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Community Advocacy Organization

Robert L. Johnson Biography

Robert L. Johnson is the founder, chairman and CEO of Black Entertainment Television (BET). He is also the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats of the National Basketball Association. Johnson grew up in Illinois and earned a graduate degree in international affairs from Princeton University. In the early 1970s Johnson found himself in Washington, D.C. during the early expansion of cable television. After a few years as a lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Johnson borrowed money to start his own cable brand, BET. Launched in 1980, it was profitable within five years. In the early ’90s BET became the first African-American-controlled company to be traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1998 Johnson bought it back and then sold it to Viacom, pocketing a reported $1.5 billion himself and retaining his position as chairman and CEO. Since then Johnson has continued to expand and diversify the BET brand, and in 2003 he became the owner of a new National Basketball Association franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats.


Robert L. Johnson was born on April 8, 1946, in Hickory, Mississippi. Johnson founded Black Entertainment Television (BET) in 1979 with his wife, Sheila. He became the first African-American billionaire after selling the network to Viacom in 2001. Johnson has since started a new business, the RLJ Companies, and has invested in an NBA team, a film company, and political causes and campaigns.

Early Life

Robert L. Johnson was born in Hickory, Mississippi, on April 8, 1946. He spent the majority of his childhood in Freeport, Illinois. Johnson graduated from Freeport High School in 1964, and studied history at the University of Illinois. He then earned a master’s degree in international affairs from Princeton University.


In 1979, Johnson and his wife Sheila founded Black Entertainment Television, the first cable network targeting the African-American market. It was launched in January 1980, initially broadcasting for two hours a week. In 1991, BET became the first African American-owned company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The network has continued to grow since that time, reaching tens of millions of homes and expanding to include other traditional and digital channels.

In 2000, Viacom announced plans to purchase BET. The sale was finalized the following year and Johnson’s majority stake earned him more than $1 billion, making him the richest African American in the United States at that time as well as the first African-American billionaire. Johnson continued to be the company’s chairman and CEO for several years before leaving BET to lead the RLJ Companies.

Johnson developed the RLJ Companies following the sale of BET to Viacom. RLJ is a holding company and asset management firm handling a portfolio of companies in the financial services, real estate, hospitality, professional sports, film production, automotive and gaming industries. Johnson has referred to RLJ as his “second act.”

Johnson has invested in several notable companies and organizations beyond the reach of RLJ. He was the first African-American principal owner of a North American major-league sports franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats. In 2006, Johnson founded Our Stories Films with partner Harvey Weinstein. The company focuses on family-friendly movies intended for African-American audiences. In 2011, Our Stories released the romantic-comedy feature Jumping the Broom.

In addition to his business ventures, Johnson has involved himself in politics. In 2007, Johnson organized a tour of African-American business leaders to Liberia. This trip led to the creation of the Liberia Enterprise Development Fund. Johnson publicly called for African-American support of Liberia, on the model of Jewish support for Israel. Johnson received criticism for his rebuke of Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary election, in favor of Hillary Clinton.

Personal Life

Johnson was married to Sheila Johnson from 1969 to 2002. The couple, who cofounded BET, divorced a year after selling the network to Viacom. They have two children. Sheila Johnson received one of the largest documented settlements in United States history and subsequently married the judge who presided over the divorce proceedings.

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