Sheila Johnson's been plenty busy since she sold Black Entertainment Television, the company she co-founded with her then-husband, Robert, in 1999. She founded Salamander Hotels and Resorts, a hospitality company, as well as the Middleburg Film Festival, which premiered La La Land last year. She's an investor and a philanthropist, and the first African-American woman to be a partner or part-owner in three professional sports franchises.

One thing she hasn't done, though, is sit on a public company's board of directors. That seems a bit odd, given that Johnson is the first African-American entrepreneur to be worth $1 billion (yes, even before Oprah Winfrey). Not to mention there's a big push--at least among watchdog groups and the largest companies--to diversify boards.

"I have never been able to get on a corporate board," says Johnson, 69. "They tell me I'm too old. I don't understand it, because I see white-haired men sitting on these boards falling asleep and drooling."

Even if it's not at a public company, Johnson has been intent on getting that board-member experience. When considering an investment in Make Up Factory, a private cosmetics brand, Johnson said she would participate only if she could also sit on the company's board, which she now does.

In December 2016, Johnson, along with Sashiko Kuno, the co-founder of Sucampo Pharmaceuticals, founded WE Capital to invest in women-led startups. They got a dozen women together to invest $12 million in Rethink Impact, the largest social impact venture fund that focuses squarely on women, and to act as a consortium within that fund.

Johnson and her colleagues hope that WE Capital will play a role in fixing the gender imbalance in early-stage investing. But there's something personal about this, too. "I hear these men say things like, 'I invested in this company, now I'm on their board,'" Johnson says. "Women are never invited into that world. I said, 'We're going to do this on our own.'"

In the Washington, D.C., area in particular, where Johnson lives, "we have some of the smartest female business executives, but they're not given a seat a the table," she says. "It's always about philanthropy. People in communities always want our money, but it's never venture capital."

Johnson has given to those underserved communities, notably through gifts to the United Negro College Fund, Parsons School of Design, and Howard University, among others. Her Sheila Johnson Fellowship has paid for more than 40 students from underserved communities to attend the Harvard Kennedy School; her goal is to eventually fund 50. She's raising about $10 million to $13 million to build a stable for the horses and U.S. Park Police who work on the National Mall, and she's seeded the effort with $1 million of her own money.

That's clearly not enough for her. "Men form these silos of like-minded individuals where they can help each other out financially, investing in funds so they can continue to make money," she says. With WE Capital, she's saying it's time for successful women to do the same.

Published on: Apr 12, 2018