10 Things You Didn’t Know About BET Founder Robert Johnson

BET founder Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson was the first black American to become a billionaire in the United States of America. The co-founder of the Black Entertainment Television cable network became a billionaire in 2001 when he sold BET to Viacom. He was the first black American billionaire named by Forbes Magazine. The successful businessman has become one of the greatest entrepreneurs and philanthropists in the world. Johnson has helped many businesses throughout the world launch, has helped and donated to many philanthropic causes throughout the world and even owns a professional sports team.

1. He was the ninth of ten children in his family

Robert Johnson came from humble beginnings. He was the ninth of ten children born to Edna and Archie Johnson. Robert Johnson was born on April 8, 1946. The Johnson family moved to Freeport, Illinois when Robert was young. He excelled in school. He graduated from Freeport High School in 1964 and attended the University of Illinois where he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Social Studies. He went on to Princeton University where he received his Master’s Degree in International Affairs in 1972.

2. His Early Career

After earning his Master’s Degree at Princeton, Robert Johnson headed to Washington DC where he was introduced to the television industry. He was hired as the Public Affairs Director at the Corporation of Public Broadcasting in 1972. He was also the Director of Communications for the National Urban League. Soon after, Johnson became the Press Secretary for Walter E. Fauntroy when the Civil Rights advocate and delegate to the US House of Representatives while he was running for President of the US for the democratic party. The talented and skilled Robert Johnson would next become the Vice President of Government Relations for the National Cable and Television Association.

3. Launch of BET

Robert Johnson met Sheila Crump while students at the University of Ilinois. They married in 1969 and have two children. Robert and Sheila founded the Black Entertainment Television network in the late 1970’s with a $15,000 personal loan. They knew that cable television was the next step in the media industry and wanted a channel to target the young black American audience. BET launched in 1980 just a few hours of airtime a week. By 1983 BET was a full-fledged cable network averaging a half million viewers a week. BET would continue to grow over the next decade.

4. Sale of BET

In 1991 BET went public and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It was the first African American owned business to do so in the United States of America. The company continued to grow. It was reaching tens of millions of viewers. It expanded in both the traditional and digital markets. In 2002 the Johnsons sold BET to Viacom for nearly $3 billion. The Johnson’s made $1 billion with the deal making them the first black Americans to achieve a net worth of more than a billion dollars. Robert Johnson would stay on as CEO of BET for the next three years.

5. RLJ Companies

Following the sale of BET, Robert and Sheila divorced. She would receive a large share of BET and the couple’s other assets. Robert went on to found RLT Companies while Sheila pursued a career as a producer. Her first film, “Kicking It” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008. RLC Companies is a Holding Company and Asset Management Firm. The company provides a variety of financial advisory services for companies in real estate, automotive industries, gaming industries, hospitality, professional sports and film production. In 2006 Johnson’s RLC Companies partnered with Harvey Weinstein to create Our Story Films. The company helps create family-friendly movies geared toward African Americans.

6. Politics

Robert Johnson has been involved in American politics through most of his career. After all, at the beginning of his career, he was the Press Secretary for the controversial Presidental candidate Walter E. Fauntroy. In 2008 he supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama as a potential Presidential candidate, raising some eyebrows. Recently, Johnson has supported President Donald Trump because he believes President Trump’s administration has decreased unemployment of black Americans.

7. Sports

Robert Johnson has not limited his business investments to the television industry. He and his company, RLJ Companies LLC, has worked with several professional sports teams. He is a principal owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. He is also the first African American principal owner of a major North American sports franchise.

8. Second Marriage

In 2016 Robert Johnson married again. He married Lauren Wooden, 33 years his junior. Wooden was pursuing an International Business Management doctorate in Paris when they met. The couple were married in May 2016 at Auberge du Soleil in the Napa Valley region of California. The intimate ceremony’s guest included actor Leon Robinson, music executive L.A. Reid, and Mack McLarty, Bill Clinton’s former Chief of Staff.

9. Boards and Awards

Even in retirement Robert Johnson continues to serve on many boards. These include Lowe’s Company and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Johnson has also received several awards and honors for his philanthropic contributions.

10. Philanthropy

Robert Johnson has given back to his community, his country, and the world. In 2007 he visited Liberian business entrepreneurs. Inspired by their drive, he helped create the Liberian Enterprise Development Fund. He invested $30 million to help Liberian businessmen pursue their dreams. In 2011, Johnson teamed up with actor and philanthropist Morgan Freeman to raise funds for “hurricane preparedness” in the Bahamas. Johnson created a line of neckties which proceeds would be donated for the cause. In 2014 Johnson contributed to the “Malaria No More” campaign, helping many countries combat and prevent the disease of Malaria.


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