It’s been 41 years since the Salamander Hotels & Resorts owner and CEO co-founded the BET network with then-husband Robert Johnson, creating a national platform for African-American music videos, television shows and movies at a time when they were often excluded from the airwaves.
Johnson, who declined to say how much she invested, says “Grace” pays homage to Black culinary history as well as Black women entrepreneurship -— two central themes in her own life — while telling the tale of an African-American family in Philadelphia debating what to do with its century-old restaurant following the death of the family matriarch.
“If you listen to the music, it makes you cry,” Johnson said of “Grace” during a recent CNN Business interview. “This is like pulling it all together so people can see the importance of promoting our African-American chefs, just really listening to all of this talent. I’m just so proud to be a supporter.”
The full musical is set to debut at a Washington area theater in the spring of 2022, and Johnson said she hopes the play will eventually reach Broadway.
“We have got to send a message about diversifying Broadway,” she said. “We’ve got to support Black theater. There’s just a lack of representation there.”
Not defined by her bottom-line
“People cannot be defined by their bottom-line, their bank balance,” she said. “I think that is wrong and I really want to get away from that. There are a lot of billionaires, multi-billionaires, trillionaires, but it’s what they do with their lives and how they give back to the community [that matters].”
Turning lemons into lemonade
It’s that worldview that helped Johnson navigate her luxury hotel company and sports teams through the worst of the pandemic, when Covid-19 and related government shutdowns and mandates decimated both industries’ revenue streams.
Initially, Johnson’s management team furloughed some hotel staff members, but she tried to make the best of a bad situation after returning to her Salamander location in Middleburg to find the main entrance had been padlocked by management during its temporary closure early last spring.
“I could have gotten very upset about it, but I went in a side door and I called my general manager,” Johnson recalled. “I said, ‘I want you to bring 11 people back to work.’ We found the silver lining in this dark moment and it was called ‘deferred maintenance.'”
“This meant they were able to return many employees back to work safely and quickly, and many months on, they are still hiring staff as demand continues to improve,” a company spokesperson said via email.
In October, she hosted outdoor screenings for the Middleburg Film Festival she previously founded on her compound. The resort will also be hosting American Ballet Theatre performances later this year after the New York City-based classic ballet company announced the cancellation of its spring and summer performance schedule.
“We’ve got 21 wonderful dancers we’re bringing in,” Johnson said. “We had to find alternatives in order to make it work.”
Advocating for more Black hotel executives
“It’s been uncomfortable for me personally,” Johnson said of being one of the few Black women hotel chain CEOs.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the number of staff members Salamander Resorts employs.