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Sheila C. Johnson, keynote speaker for the network 2000 Women of Excellence Luncheon. Sheila is CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Sheila Johnson: Break barriers by pursuing your passion

It’s no secret that a lot of networking in the business world takes place on the golf course. When entrepreneur Sheila C. Johnson realized that she was barred from joining many golf courses, she bought her own.

At the Network 2000 Women of Excellence Luncheon on Thursday, Johnson gave hundreds of women business leaders at the Inner Harbor Hilton her four big insights that led her to become the first African-American woman billionaire: Know yourself, take risks, build a strong team and have a supportive network.

“My goal has never been to be the first woman or first African-American to do something. I simply set out to pursue my passions at the highest level,” she said.

A report on women in the workplace by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company found that women still face greater barriers to advancement than men. While women are well represented in “support” functions, they are underrepresented in core positions, the ones that lead to the C-Suite offices.

“Put simply, these findings confirm what so many of us already know … the keys to the executive suite are held by men,” Johnson said.

As part owner of three professional sports franchises — the Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics —  Johnson entered the ultimate boys club. When she became president of the Mystics, the WNBA team didn’t have proper locker rooms for women, Johnson noted.

“Women in athletics are not respected. It’s hard for me to convince people that women sports deserve to be valued,” she said. Johnson is the first African-American woman to hold a stake in three professional sports teams.

After a career as a concert violinist, Johnson and her then-husband, Robert L. Johnson, founded Black Entertainment Television in 1980 to create a platform for African-American entertainment. Their show “Teen Summit” garnered critical acclaim and remains one of the channel’s crown jewels for Johnson.

“Kids need a place where they can speak freely and get support,” she said.

In 2005, Johnson and her husband sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion. Johnson has since publicly voiced her distaste with the channel’s current programming.

On Thursday, Johnson gave a look of displeasure as she said, “the network has changed a lot.” The crowd laughed.

These days, Johnson is living what she calls “the third act” of her life by working in the hospitality industry as founder of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, which opened its first resort in 2013 in Middleburg, Virginia.

“It’s brought me peace,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I have control of what I’m going to do day to day.”

Network 2000 is a nonprofit that brings together women business leaders across a variety of sectors. With more than 90 members, the group recognizes companies in Maryland and across the country that hire women in leadership roles.