BET co-founder emphasises significance of education

February 06, 2023
Prime Minister, Andrew Holness (left), with business mogul and philanthropist, Sheila Johnson and Minister of Tourism, Edmund Bartlett.

The private sector should see education as the main driver to building stronger communities, says business mogul and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, Sheila Johnson.

Ms Johnson, Co-Founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and recognised as America’s first black female billionaire, says it is within that framework that she is fully on board with Tourism Minister, Edmund Bartlett’s East Central St. James Scholarship and Welfare Fund, as well as to assist in raising money for his US$1.5-million Early Childhood Development Centre for Innovation.

Her company, Salamander, is also the manager of the famed Half Moon Hotel in Montego Bay, St. James, where the Centre’s fund-raiser was launched.

The 74-year-old mother of two sees Jamaica as a first-choice destination, with all the ingredients to being a tourism superpower.

“I was a former schoolteacher, and I am now in my third act in life. My first act was a concert violinist; second act, founder of Black Entertainment Television; and the third act… the hospitality business. When I need peace and relaxation, there is hardly a better place than Jamaica,” Ms. Johnson said.

“My [passion] lies in education, because even though I was a teacher in my first act of life, I am still a teacher. And the arts for me have been the foundation of my life. I really appreciate listening to all these incredible [Jamaican] musicians…giving all of us quality entertainment. That is also something we need to support,” she says.

Ms Johnson hopes the Learning Centre will make the arts an integral part of its curriculum, pointing to her involvement in a “blueprint project” with John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Aspen Institute in Washington DC, “where we are studying both sides of the brain”.

She notes that her involvement with Half Moon and its Chairman and Owner, Guy Steuart, has given her the opportunity to be a part of the education process in St. James, which she has every intention of continuing.

“I just can’t say enough about the Steuart family. They certainly are not in the dark about what they need to do, and I call this the double bottom line. It is important that not only do you build a company but you also must give back to the community, and the Steuart family have been doing it long before Salamander came around,” Ms. Johnson says.

“They have been contributing [to education] with love and great affection. When  Salamander came on the scene,  I was able to join them in helping them to continue their father's legacy… by putting computers into one of the schools… and also putting some new cots in, so that the kids could be able to take naps,” she adds.

The BET Co-Founder says it is very important to reach the students at their early stage of development, adding that “as we work with these very young people, they are going to be able to read better, to spell better, to be creative, to be more innovative, because the arts have got to be built into the curriculum. We got to make sure that both sides of the brain work”.

Ms Johnson says  that it should not be lost on the minds of anybody that the COVID-19 pandemic really took its toll on the minds of children, causing a major disruption in the educational landscape, noting that “the impact and the need to mitigate learning loss continue to drive the need to reimagine education and for all of us to commit to transforming education right now”.

For his part, Mr Bartlett says Ms. Johnson has been a friend of Jamaica for years and has contributed immensely to the arrival of “high end” visitors to the island.

“When a Sheila speaks, people listen. This is America’s first black billionaire who has a passion and love for Jamaica. Having her endorse and fully supporting our early childhood centre for innovation simply means it’s a done deal. It will happen. Jamaica is indeed a first-choice destination and soon to be global superpower,” he adds.   

Recently named CEO of the year by The Washington Business Journal, Ms Johnson is known as a pioneer across all industries.  Her Salamander Resorts is growing rapidly as is evident by strategically adding three properties in 2022 alone.

Ms Johnson is also the only black woman to own stakes in three professional sport teams in the United States of America - the WNBA Mystics, NBA Wizards and NHL Capitals.


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