Robert Johnson

Sep 15, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Born in rural Mississippi, the great-grandson of slaves, Robert Johnson is a billionaire businessman who built the empire that would become Black Entertainment Television. Cable was not his first career choice. After graduating from the University of Illinois and earning a master’s degree in international affairs at Princeton, Mr. Johnson thought he would become a diplomat. Along the way, he took a job as a cable industry lobbyist in Washington, where he generated the idea of a cable network targeted at black viewers. With a $15,000 bank loan and a $500,000 advance from John Malone, then chairman of Tele-Communications Inc., Mr. Johnson set about to found a network.
The BET enterprise expanded to include additional cable channels, publishing, radio programming and an Internet service. In 2000, Mr. Johnson sold the works to Viacom Inc. for just short of $3 billion.
Though Mr. Johnson, who is not yet 60, remains CEO of BET, his interests have expanded far beyond cable. He owns two professional basketball franchises in Charlotte, N.C., the Sting of the WNBA and the NBA expansion Bobcats, set to begin play in 2004. He also has been buying chunks of a Washington bank with an eye toward making it the first national black-owned financial institution.