going.
espnW: You spend plenty of time watching your teams in action. Are you an athlete yourself? What's your favorite thing to do when you're not working, that is if there are hours in the day that you're not working?
SJ: I love walking and weight training. I've always been a cheerleader. I was the first African-American cheerleader at the University of Illinois. I'm a good swimmer, too.
I also do a lot of reading and try to catch up on my sleep as well. I like to cook, too. My husband is a great cook, and we tend to cook together. I grow my vegetables and fruits on my farm. I believe in healthy eating.
espnW: You sewed your own wedding dress when you married Robert, you're an accomplished violinist, you were appointed to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities by Barack Obama and you've personally raised millions of dollars for a variety of organizations. What's your single proudest accomplishment?
SJ: Being the mother of two wonderful kids. That's my proudest accomplishment.