• Robert L. Johnson became a billionaire after selling BET to Viacom in a $3 billion deal.
  • He said his best business advice came from the billionaire businessman John Malone.
  • Johnson emphasized that success is about impact, not money.


It took less than five minutes in a conversation with Robert L. Johnson, the first Black billionaire in the US, to realize the reason my bank account hasn’t reached six figures yet: I’m simply not focused on how to make a return on the money I earn each day.

After speaking with Johnson, I now know, without a doubt, that multimillionaires and billionaires just think differently than we thousandaires do.

Johnson is the founder of Black Entertainment Television, the first Black-owned company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Launched in 1980, BET went public in 1991 and was sold to Viacom 10 years later in a $3 billion deal.

The acquisition made Johnson and his former wife, Sheila Johnson, who cofounded BET, billionaires. He said it also made many former employees who had purchased BET stock financially successful.


But BET isn’t his only success story. Because of his hotel-investment company, RLJ Lodging Trust, he’s one of only a few Black founders with public companies. His portfolio includes men’s fashion, content streaming, auto dealerships, 401(k) management services, and more.

Johnson has made many sound business decisions and will tell you, as many wealthy people will, that success is not about money — it’s about impact. In an interview with Business Insider, he described the journey that turned him into a billionaire and gave me his best bits of business wisdom.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Who are your professional heroes?


As far as the kind of people who believe in you and motivate you, without question, it has to be John Malone.

He’s a dynamic, highly successful, multibillionaire businessman who was involved in the early founding and development of cable television distribution and programming.

He believed in me enough to put $500,000 into the first business I started, BET, and became a friend/father figure and advisor to me. He decided to stay on the board of the company for 20 years and allowed me to use his credibility when I went to other people seeking support and involvement in BET.

He had such a reputation that when I would mention he was my partner, it would bring me high attention. They’d say, if he’s willing to be in business with you — we respect him, and therefore we respect you or what you’re trying to do with him.


Of course, I also think of my parents, who kept me on a certain pathway when I began to doubt myself. Then my friends — Michael Jordan and I have been friends forever, and we share the same kind of character traits. We like people, we want to help people, and we’re competitive in our own way of doing things.

There are also people like Tom Baltimore, who was my partner when I started the hotel company and still a great friend of mine to this day. We could create opportunities for other African Americans to be in fields of endeavor that they may not have had the opportunity to be in.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and how did it impact your business or career?

The best advice I’ve ever received actually came from John Malone. When he wrote me that first check, I’d never run a business before. His advice was simple: “Get your revenues up, and keep your costs down.”


That was my business-school instruction: Manage your business to reduce your costs, control your costs, and increase your income and your revenue. That was it.

What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve never had bad advice. There may be some advice I got that I didn’t understand, but there’s no such thing as “worst advice” if you’re going to be a businessperson.

It’s about what you do with the advice that people give you. If the person believes in you and you believe in yourself, you should be able to take that advice and use it to move ahead.


Have you ever received bad suggestions or encountered people who didn’t have your company’s best interest at heart? How did you discern those things?

In most cases, people who believe in themselves don’t get into those kinds of discussions.

Someone trying to misdirect you or who doesn’t believe in your vision — I call those naysayers, people who don’t believe that you can do what you say you want to do. But that’s rare, and you can spot those people a mile away. Don’t spend a lot of time with them.

But sometimes people are just giving their honest advice. Early on, some people wanted me to call BET “Urban Television” because “urban” was, I’d argue, considered a softer way of saying Black. They thought it might make white America more embracing if “Black” wasn’t thrown in their face and might make cable operators more comfortable.


Others thought BET should’ve been called Black Educational Television. Those are judgment calls. You have to be focused enough on your own vision of what’s in the business’ best interest.

Based on my research, there are very few Black-owned companies on the NYSE. Does that surprise you?

No, it doesn’t. I’d probably call it disappointing that there aren’t more Black businesses taking advantage of being listed on the exchange. It’s simply a way to raise capital to grow your business.

When we became the first Black public company, the people who invested were just workers. They had a chance to come with me. When the company was sold for billions, they were able to turn their small investment into millions of dollars.


Can you recall the moment you knew you’d “made it”?

When John Malone showed his confidence in me and wrote me a check to start the business. When somebody says they’re willing to take a risk with you, at that point, you’ve got to say, “I made it.”

At the same time, “making it” is not measured in dollars. Most wealthy people I know don’t walk around waving in the air, “Oh, look how rich I am,” because they know that’s not why you go on this journey.

What has been the best and worst part of your professional journey before launching your first publicly traded company?


Pursuing what you believe in is a journey, and you never get to the end of it. BET speaks for itself. I think some people feel that Black companies should always be Black-owned, therefore, by definition, they can’t be publicly owned. And so by being public, maybe BET set an example, even though there’s nothing wrong with being a privately held Black-owned company.

But if somebody were to ask me, “What’s the biggest achievement you made in terms of business?” it may not be BET. But because of BET, I’ve now created a company called Portability Services Network. Its sole purpose is to help Black American workers, particularly low-wage workers, keep their money in the 401(k) management system.

Finally, what’s your best tip on how to attract investors?

If you’re going to be successful, first and foremost, you must believe in yourself.