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Robert L. Johnson
Robert L. Johnson watches Donald Trump.jpg
Johnson in 2018
Robert Louis Johnson

(1946-04-08) April 8, 1946 (age 77)
Alma mater University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (BA)
Princeton University (MPA)
Known for Co-founder of BET
(m. 1969; div. 2001)
Lauren Wooden
(m. 2016; div. 2020)
Children 2

Robert Louis Johnson (born April 8, 1946) is an American entrepreneur, media magnate, executive, philanthropist, and investor. He is the co-founder of BET, which was acquired by Viacom in 2001. He also founded RLJ Companies, a holding company that invests in various business sectors. Johnson is the former majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. He became the first African-American billionaire in 2001. Johnson's companies have counted among the most prominent African-American businesses in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Early life and education

Johnson was born in 1946 in Hickory, Mississippi, the ninth out of ten children to Edna and Archie Johnson. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a farmer. His parents moved the family to Freeport, Illinois, when he was a child. He was an honors student in high school. Johnson graduated from the University of Illinois in 1968 with a bachelor's degree in social studies. While at the University of Illinois, Johnson became a member of the Beta chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He received a master's degree in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University in 1972.


Bush Contact Sheet P17004 (cropped)
Johnson with President George H. W. Bush in 1990

He launched Axiom Bank N.A founded by Robert Johnson, who also founded the Black Entertainment Network (BET). He’s the former husband of Sheila Johnson, CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts and owner of Salamander Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor.

President George W. Bush meets with small business owners and community bankers
President George W. Bush sits with Johnson during a meeting to discuss the economy with small business owners and community bankers in 2006
President Donald J. Trump Signs an Executive Order (31353270667)
President Donald Trump watches as Johnson addresses his remarks at the Roosevelt Room of the White House in 2018

After graduating from Princeton, Johnson found a job in Washington, D.C., which introduced him to the television industry. He served as the public affairs director for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In this position is where he learned of the power and untapped potential of television. Around the same time he also worked as the director of communications for the Washington, D.C. office of the National Urban League. Johnson worked as a press secretary for Congressman Walter E. Fauntroy. He later became vice president of government relations at the National Cable and Television Association (NCTA). In 1980, Johnson launched Black Entertainment Television, which became a full-fledged channel in 1983.

Johnson left NCTA in 1979 to create Black Entertainment Television, the first cable television network aimed at African-Americans. When the network launched in 1980, it only aired for two hours on Friday night. BET first turned a profit in 1985 and it became the first black-controlled company listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991. In 1998, Johnson and Liberty Media bought all outstanding shares of the company. This purchase gave Johnson 42% of the company. Viacom acquired BET in 2001 for a reported $3 billion; Johnson earned over $1 billion from the sale, making him the first black American billionaire. He remained BET CEO until 2006.

Johnson founded The RLJ Companies, a holding company with a diverse portfolio including hotel real estate investment, private equity, financial services, asset management, automobile dealerships, sports and entertainment, and Video lottery terminal gaming. The RLJ Companies is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.

By January 2009, Ion Media had another subchannel network, Urban TV, in the works with him targeted to African-Americans. Axiom Bank N.A. Maitland, Florida, was founded by Robert Johnson, who also founded the Black Entertainment Network (BET). He’s the former husband of Sheila Johnson, CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts and owner of Salamander Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor. As of 2013, Johnson was a member of the board of directors for RLJ Lodging Trust, RLJ Entertainment, Inc., KB Home, Lowe's Companies, Inc., Strayer Education, Think Finance, Inc., NBA Board of Governors, The Business Council, and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Johnson has also served as a member of the board of directors for several other companies and organizations, including US Airways, Hilton Hotels, General Mills, the United Negro College Fund, and Deutsche Bank's Americas Advisory Board.

Johnson became the first African-American majority club owner of a major American sports league team with his 2002 purchase of the Charlotte Bobcats. In 2010, Johnson sold his majority stake in the Charlotte Bobcats to Michael Jordan.

In 2016, Johnson finalized a partnership agreement with AMC Networks through his RLJ Company after launching his own video on demand streaming service Urban Movie Channel in 2014. According to the agreement, AMC will use its programming and distribution clout to benefit Acorn and UMC. Additionally, the RLJ-AMC partnership will allow for greater investment in content from African-American creatives, Johnson emphasized. The agreement called for AMC to provide RLJ with a $60 million loan on a seven-year term and $5 million on a one-year term. AMC has received warrants to purchase at least 20 million shares or the equivalent of 50.1% of the company. The time frame for exercising those warrants is open-ended, AMC said.


In 2011, Johnson worked with Morgan Freeman to raise funds for hurricane preparedness in the Bahamas. Johnson released a neckwear line in coordination with PVH and The Ella Rose Collection, the RLJ Ella Rose Africa Tie Collection, in 2012 to benefit the charitable organization Malaria No More.

In 2007, Johnson created the Liberia Enterprise Development Fund with a $30 million investment. The fund provides credit for Liberian entrepreneurs.

Personal life

Johnson married Sheila Johnson in 1969. They divorced in 2001 and have two children. Johnson began dating Lauren Wooden, who is 33 years his junior, in 2010. As of 2016, Wooden was pursuing an international business-management doctorate in Paris. They married in May 2016; Greg Mathis officiated, and divorced in 2020.

See also

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