When Sheila C. Johnson was asked to join the board of governors at The New School’s Parsons School of Design, she wasn’t completely sure how she would fit in at the leading art and design school.
“I had heard of Parsons, but I was and still am a musician. I’m not a designer,” Johnson told the Parsons alumni who packed The New School’s University Center on Saturday.
But it wasn’t long after she visited the school and met with students there that America’s first black female billionaire changed her tune. Johnson imagined the rich potential of bringing her experience and wisdom to Parsons.
“The thing that struck me more than anything were the students; I had never seen a group of students who were so passionate, focused, and hungry,” Johnson recalled of her visit in 2002. “They had fire in their bellies and they still do.”
Johnson felt right at home at Parsons, which comes as no surprise: The entrepreneur has embraced the same qualities she observed in Parsons students in her creation of a business and philanthropic empire that spans a chain of luxury hotels and resorts, a television channel, three sports teams, Hollywood films, and numerous performing arts and educational institutions.
Johnson made her remarks during Parsons Reunion 2015, an annual gathering of Parsons alumni who come together to to reconnect, network, and celebrate their successes with fellow graduates. Many of the designers in attendance have gone on to become leaders in their fields.
In a wide-ranging discussion with Paul Goldberger, Joseph Urban Chair of Architecture and Design at The New School and former dean of Parsons, Johnson touched on the “three acts” of her life, her philanthropic endeavors, her efforts to develop greater diversity in art and design schools, and the experience of working in multiple platforms.
“The designers who have been most successful are the ones who have established connections in other worlds,” Goldberger observed of Johnson’s career.
“That’s exactly it, and that’s exactly what I do,” she replied. “I’ve been able to network and cast my net out there to get to know so many people in so many fields.”
Johnson’s career as a prolific entrepreneur was born in the early 1970s. At the time, she was teaching violin at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School and giving private lessons. The lessons grew into a successful enterprise, and once Johnson had enrolled 100 students, she quit her job at Sidwell Friends to devote all of her attention to private teaching. Less than a decade later, she and her then-husband launched Black Entertainment Television, which quickly became the most prominent television outlet focusing on African American audiences.
In 2005, Johnson launched a new initiative by opening Salamander Hospitality, a hospitality and management company through which she owns and manages two resorts and an inn, along with other properties. Having gone through a divorce and facing discrimination and even death threats from members of the Virginia community in which she opened her first resort and spa, Johnson decided to name her company after a tenacious amphibian.
“In myth, the salamander is the only animal that can walk through fire and still come out alive,” Johnson said, who took the name from the prior owner of her Virginia property, a World War II fighter pilot and prisoner of war who used the military codename “Salamander.” Johnson deemed the name fitting for her hospitality company, given the trials she’d endured on her path to success.
Whether it was facing down death threats or launching a new business venture, Johnson never gave into fear.
“For those of you sitting in the audience, don’t be afraid to broaden your vision, to take that next step,” she said. “It’s the only way you’re going to grow.”
Following the lively conversation, attendees migrated across the street to the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center for a reception and exhibition of alumni work. Among them was Charles Harbison (BFA Fashion Design ’06), owner of his eponymous fashion line and a huge admirer of Johnson’s.
“Sheila is iconic, not only to the black community because of work around BET, but to the entire country for her contributions as an businesswoman and philanthropist,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of major black affiliations in design world. Sheila is one of the few who exists, and to see her success is really affirming for me as a black entrepreneur and designer.”
Also in attendance was Aimee Kestenberg (BFA Integrated Design ’12), a Melbourne, Australia, transplant whose eponymous handbag line has been picked up by top department stores throughout the world. Kestenberg, who also has her own show on the QVC shopping network, credited Parsons with helping to “open up so many doors in my career.”
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for this school,” she said. “There’s no limit on creativity here. It doesn’t squash ideas. It welcomes the unknown, risk taking and designing outside of the box.”
Through Johnson’s moral and philanthropic support—through scholarships awarded in her name and her majority funding of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (SJDC)—countless Parsons students have benefitted from the resources to hone their craft and launch successful careers. Johnson may not be a designer, but her entrepreneurial spirit, fearless creativity, and multi-faceted experience makes her an inspirational figure to The New School community.