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Robert L. Johnson

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Robert L. Johnson

Date of Birth: April 8, 1946, in Hickory, Mississippi;

Occupation: Businessman;

Education: University of Illinois, BA, 1968; Princeton University, MPA, 1972;

Company: The RLJ Companies, LLC;

Position: Founder, Chairman;

Industry: Real Estate, Hospitality, Professional Sports, Media and Entertainment, Gaming;

Country: United States;

Robert Louis Johnson is the Founder and Chairman of The RLJ Companies, LLC, a diverse portfolio of companies. He also owns or holds interests in businesses operating in hotel real estate, private equity, 401k fintech services, automobile dealerships, content streaming, gaming and sports betting.

Mr. Johnson is also the founder and former chairman of Black Entertainment Television (BET), the nation’s first Black-owned cable television network. While working as a lobbyist for the National Cable Television Association (NCTA). He began toying with the idea of developing a television network that targeted Black Americans. Tom Wheeler, president of the NCTA, gave Johnson $15,000 as an initial investment to help in starting the venture. Johnson later convinced John Malone, the president of TCI, to invest $500,000 in the project. Johnson met Bob Rosencrans, the president of UA-Columbia Cablevision, who owned slots on a cable TV satellite that he told Johnson he could use for his new channel. With all of the parts in place, BET went on air at 11 p.m. on January 8, 1980. BET became the first and largest black-owned broadcasting company and the first black-owned business to go public on the New York Stock Exchange.

Mr. Johnson was the first Black American Billionaire to appear in the Forbes magazine billionaires list.

Mr.  Johnson made history as the first Black American to become the majority owner of a professional sports organization when the NBA Board of Governors granted him the expansion Charlotte NBA franchise on January 10, 2003. He also assumed ownership of the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting.

Personal Attributes and Interests

  • Mr. Johnson married Sheila Johnson in 1969. They divorced in 2001 and have two children.
  • Married Lauren Wooden, May 2016.

Work Experience

  •  In 2012, Mr. Johnson announced the successful creation of RLJ Entertainment, Inc., a premium digital channel company serving distinct audiences primarily through its popular streaming services, Acorn TV (British TV) and UMC (Urban Movie Channel). RLJ Entertainment, Inc. marks the third time Mr. Johnson has successfully taken a company public. In 1991 Johnson took BET public, making the network the first African American company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange. RLJ Lodging Trust, a hotel real estate investment trust (REIT), went public in 2011.
  • In 2001, BET was sold to VIACOM for approximately $3 billion on November 3, 2000 making Mr. Johnson one of VIACOM largest shareholders and the first Black American Billionaire. Mr.  Johnson stepped down as CEO of BET in January 2006.
  • Two of Mr. Johnson’s holding companies are ranked among the top Black-owned companies in the country on the Black Enterprise 100s list: RLJ-McLarty-Landers Automotive Holdings, LLC and RLJ Equity Partners, LLC.
  • He is also the owner of the largest African-American owned hotel investment company, RLJ Development, LLC., launched in December 2000 in Bethesda, Maryland.
  • From 1976 to 1979, Mr. Johnson served as vice president of Government Relations for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), a trade association representing more than 1,500 cable television companies. 
  • Prior to joining the NCTA, Johnson was press secretary for the Honorable Walter E. Fauntroy, Congressional Delegate from the District of Columbia. 
  • Mr. Johnson previously held positions at the Washington Urban League and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Board and Advisor Roles

Currently, Mr. Johnson serves on the following boards: 

  • RLJ Lodging Trust; KB Home; 
  • Discovery, Inc.; 
  • Elevate Credit, Inc.; 
  • G-III Apparel Group, Ltd.; 
  • The Business Council;
  • Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture;


  • In July 2007, he was named, by USA Today, one of “The 25 Most Influential Business Leaders of the Past 25 Years.”
  • Number 2 on Black Enterprise’s list of “Titans: The 40 Most Powerful African Americans in Business” 40th Anniversary Issue
  • Frequent CNBC Contributor
  • Sports Illustrated magazine honored him as the most influential minority in sports in 2003. 
  • He was named the 2003 Newsmaker of the Year by The Charlotte Post.
  • Sporting News named him the second-most powerful owner in sports for 2003.
  • Winner of the 1997 Hall of Fame Award by Broadcasting & Cable Magazine, 
  • Cablevision Magazine’s 20/20 Vision Award which lists him as one of the twenty most influential people in the cable industry;
  • An NAACP Image Award; 
  • President’s Award from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, 
  • CTAM's Grand Tam Award;
  • National Women’s Political Caucus’ Good Guys Award;
  • A Distinguished Alumni Award from Princeton University.

Philanthropy, Community Service and Memberships

  • In 2007, Johnson created the Liberia Enterprise Development Fund with a $30 million investment. The fund provides credit for Liberian entrepreneurs.
  • He donated $1 million toward building the West Boulevard YMCA, Charlotte. 


Mr. Johnson holds a Master’s degree in international affairs from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University (1968) and a Bachelor of Arts degree in social studies from the University of Illinois.

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