Sheila Johnson Speaks Out

Sheila Johnson

In Celebration of International Women’s Day, we are profiling inspiring women in the meetings industry. This article, on Salamander Hotels & Resorts’ founder and CEO Sheila Johnson, is the first in a five-part series:

There are few women who own hotels, but that didn’t stop Sheila Johnson, the first African-America woman to attain a net worth of at least one billion dollars.

Sheila Johnson, a pioneer for gender and racial equality, says the opportunity to develop the 168-room Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, VA was the main reason she entered the industry. The project took a decade to design and build. Since opening its highly anticipated doors in August 2013, Salamander Resort & Spa has received worldwide praise. It has become a community gathering point and executive retreat for the Greater Washington, D.C. region.

Located on 340 picturesque acres in the storied village of Middleburg, the heart of Virginia’s famed horse and wine country, the resort is only 35 minutes from Washington Dulles International Airport.  Designed to blend into the surrounding rolling countryside, the 168-room Salamander Resort & Spa draws its architectural inspiration from Johnson’s nearby farm. It offers a series of immersive experiences unique to the area, including Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill, a Cooking Studio and Culinary Garden, a tranquil outdoor spa courtyard with an infinity pool, a tree-top zip line tour, and a 22-stall equestrian center with riding arena.

Considered one of the hotel industry’s top luxury management companies, Salamander Hotels & Resorts also operates Half Moon in Montego Bay, Jamaica; Hotel Bennett in Charleston, SC; The Henderson in Destin, FL; and Innisbrook Resort in Tampa Bay. As part of our series celebrating International Women’s Day, Prevue features this Q&A with Johnson about her rise to the top.

Andrea Doyle (AD): You are an exception to this, but do you feel the glass ceiling, the invisible barrier that blocks women from top jobs in this industry, still exists?

Sheila Johnson (SJ): In my time in the hospitality industry, and throughout the previous roles I have held, I have found that we are not lacking talented, qualified women, including women of color. What there is, is a lack of opportunity. There needs to be a recognition that women and people of diverse backgrounds bring forth new ideas and experiences and look at life from a different perspective. It is the only way we are going to evolve the industry and make an impact. Change truly starts at the top, and at Salamander Hotels and Resorts, it begins with me.

AD: Is there anyone who mentored you early in your career, or helped you become the type of leader you are today?

Sheila Johnson: My parents instilled into me an incredibly strong work ethic. My father was one of only 11 African American neurosurgeons working in America at the time and struggled to find employment. Eventually, my father secured a position with Veterans Affairs, and we were transferred about every ten months. I learned to adapt; it was our life.

AD: What is your proudest accomplishment?

SJ: Undoubtedly, my proudest professional accomplishment was finally opening Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, VA, in 2013. It took me over a decade to attain this goal due to design, development, and the recession. However, it has since become one of the most successful resorts in the country and has just retained its Forbes Five Star rating. That makes me immensely proud.

AD: What are the challenges that keep you up at night?

SJ: It is our obligation as a society to continue to elevate the curious, intelligent, inspiring leaders of tomorrow and remove the preconceived notion of what that looks like across all industries, including hospitality.

AD: What attributes and/or qualities have you developed that have helped you become successful?

SJ: I learned my lesson the hard way, but I always surround myself with smart and loyal people. They will lift you up and make your companies successful.

AD: How do you define success?

SJ: I measure success in two ways: financially and socially. I call it the ‘double bottom line,’ and I always strive to make sure all my companies and myself adhere to this philosophy.

AD: What is the one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?

SJ: The first act in my life was as a music teacher and concert violinist. I received a scholarship to study music at the University of Illinois. Afterward, I taught at both a private school and with a traveling orchestra, which performed for Queen Noor in Jordan.

AD: How did you get started in this industry?

SJ: I have always been fueled by an independent, entrepreneurial spirit. After leaving Black Entertainment Television, which I co-founded with my then-husband, I carved out a new life for myself, both personally and professionally. I was introduced to the hospitality industry because of the opportunity to build and open Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, VA. And, as a result, I became the founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, which is now a highly respected luxury hotel company.

AD: Is this what you envisioned yourself doing?

SJ: When I graduated from the University of Illinois, I certainly did not envisage myself as the owner of a hotel company; however, I’m thrilled it worked out this way. I absolutely love the hospitality industry, and it allows me to connect the dots between my other ventures, including sports, fashion, film, education, and philanthropy.

 AD: What does the future hold?

SJ: Salamander Hotels & Resorts continues to evolve with the addition of new properties to the portfolio. On March 1, we will open Eclipse at Half Moon in Montego Bay, Jamaica, which promises to be the finest property to open in a generation in the Caribbean.

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