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Hundreds Attend the Celebration of Free Enterprise Event Wednesday Honoring Sports, Hospitality, Entertainment Magnate Sheila Johnson

By Keith Morelli

TAMPA (March 9, 2017) -- Sheila Johnson, whose grace belies her hard-nosed business style, told a room full of high achievers that her career as a determined woman of firsts would not have happened without flexibility, tenacity and a knack for negotiation.

They are traits that thread through her entire life.

She was the first African-American woman to chair the Illinois all-state music competition, which won for her a second first: a full scholarship to the University of Illinois to study music. From there, her career soared, leaving shards of shattered glass ceilings all along her path to become the first African-American woman to reach billionaire status.

And on Wednesday night, she became the first woman – and the first African-American – in 30 years to be presented with the University of South Florida's Celebration of Free Enterprise award.

Woven throughout the celebration was the legend of the salamander, a creature said to have the ability to survive a walk through fire (not true), but one that does have a personality encompassing resilience, perseverance and fortitude, all qualities that define Johnson, founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts.

"Building your business takes a lot of patience," she told the tuned-in crowd of nearly 300 in a cavernous dining room at the Hilton Tampa Downtown. "If you don't learn to fail, you will be unsuccessful."

Johnson is a driving force in the sports, hospitality and entertainment industries but she had to forge her own path through and around obstacles that were magnified by the fact that she was a woman and an African-American. When she built a resort in Middleburg, Virginia, she faced fierce opposition by the residents of the small town.

"There was a gun shop (on property she purchased) that had a confederate flag hanging," she said. "I moved that out. There was a lot of resistance."

She persisted, incorporating the town into the project so as to invest the residents and increase the tax revenues. The process took a decade, she said.

There were times in her life when she and her family had received threats, death threats.

"I've been through a lot in life and that has made me stronger," she said. "Sometimes, it takes a lot of courage."

Besides being the first African-American woman to own or have ownership interests in three professional sports teams – the NBA's Washington Wizards, the NHL's Washington Capitals and the WNBA's Washington Mystics – Johnson founded the BET Network, which became the first African-American corporation to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Acquiring the sports teams was a lesson in business tenacity, she said. She was offered an opportunity to buy the Mystics, but after looking at the books, saw the team wasn't making money, so she countered with a proposal to buy all or part of all three teams and the counteroffer was accepted.

She has been a mover, shaker, entrepreneur and general of industry for more than 35 years.

Her sentiments fell on the ears of the choir, of sorts. The attendees included business and corporate leaders from around the Tampa Bay area and beyond, government heads like Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, hospitality industry executives, bankers, technology entrepreneurs and others including USF business students who were hungry for some insights to success. All came together to honor Johnson, an individual who has made and is making significant contributions to the free enterprise system and who gives back to the community in a big way.

Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper was the master of ceremonies and both USF President Judy Genshaft and Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem delivered eloquent and heartfelt speeches about Johnson and the high quality of business education offered at USF. The evening was punctuated with multimedia presentations, such as videos and laser displays as well as live chamber music arranged by the USF School of Music that spanned genres from Pachelbel's Canon to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" to Adele's "Rolling in the Deep."

Proceeds from the event, which was co-sponsored by Kforce, Valspar, TECO and Dex Imaging, go into student success initiatives at the Muma College of Business.

Though she lives in Middleburg, Johnson said she considers the Tampa Bay area her second home. Among her corporation's portfolio of luxury properties: a stable of Florida golf and family resorts, including Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor.

"The entrepreneurial spirit here is truly inspiring," she said, "and the Muma College of Business is at its heart."

She said she was honored to be the first woman – and the first African-American – to receive the Celebration of Free Enterprise award, a sculpture of bronze and steel created by Dominique Martinez of Rustic Steel Creations.

"But what matters to me," she said, "Is that I will be the first of many."

Johnson also is the vice president of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, through which she finances documentary films, including "Kicking It," which premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival; "The Other City," a critically acclaimed portrayal of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Washington, D.C. and "Lee Daniels' The Butler," a critical and box-office success about a White House butler who served eight U.S. presidents.

She admitted she doesn't do all this by herself. The not-so secret to her success is surrounding herself with people who are smarter than her and that includes voices of diversity, particularly women and minorities.

"The different voices at the table," she said, "makes everyone think outside the box."

Among the students paying attention to Johnson was Lauren Alford, a marketing major who graduated in December with a 4.0 grade-point average, who is continuing her education by pursuing an MBA in the Sport & Entertainment Management program.

"I loved her advice about surrounding yourself with smart individuals," Alford said. "I think that's one of the best pieces of advice for anyone in the business world. It was truly inspiring to hear about all that she has accomplished as a woman. Not only does she have a successful career, but she also gives back to the community. I hope one day I can do the same for others.

"Her talk taught me that there are no limits to being the best business woman you can be," she said. "You can always better yourself and challenge yourself."

Besides her business concerns, Johnson is a supporter of education and the arts, two areas that, she said, "are near and dear to my heart."

She serves on various university boards, is a member of the Sundance Institute and the leadership council at Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership, through which she is sending 50 underprivileged students to school.

"I'm trying to build leaders," she said. "This is my goal in life."

View photos from the event.