On this all-star day in Cleveland, the heavy hitters weren’t just at the ballpark.
To headline the United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland’s annual meeting at Windows on the River in the Flats, the group brought in millionaire businesswoman Sheila C. Johnson to talk about her unique style of philanthropy.
WKYC anchor Russ Mitchell moderated a “fireside chat” with the pioneering philanthropist, who co-founded Black Entertainment Television and is now a co-owner of three pro sports teams – the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.
To a packed crowd of more than 300, Johnson said that her mom raised her to be a giver. “It was something that was in my DNA. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning,” said Johnson, a big supporter of the arts and education.
In her answers to Mitchell’s questions, she outlined a variety of approaches she is taking to leave her mark on society, including underwriting cause-oriented films, funding scholarships for young people and providing venture capital for female entrepreneurs.
Johnson said that when she helped establish BET, she hoped it would become a respected news outlet with a uniquely black perspective. She spoke bluntly about her disappointment as it devolved into a channel showcasing less-than-classy music videos and shows. “I wanted it to be like CNN,” she said, but “we did not get the advertising support, which pays the bills. We did not have the audience support.” BET is now owned by Viacom.
Even today, a strong African-American perspective in news is missing from the media, she said. “We are squandering our opportunity,” she said. “We need to start trusting our own voice.”
Johnson said she now funds scholarships for disadvantaged students at Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership and hopes they can help change the media landscape. “I have challenged them: I want to see you on CNN. They are so smart…these young people are brilliant and they need to be heard.”
To Mitchell’s question about entering the exclusive world of pro sports ownership, Johnson said she has made a point of championing diversity at every opportunity, including as a board member of the U.S. Golf Association. It’s challenging work, she said, “but it’s very, very rewarding.”
Johnson is also founder of CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts and lives in Middleburg, Va.