#RespectYourElders: Robert L. Johnson, 74, is an American entrepreneur, media tycoon, philanthropist and investor. He’s a co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and founder of RLJ Companies. Johnson was the United States’ first African-American billionaire.
Johnson was born the ninth of ten children in 1946 in the small town of Hickory, Mississippi. He grew up in Freeport, Illinois before enrolling at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to study history — the first of his siblings to attend college. Johnson then received his masters degree from Princeton University in public affairs.
Johnson moved to Washington D.C. to work for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Urban League. He established formidable connections in politics and business through the 70s, which helped him bankroll the first Black-owned cable television company by 1979. Johnson and his wife founded BET; a television network aimed to appeal to the African American community, which was largely a non targeted market at the time. What began as a tiny outlet airing two hours of programming a week ballooned into a company that attracted over 70 million households.
BET offered its viewers fresh content including music videos, political and issue-oriented programs, comedy specials, talk shows, sports and more. By this time, it was a massively influential medium for African-American self-expression and racial pride. BET also fostered a new generation of Black professionals in the media, which is an industry that is majority white. At one point, 96% of BET’s 290 employees were Black.
By 1991, Johnson and his wife’s company became the first Black-controlled company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Nearly a decade later, the company was private again and Johnson and his partners sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion. Johnson remained the CEO until 2005. Following his departure from BET, Johnson founded RLJ Companies and purchased a large swath of companies ranging from financial services to hotels to professional sports.
Johnson also put some of his money towards philanthropic causes. He created the Liberian Enterprise Development Fund to support Liberian business owners in pursuing their dreams. He also raised funds with Morgan Freeman for hurricane preparedness in the Bahamas and contributed to the “Malaria No More” campaign to prevent the spread of the disease.
Johnson is a long-standing advocate for the economic advancement of African-Americans and has called for more equitable opportunities that will further Black prosperity.
“In the next 25 to 30 years, the majority of Americans will be Black and Hispanic.” Johnson said in an interview. “If we are to be a successful nation and compete globally, we must ensure that all Americans are given an opportunity to fully participate in the U.S. economic system.”