Best Practices: Virginia Hotelier Sheila Johnson Knows Diversity is Good For Business

The founder and CEO of Salamander Hotel & Resorts on hosting a new kind of food event, owning three professional sports teams, and learning to play the cello during the pandemic.

Portrait of Sheila Johnson
Photo: Drew Xeron

Editor's note: We could all use a little inspiration and light during these strange days. Enter Best Practices, a F&W Pro interview series where we share how leaders and creatives are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while still growing personally and professionally.

What happens when a multihyphenate billionaire business owner meets an emergent chef hustling to become a multihyphenate business owner himself? In the case of Sheila Johnson and Kwame Onwuachi, what happens is The Family Reunion, a new event at Johnson's resort in Middleburg, Virginia that celebrates diversity in the hospitality industry.

More than a dozen chefs, sommeliers, and food personalities like Mashama Bailey, Carla Hall, Padma Lakshmi, and Gregory Gourdet will join Onwuachi and Johnson August 19-22 at Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia, for a slate of panels, demos, music, and meals that celebrate Black cooking traditions that have shaped American cuisine. A limited number of multi-day passes and overnight packages are still available here.

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"No one else was doing it, and there is so much talent out there," Johnson says. "This is my property, and I have the vessel to be able to do this."

Johnson is used to being one of the biggest thinkers in the room, pushing her managers and fellow board members to evolve faster. She co-founded BET in 1980 and became the first African-American woman billionaire in America when Viacom bought it 20 years later. Now an owner and investor in hotel properties in the United States and the Caribbean, she's also the co-owner of three Washington DC-based professional sports teams, including the WNBA Washington Mystics for whom she serves as president and managing partner.

Diversity is a core value at Johnson's businesses and is crucial for the bottom line, she says. "There are so many companies that need to rethink how they're going to not only build within their employment base, but also how they're going to understand that diversity is a moral obligation," Johnson says. "It's really critical to their success. I think the more diversity you show the bigger your clientele base is going to be."

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After nine or so months of Zoom calls with Onwuachi and the Salamander team planning The Family Reunion, I switched over to my phone to interview the former concert violinist at her farm in Virginia wine country. We talked about the hospitality business and what she's learned from the challenges of the past 16 months, including how to play cello, and of course, which events she's most excited about at The Family Reunion

The following interview is edited for length and clarity.

As a business leader—hotelier, professional sports team owner, corporate board member, philanthropist, investor in feature films like Lee Daniels' The Butler—what is it about Kwame Onwuachi that made you want to invest in his idea for The Family Reunion and host it at Salamander Resorts?

I'm always hypersensitive and really focused on minority businesses. Going through the pandemic, I've watched friends, and friends of friends really struggle with their restaurants, and in their own businesses. We met at an event in the Caribbean. I got to know Kwame by going to his restaurant, Kith/Kin at The Wharf in Washington D.C. I was so impressed with his food, with the way he was able to bring out the flavors of the whole African diaspora. I've never tasted anything like it. He's very humble and pretty laid back. I have a son exactly the same age. I thought that he handled himself very well as I watched him move around his restaurant.

Then when I heard that the restaurant was closed during the pandemic, I was heartbroken. I immediately got in touch with him to see how he was doing. He came to the hotel. He looked at the property, because we sit on 340 acres, and we talked about doing a food and wine festival. And we really wanted to focus on minority chefs, to introduce them to the hospitality landscape across the country. No one else was doing it, and there is so much talent out there. This is an excellent opportunity. This is my property, and I have the vessel to be able to do this.

What events are you personally the most excited about in the lineup?

Kicking off with the barbecue event. We have an African night market. We are also bringing a little bit of Broadway to the festival with a musical I've invested in called Grace, which is about an African-American family out of Philadelphia, the Minton family. It's a true story of gentrification across the city and displacement of a lot of Black-owned businesses. We're also having a gospel choir on Sunday to close out the brunch. We've shaped a three-day event that's something really magical, but also informative and educational.

Virginia, in particular, has been under a microscope ever since the events in Charlottesville—about how to handle racism and the problems that are going on. Virginia Tourism really wants to get to the bottom of this. We can open up on the stage and really discuss the issues that are plaguing the state of Virginia. I just think this is a very good opportunity to do that.

Diversity is a moral obligation.

I heard the salamander is one of the only creatures that can withstand fire. It's a creature that symbolizes courage, growth, and renewal. What are the core values of your company and how does The Family Reunion reflect them?

The core values are exactly what the Salamander stands for. And we really work on excellence of service. What's really important is the commitment to diversity. I'm working very hard on that, because I think there are so many companies that need to rethink how they're going to not only build within their employment base, but also how they're going to understand that diversity is a moral obligation. And it's really critical to their success. I think the more diversity you show the bigger your clientele base is going to be. Once we had that employment base set up at Salamander Resort, we started getting more diversity within our clientele because people feel comfortable with diversity. If you don't have diversity, people aren't going to come.

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What's your long-term goal for The Family Reunion?

I want to keep The Family Reunion at the property because I know it will grow. I started Middleburg Film Festival as soon as the resort opened in 2013. We are now entering our tenth year. It has started at 1,800 people. We're now over 4,000. We bring in films that are diverse, films directed by women. We have captured national attention, and I would like the same thing to happen with The Family Reunion. We're doing something that is really different. The word is "inclusivity," and I want to make sure that we're able to represent what this country is really all about. We do it through our films and I want to do it through our culinary and hospitality experiences.

What is it about the hospitality business and hotels, in particular, that made you want to invest in Salamander?

I've always enjoyed traveling. I was a music teacher and violinist, and my violin has taken me all over the world performing. I've stayed in some of the finest hotels and learned a lot. I never knew how to really run a hotel, and that's why I put together the best team I possibly could get my hands on. I find it exciting because every day is different. If it's the same every day, you're not running your hotel business right. You meet people every day. I enjoy people. I enjoy seeing them relax. I enjoy seeing them happy. I enjoy serving people and really opening up a world to them that they can't experience in their own homes.

I get up every day and I look at my calendar so I know who's coming to the hotel that day. I want to personally greet them and welcome them to my home. It's absolutely thrilling.

There are challenges there, too. There are times when I'm traveling all over the world, and I'm like, 'Why isn't my hotel doing what this hotel is doing?' And I'll take pictures and send them back to my team with a note: 'Here, this is an area that we can improve on.' I am never complacent or happy with what I've already done. I want to make sure that we're changing. I want to make sure that we keep up the [visual style]. The cleanliness. I am always challenging my staff about how we can always be the best.

If you were to give a shout out to somebody in your organization who responds to your challenges and fulfills your vision, who would it be?

It's my general managers across the board, and John Speers who oversees all the general managers, because he's the one that keeps them all in line and makes sure that our properties look the best. Prem Devadas is my president, who then keeps John Speers in line. I know there's a hierarchy, but I like reaching out to all of them. I want everybody to know that what I need done has to get done, so they're copied on everything. I have got the best team in the world. They're just terrific.

What business lessons from the pandemic will you carry into 2022 as the hospitality industry emerges from the pandemic?

As bad as the pandemic was for everyone, we learned a lot. We learned how to pivot quickly. We learned how to look at ourselves inside and out, to see where we needed to make improvements, where we were either overspending or underspending. It made us re-evaluate what we needed to do to make our company stronger. Our company is doing better than it's ever done. There could be another downturn. We can't be reckless. We learned anything can happen, and we have to be prepared for that.

What are some lessons you've learned as an owner of three professional sports teams? The WNBA's Washington Mystics, the NBA's Washington Wizards, and NHL's Washington Capitals don't sound like vanity projects for you.

No, they're not. It's exactly like the hotel business. I've never seen such a parallel. When you've got three professional sports teams that you're running, and you cannot bring people into an arena, you can't sell items, can't feed them, there's no ticket sales—those athletes still want to be paid. They don't care whether we're in a pandemic or not. Where's that money going to come from? Through our sponsorships, our corporate support, and suites. Luckily we had reserves. If we hadn't had those reserves, we wouldn't have gotten through this.

[The Wizards] went into the bubble down in Orlando last year. The Mystics went to play outside of Tampa. It's been tough. We just cannot go through this again with sports teams. I'm just not sure where we would be at right now without ESPN really hanging in there with us and some other networks, like TNT, and also the sports betting,

For some reason, we've got more injuries. There's something psychological that has affected these players, and I'm not quite sure what it is. And there's other players that have sat out for social justice.

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Sheila, how did you earn the "Mama J" nickname?

I put 50 students through the Kennedy School at Harvard, and I paid for their education, insurance, everything, because these are young people from really unfortunate backgrounds and underserved communities. I wanted to make sure they were the brightest that we could find, and that they had a leg up in life.

Three of them are in law firms, two are doctors now. Some are really working hard in the health community, one's is a state senator in Vermont. They're all going to be very, very successful. That is the guarantee, and we all stay together. I keep tabs on them all the time. They check in with me regularly. We're like a family, and they call me Mama J.

Do you have family reunions with them?

Yes, we do. Before COVID we would meet twice a year. We either meet up at Cape Cod or they also come to [Salamander Resort]. It's just been miraculous. I've learned so much from them. They are so smart. We had one student that was homeless, but someone brought him to me, and I could see he was just absolutely brilliant. He's now working for Samsung. He's just an amazing young man.

So you have two children, but you've also got 50 more children?

Yeah, I've got 52.

You mentioned your training as a musician, and that your first act was as a concert violinist. I saw that you learned how to play cello during the pandemic.

I got a little bit bored with my violin playing, because there was really no place to play it, and I decided I've always wanted to learn to play the cello. Now I actually have a teacher that will come to me every other week. I'm still playing, and I've come a long way. I'm very pleased with myself.

You know, you can give your cello a big hug without it falling on the ground.

Why the cello in particular?

Well, the violin is one of the hardest instruments, other than the flute or the French horn, to play. Your body is more restricted in holding the violin. To me, it feels very natural now, but the cello is even more natural, and I love the way it sounds. I love the low tones. I just feel very natural embracing the cello. You know, you can give your cello a big hug without it falling on the ground. It's a terrific instrument.

Whether it's music or art or exercise, what else have you done during the pandemic to stay energized, to keep you going, and keep your teams motivated?

I live on a big farm, so I'm able to walk around. Most people were living in the cities. They couldn't move around like I do, and my resort's only four miles from me, so I still was able to go over there under the strict protocols. Between the cello, and being able to walk, and meet with my staff on a constant basis, I really didn't feel that locked down during the pandemic, because I had the freedom of all the open spaces out here.

My kids moved in with me on the farm, because we've got plenty of space, and they were able to move around. They just decided they would live with me for seven, eight months, and my grandkids were able to run around, so it was great.

Anything else I should be asking you that I haven't?

I'm really looking forward to The Family Reunion event. We're all going to learn a lot from it. I know it's going to be successful. We want to be a business that is really reaching out into the community and serving them, in more ways than providing beds and feeding them. I really want to give our clientele a full perspective of what my world is all about, and it's about the arts and bringing the diversity of life into a hotel.

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