March 22, 2006: A moment with...
Robert L. Johnson *72
Robert Johnson *72, who received his master’s degree from the Woodrow Wilson School, ranks as one of the top entrepreneurs in the country. The owner of the Charlotte Bobcats basketball team, he first made his mark in 1980 by founding Black Entertainment Television, a venture that both put several young black entertainers on the map and convinced advertisers there was money to be made in catering to African-Americans. Johnson’s sale of BET in 2000 made him a billionaire, and now he has a new mission — building an investment company that is run by African-American money managers. He spoke with Juliet Eilperin ’92, author of Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives, due out in April.
When you created BET, did you encounter resistance?
When I started BET 25 years ago, the cable industry was in its infancy. What BET succeeded in doing was growing with the cable industry.
There were some advertisers and cable operators who had no interest in doing anything to reach the African-American market. There were a number of people who just didn’t get it. Some of it was based on ignorance. Some of it was just racial indifference.
Some prominent African-Americans have criticized BET for failing to generate more original intellectual and cultural programming.
My goal was to create a company that would maximize value, that would have an impact on the culture of African-Americans, and that would be something I would be proud of having accomplished. The people who have criticized BET should have been, in effect, criticizing the fact that there weren’t multiple BETs. They wanted BET to be everything to everybody.
BET was a business to maximize value. But it also had a corner on the most influential cultural product of African-Americans. That’s music. If you ask Mary J. Blige, if you ask Beyoncé, if you ask Ludacris or Jay-Z, they would say, “BET made it possible for me to be the success I am today.” I make no apologies for what BET is, or for what it will be. I am not worried about my legacy.
Talk a little about your current business venture, your effort to bring African-American money managers from across the country and put them under one roof.
It’s what I call “my second act.” The goal is to take what I did at BET and apply it to financial-asset management. We will prove that African-American managers can create value. We will create a brand that will be a significant player in the private-equity sector and in the asset-management sector. I plan to go to universities like Princeton, Harvard, and Yale and ask them to invest part of their endowments with us. These universities have very little or no money invested with African-American fund managers. At their academic level they espouse diversity. Universities are predisposed to be leaders in changing society. African-Americans are huge contributors to the wealth of this nation. They are huge consumers of the products of this nation. But they are totally unrepresented in the management of wealth in this nation.
How did your experience at Princeton help shape you?
I came to Princeton from the University of Illinois. I went in with the preconception, “I’m going to be outclassed by all these brilliant Ivy League students.” But once you get in the classroom, your confidence goes way up. Your diploma and your school are not the primary predictors of what you’re going to achieve in life, and neither is the color of your skin. What I learned from Princeton is that I could effectively compete with everybody.
Is there anything that makes you concerned about where the media industry is headed right now?
The thing that is most troubling to me is that the big companies have reduced the number of decision-makers who decide what gets on the air. It’s down to a few, because of the consolidation of the media. You don’t get the full diversity of opinions and ideas. If you came from Mars and you looked at the Sunday-morning talk shows you would think, “This is a country that’s 12 percent or more African-American, 20 percent Latino. I see these people in entertainment and sports shows; don’t they have an opinion on any of these [national and political] issues?” Why aren’t their voices heard? They have no input into the national policy issues of this nation.
You talk about problems associated with the consolidation of the media, but you sold BET to Viacom. Do you regret that at all?
People said the same thing when the owners of Essence sold the magazine to Time-Warner. The fact is, no African-American was financially able to buy a $3 billion company.