Sheila Johnson, Co-Founder,
Black Entertainment Television
Career: The first conscious choice I made with respect to my life was to become a musician. As a young girl I worked incredibly hard, earned a music scholarship to the University of Illinois and spent my undergraduate days as a violinist. That one decision not only forever changed how and what I thought, it led me down some incredible paths—ones which eventually brought me to where I am today.
However, there was a point during that process that I determined to reclaim my life. I chose near the end of my first marriage never to be led down paths again, but to choose my own. That’s why I’m having so much fun now. This is a life and a career of my choosing.
Challenges: Personally, it has been a challenge throughout my life to balance the personal and the professional. As a young woman, being a mother, a wife and a chief executive was a daunting responsibility, yet each was a conscious choice I made so I approached each role with conviction. The “how” is a little tricky to explain, but at different points in your life, in order to be fair to your children, your husband or your company, you have to be willing to draw lines in the sand and say, “No.” It’s not easy, even in theory, so you can imagine what it must be like in actual practice. That’s why I’ve always felt life is much more art than science. There’s no formula for that kind of thing. It’s not like plugging numbers into an equation. Work/life balance is something you feel, something you cultivate, something you treasure.
Accomplishments: I am proud of the fact that I’ve been able to build a number of successful businesses, while at the same time being able to raise two of the most remarkable children you’d ever want to meet.
I am also very proud of the work I’ve done with CARE. We’re slowly, but surely making a difference in the world; empowering women, instilling in them a sense of self-worth, giving them hope and, ultimately, chipping away at the third world poverty and despair which have held them captive for generations.
Turning Point: My father was an incredibly talented neurosurgeon who, because of the color of his skin, never got to practice in the kind of well-appointed facility many of his peers worked at. Instead, he had to take jobs in VA hospitals around the country. I watched him swallow his pride and do what it took to pursue a career he loved. It was not a turning point, per se, but it was a slow and deliberate learning process for me. It taught me that when you love a calling deeply enough, whatever bits and pieces of yourself you have to trade in along the way can be a small price to pay, provided your work completes you as a person and helps you feel connected to something larger.
Mentors: Ironically, the two most influential mentors in my life were both music teachers. Susan Starrett, my high school violin teacher and my very first muse, and Dan Perrino, one of my college professors and a man who not only saw something special in me, but helped me find it myself, remain to this day two of the brightest lights of my life.
Advice: Be bold. Be fearless. And listen to the voice within you. But more than anything, be willing to swallow your fear and say to hell with what other people are going to think.