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Leading entrepreneur Sheila Johnson speaks at USF

As the embodiment of many firsts -- first black woman to be owner or partner in three professional sports teams, first African-American female billionaire -- Sheila Johnson knows first-hand how difficult it can be for women to succeed in sports, and in business, and in life.

Sheila Johnson

Johnson spoke to a USF audience on Tuesday night about how she overcame those challenges, and about the challenges women still face in the locker room and the board room. Johnson is CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts (which owns Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor); vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment; co-founder of BET; the first African-American woman to be an owner or partner in three professional sports teams; and president and managing partner of the Washington Mystics WNBA team.

Johnson spoke to students and community members in the Marshall Center Oval Theater as part of the USF Sport & Entertainment Management Program's second annual lecture series, sponsored by Fox Sports Florida and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"We were so fortunate recently when there was a big-time game in our community -- we were bidding on the Women's Final Four -- that we had a big time player," said Rob Higgins, the executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, as he introduced her.

In Johnson's speech, she compared being a business leader to being a coach in the four quarters of a basketball game.

Sheila Johnson

"Building a company is like building a basketball team: It starts with finding the best talent," Johnson said. "For me, integrity, the ability to grow, and embracing healthy competition are three core values that define my hospitality company and my WNBA team."

During the question and answer portion of the event, she spoke extensively about the obstacles she had faced as a powerful women in business, and the difficulties that women coming up through the ranks are facing now.

Growing up as an African-American during the Civil Rights era, Johnson said she had few role models who looked like her, so she looked up to her mother -- who instilled a sense of resiliency that sticks with her today.

"It was a tough era," she said. "I didn't have mentors. I had to swim upstream, like a salmon."

Johnson described fighting to get the Washington Mystics the respect they deserved: down to having to negotiate for office space and locker rooms.

"To me, winning isn't just about getting beyond the baseline yourself," she said. "It's about getting others there as well."

As Johnson recounted a time one of her employees had directed a sexist profanity at her in a business meeting, members of the audience gasped.

"You just don't put up with that kind of disrespect," she told a student who had asked for Johnson's advice for young women in the sports industry today. "There are so many people out there that don't take women seriously. You be very firm and you let them know that you have power. You have to empower yourself."

USF President Judy Genshaft, handing Johnson a commemorative award, thanked her effusively for her presence at the speaker series.

"As someone who considers myself a strong woman ... I love you!" Genshaft said. "You took my breath away, and I'm so proud of all that you do."