Winter 2024 Bulletin

2023 Induction: Opening Celebration

David Rubenstein and Sheila Johnson sit on a stage in large black chairs during an event at the 2023 induction ceremony. David Rubenstein wears a striped suit and glasses and has short, white hair, and pale skin. Sheila Johnson wears a black dress, coat, and glasses, and has short, black hair and light brown skin.
Photo by Martha Stewart Photography.
David Rubenstein and Sheila Johnson sit on a stage in large black chairs during an event at the 2023 induction ceremony. David Rubenstein wears a striped suit and glasses and has short, white hair, and pale skin. Sheila Johnson wears a black dress, coat, and glasses, and has short, black hair and light brown skin.
Photo by Martha Stewart Photography.

2115th Stated Meeting | September 29, 2023 | Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology | David M. Rubenstein Lecture

The opening program of the 2023 Induction weekend included a reflection from actor and author John Lithgow, who encouraged the new members to engage with the Academy. He talked about his experience as a cochair of the Academy’s Commission on the Arts and shared a preview of his new television series on PBS—Art Happens Here—which grew out of the Academy’s work. The program also featured a conversation between David M. Rubenstein, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of The Carlyle Group, and Sheila Johnson, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Salamander Collection, that illuminated aspects of Johnson’s childhood, her success in a range of business ventures, and her lifelong involvement in the arts. An edited version of their conversation follows.

Actor John Lithgow stands onstage at a podium at the 2023 induction ceremony. He faces the audience with his hands raised. He has pale skin and grey hair. He wears glasses and a dark suit with a white shirt and tie.
Photo by Michael DeStefano.

David M. Rubenstein

David M. Rubenstein is Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of The Carlyle Group. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013 and is a member of the Academy’s Board of Directors and of the Academy’s Trust.

A headshot of David M. Rubenstein. He faces the camera and smiles. He has pale skin and short white hair. He wears plastic glasses, a blue and red tie, a white collared shirt, and a blue pinstriped suit. Photo courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.
Photo courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.

Sheila Johnson

Sheila Johnson is Founder and CEO of the Salamander Collection. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2023.

A headshot of Sheila Johnson. She faces the camera and smiles. She has light brown skin and short black hair. She wears earrings with diamonds and gold, a white collared shirt, and a red suit jacket with pins on the lapels.
Photo by Scott Suchman.

DAVID M. RUBENSTEIN: Sheila, thank you for joining me in a conversation this evening.

SHEILA JOHNSON:  My pleasure.

RUBENSTEIN: When you were notified that you had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was your reaction, “I can’t believe this is happening to me”? Or did you say, “Why did it take so long?”

JOHNSON: I was ecstatic to hear that I had been elected to the Academy. I learned that Dan Porterfield from The Aspen Institute had nominated me, but a few days ago I was having breakfast with Donna Shalala and she said she nominated me. So, I’m not sure who exactly nominated me, but I am very happy to have been elected a member of the Academy.

RUBENSTEIN: President Kennedy said victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan, so maybe everybody nominated you! You have done an extraordinary number of things in your life. Let’s remind everyone of a few of those things. You helped to start BET (Black Entertainment Television).

JOHNSON: Correct.

RUBENSTEIN: And as a result of the sale of BET, you became the first female Black billionaire in the United States. You are also a violinist and played with the Chicago Symphony.

JOHNSON: Yes, I did.

RUBENSTEIN: You own part of three sports teams: the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals, and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

JOHNSON: Yes, that’s true.

RUBENSTEIN: Out of whole cloth you decided to start a hotel company in an area that was not known for having many Black people.

JOHNSON: There was hardly any diversity at all.

RUBENSTEIN: You started Salamander in Middleburg, Virginia. We will talk more about that in a moment. In addition, you are a philanthropist: you have sponsored the Sheila Johnson Fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School; you have made a major gift to the National Park Service; and you are supporting other organizations. You also have been a spokesperson for CARE.


RUBENSTEIN: And now you have a new book, a memoir, Walk Through Fire. What do you do in your spare time?

JOHNSON: To be honest, I don’t have a lot of spare time, but I’m now in this third act of my life. Let me explain. The first act centered on the arts, which are the foundation of my life. I grew up playing the violin and received a degree in music education from the University of Illinois. I established a music conservatory in Jordan for Queen Noor and King Hussein. And starting Black Entertainment Television was a part of the arts media. But now I am having fun in this third act of my life.

RUBENSTEIN: Let me ask about the hotel business. I travel a lot. If I show up at a hotel late at night and I don’t have a reservation, can I negotiate the room rate? Do the people who work in your hotel have the authority to do that?

JOHNSON: We do have the authority to do that. But if you’re coming in that late at night and we know you’re coming in, someone will greet you. If it’s not me, it will be somebody else.

RUBENSTEIN: But I can negotiate the rate?

JOHNSON: Yes, you can negotiate the rate.

RUBENSTEIN: Another question: Hotel owners always tell me that they lose money on minibars, but minibars are full of very expensive items. How do you lose money on them?

JOHNSON: That’s a very good question. To be honest, I don’t know how many people actually use the minibars because they know how expensive the food is. But it’s the alcohol in the minibar where you make your money.

RUBENSTEIN: Let’s talk about your childhood. You grew up in Illinois?


RUBENSTEIN: And were your parents professors?

JOHNSON: My father was one of eight African American neurosurgeons in the country at the time. It was a tough life because back then he could only operate on African American patients. He couldn’t work in white hospitals. My parents moved us around thirteen times and that’s the way I grew up. I was like an Army brat. It was very challenging and sad for my father, and I could see it in his eyes. The racism back then was extraordinary. For the thirteenth move, we went outside of Chicago. We landed in Maywood, Illinois, because my father finally became chief of staff at Hines VA Hospital.

RUBENSTEIN: So your father was one of eight Black neurosurgeons in the United States. In your book, you mention that one day he came home and said to your mother, “I’m out of here.”

JOHNSON: He sure did.

RUBENSTEIN: Did you ever see him again?

JOHNSON: No, I never saw him again.

RUBENSTEIN: Who helped raise you? Your mother?

JOHNSON: I raised my family. At the time when my father left, women didn’t have a lot of rights. We didn’t have credit cards. My mother didn’t have access to a bank account. My father would not pay for child support. So I got a job mopping floors at JCPenney. I remember coming home one evening, and I found my mother on the floor. She was having a nervous breakdown, and that point changed my life forever. Not only did I see the helplessness of my mother on the ground, but I knew that I had to take over the family. It was my responsibility, and up until she passed, I was supporting the family.

RUBENSTEIN: You ultimately received a scholarship for playing the violin. How did you have time to practice when you were supporting your family? Would you sneak off for a couple of half hours here and there to play the violin?

JOHNSON: I would get up at midnight to practice. I would do my homework after dinner, go to bed for a while, and then get up and practice until 2:30 in the morning.

RUBENSTEIN: Did you think you had an opportunity to be a concert violinist?

JOHNSON: Though I know now that I was talented, I wasn’t that talented. Nothing like Yo-Yo Ma.

RUBENSTEIN: You weren’t like Joshua Bell?

JOHNSON: No, but I was a good orchestra violinist.

RUBENSTEIN: And so you got a scholarship from the University of Illinois.


RUBENSTEIN: And at the University of Illinois, you were playing the violin and studying, and then you met somebody who you later married.


RUBENSTEIN: The two of you moved to Washington, D.C., and your husband then, Bob Johnson, decided to start a company with you called Black Entertainment Television. Was that in the early 1980s?

JOHNSON: Actually, it was in the late 1970s.

RUBENSTEIN: BET became a hugely successful company. You ultimately took it public and later sold it to Viacom. Why was there a need for Black Entertainment Television? Weren’t there other channels offering shows that were of interest to Black audiences?

JOHNSON: Not really. At that time, there was CNN and Bloomberg. My ex-husband was a lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association, and he was taking someone to the Hill who wanted to get government approval and money to start a senior citizen channel. He was turned down, and he threw his proposal in the trash. Bob picked it up and brought it home. I read through it, replaced senior with Black, and we had our proposal for BET.


RUBENSTEIN: BET became very successful, and you were involved in running it for twenty years.

JOHNSON: Yes. But let me tell you why we started BET. No one was really focusing on the African American audience, which I thought was critical for the vision of the network. I’m not saying it should have been a Black CNN, but I really wanted to give the African American voice an opportunity to talk about issues within the African American community. I believe we still need that.

RUBENSTEIN: As you built your career, would you say you suffered more discrimination because you are Black or because you are female?

JOHNSON: Both. I was discriminated against because I am Black and because I am a woman.

RUBENSTEIN: You have two children and one is an equestrian champion, correct?

JOHNSON: Yes, and my daughter is an equestrian champion.

RUBENSTEIN: That’s a very expensive sport.

JOHNSON: Once BET started, we were making some money, so we could afford a few horses.

RUBENSTEIN: In your book, you mention that you decided to get on a horse not too long ago. How did that go?

JOHNSON: It was disastrous. My daughter wanted me to do some trail riding with her, so she put me on one of her jumpers, Warlock. We’re going through the woods and there are logs. And I’m saying, “Paige, I can’t jump this.” She says, “Just give it a try. Kick him.” So, we went over the logs and then we went into the indoor arena where a trainer was teaching me how to jump. Unfortunately, a bumblebee stung the horse, and I was thrown off. Paige kept yelling, “Let go of the reins,” which I didn’t do. The horse came down and stepped on my side.

RUBENSTEIN: Have you been back on a horse since then?

JOHNSON: No, and never again.

RUBENSTEIN: To get away from the hubbub of Washington, you decided to spend some time in Middleburg, a suburb near Washington.


RUBENSTEIN: Is Middleburg known as a place where many African American people live?

JOHNSON: No, not at all. The people of color you would see there worked on the big estates or the farms. The area became very chichi because that is where Jacqueline Kennedy would come and ride with her daughter. It has become a huge equestrian community.

RUBENSTEIN: So in Middleburg, you have a house for your family, and then you decide to build the Salamander Hotel. How was that received by the local people?

JOHNSON: Let me explain what I went through. It was a ten-year fight. I thought getting out of a bad marriage was bad. This was a nightmare. I forgot I was south of the Mason-Dixon line. I bought 340 acres of land that belonged to Pamela Harriman. She was the ambassador to France and a big Democratic fundraiser. When I bought the land, people didn’t think I was going to do anything with it. But for me, when you buy that kind of property, you have to do something with it to get your money back. What I had also learned after moving to Middleburg was that it was financially bankrupt. The place was hanging on by a thread, and I knew that if I built this resort in Middleburg, it would become the economic engine that would turn the place around.

RUBENSTEIN: Did people say, “We’re happy to have a female Black owner building something in Middleburg”?

JOHNSON: No, not at all. I had a party on the land to introduce my idea and my vision. The next morning, I was on my way to Dulles Airport and on both sides of the road there were signs “Don’t BET Middleburg.” I called my attorney and said, “I think we have a problem here.” Things went downhill from that point on. I had to fight to get permission for all of the permits. There was a conservationist group opposing me. That same group had defeated Disney. Disney wanted to build a theme park near the Manassas Battlefield, but they pulled out because of the intense fighting with that group. It was clear they didn’t want me in Middleburg. But it was equally clear that they did not understand how important it was to bring business to the area.

RUBENSTEIN: Ultimately you got approval to build by one vote, as I recall.

JOHNSON: Yes, I won by one vote.

RUBENSTEIN: So now you are starting to build and the great recession happens, making it difficult to finance these types of projects.

JOHNSON: I got a call from the bank and JPMorgan. Jamie Dimon said I should mothball the project until we can see our way out of this recession. We didn’t want to lose any more money.

RUBENSTEIN: When you were starting out, you didn’t have a lot of money. You then made a good amount of money. Is it fair to say that you were afraid you might go back to not having enough money, so you mothballed the project?


RUBENSTEIN: But eventually you did build it, and it became a very large and successful hotel resort area in Middleburg.

JOHNSON: We have 168 rooms, and we are now building residential units there.

RUBENSTEIN: You also own and manage six other hotels. What is the toughest job in a hotel? Cleaning the rooms?

JOHNSON: I was telling some people earlier that our hotels are so full, especially the one in Middleburg, and that there are times when my staff is very overwhelmed. So, I will help out and bus tables for them. I will do anything I can do to help because for five years in a row, we have won a Forbes 5-star rating.

RUBENSTEIN: When you have a 5-star hotel that is always booked, do you get people calling who say, “I want to stay here. Don’t you know who I am?”

JOHNSON: I get those types of calls. Someone will call my office and say, “I know Sheila Johnson. Do you think that I can get my rates reduced?”

RUBENSTEIN: Really? They want the rate reduced?

JOHNSON: I say no. You know, I’m running a business.

RUBENSTEIN: So while you are running that business, you decide to become an owner of a sports franchise. How did that come about? Did somebody approach you and say, “We would like you to buy a majority interest in a professional sports team?”

JOHNSON: This is a case in which you never want to burn your bridges. I had become very close with the Pollins. Abe Pollin owned the Capitals, the Wizards, and the Mystics. He was getting on in life and decided to sell the Caps to Ted Leonsis, who had right of first refusal once Abe passed to buy the Wizards. One day, Susan O’Malley, the president of Abe’s organization, called and said, “Abe wants to see you in his office.” So, I went to see him. And Abe said, “Sheila, you know I respect you. I want you to become the face of the Washington Mystics.” I said, “What do you mean by ‘the face of’?” knowing exactly what he wanted. His answer: “I want you to buy the Washington Mystics.”

RUBENSTEIN: He wanted you to buy the women’s basketball team? Was the team making a lot of money?

JOHNSON: It was not making money at all. And I knew that. But I also knew that a door had opened for me and for women and for some people of color. I said I can either walk through this door or not walk through it. I called my attorney and said, “I’ve just been offered a basketball team.” And he said, “You do not want to own a sports team.” And I said, “But if you were offered a sports team, what would you do?” He hesitated, and then he answered my question. One of the other lessons that I have learned is that when men get offers like this and those doors open, they go right through them. And I was going to do that too. When I got to my attorney’s office, I called Ted Leonsis. I said, “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse. You can get a woman and a woman of color. I want to buy into the Caps, into the Wizards, and into the Mystics for not a penny more or a penny less than the rest of the owners.” His response was “Well, you know, we have escalating prices.” I said, “I want to be right up there. I want to play an important role as a woman and as an African American.”

RUBENSTEIN: In other words, you didn’t want to own only the women’s basketball team. You wanted to own the men’s basketball team and the hockey team too?

JOHNSON: Absolutely.

RUBENSTEIN: Okay, so now you’re an owner. Do you go into the locker rooms and give them pep talks?

JOHNSON: No. I made a mistake and I did do that once with my women’s team. There was a reporter there and it got into the newspaper the next day. That taught me a lesson to stay out of the locker room.

RUBENSTEIN: You have obviously succeeded at many things. Have you ever thought about running for office? Perhaps for president?


RUBENSTEIN: Is it because you are not old enough yet?

JOHNSON: No, it’s not that. I have no desire to get into politics. But I would love to be an ambassador someday.

RUBENSTEIN: Really, an ambassador?


RUBENSTEIN: Other than your election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, what is your proudest achievement?

JOHNSON: Let’s talk about philanthropy. I believe in the double bottom line. I believe in education. I believe in the arts. David Gergen came to me. I had been lecturing at the Kennedy School at Harvard, and he said, “Sheila, I have a great idea. We are trying to get more students of color at the Kennedy School.” So, we sat down and talked and put together a five-year plan in which we would bring in ten students from underserved communities every year for the next five years. I would pay for their education, their health care, and so on. Students would apply and the Kennedy School would make the final selection. But I didn’t want to just write a check. I wanted to be involved in the students’ lives. And to this day all fifty students call me Mama J. I’m still in touch with them. They have become very successful. I also wanted to give them a safety net. So funded by the money that I gave to the school, we had four incredible people whom these students could go to in case they had problems. And not just problems of trying to acclimate to Harvard. We were trying to teach them how to set boundaries around family.

RUBENSTEIN: You have had to overcome a lot of challenges in your life.


RUBENSTEIN: Your father walked out. You had a child die in your arms in the hospital. As you look back on America, do you see it as a place for opportunity where people can come and achieve the kinds of things you have achieved? Or is this country still stacked against women and people of color?

JOHNSON: One thing I learned from all the adversity that I’ve been through is that I want to be able to pay my success forward, to help young people in need. People stepped up and helped me, so it’s important that I do that for others.

RUBENSTEIN: Are you still playing the violin?

JOHNSON: I still play the violin and I also took up the cello during the pandemic.

RUBENSTEIN: Your story is an incredible one. You have overcome challenges, and your accomplishments are truly inspiring. We are so pleased that you have been elected to the American Academy and will be inducted tomorrow.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much.

© 2024 by David M. Rubenstein and Sheila Johnson, respectively

A large audience watches two people talk on a stage. The audience is in the dark. The people sit in large chairs on the stage. They are bathed in blue lights and surrounded by blue curtains. Behind them, a projection screen reads American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Photo by Michael DeStefano.


To view or listen to the presentation, visit the Academy’s website.