Toast of the Town

Entrepreneur Sheila Johnson is set to open Virginia’s newest luxury resort, but that’s not all the hotelier and former media maven is bringing to Middleburg this year.

courtesy of salamander hotels and resorts

Sheila Johnson on the Grand Lawn at the Salamander Resort & Spa.

     The countdown for the Aug. 29 grand opening of the luxurious Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg is underway, and no one is happier about it than its founder, entrepreneur Sheila Johnson, 64, CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts and one of the country’s most influential women. The project began as an inn, but over a decade morphed into a 340-acre, 168-room luxury resort and destination property with a 23,000-square-foot spa and a full-service equestrian center—one of Johnson’s growing portfolio of luxury resorts.

     Johnson, a Middleburg resident for 15 years, is a woman of many talents. She is an accomplished violinist who is passionate about the arts and an ardent philanthropist who, for six and a half years, served as global ambassador for CARE, a humanitarian organization that combats global poverty by empowering women. She recently launched the Sheila Johnson Collection—a line of Italian-made scarves, the designs for which were inspired by images from Haiti, Rwanda and Uganda—and will donate a portion of their proceeds to benefit the Haiti Artisan Project and the Lady Salamanders, a national homeless women’s soccer team league that she first sponsored around 2008. Her philanthropic efforts also include serving on the Board of Governors of Parsons The New School for Design in New York, the Sundance Institute, the Tiger Woods Foundation and the ANNIKA Foundation.

     A shrewd businesswoman who cofounded the Black Entertainment Television network, Johnson, as vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, is the only African-American woman to own stakes in three professional sports teams. She is also breaking ground in the golf world as the first African-American female member of the United States Golf Association Executive Committee.

     Johnson’s wide-ranging interests extend to the film industry as well. Hollywood knows her as the executive producer of four documentary films as well as the highly anticipated feature film The Butler, set to be released Aug. 16 and starring a virtual Who’s Who of Tinseltown that includes Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda and Mariah Carey. And Johnson will launch the first Middleburg Film Festival, which will take place at venues throughout the town Oct. 25-27 and feature 15 independent films and panel talks by the films’ directors and some of the actors, as well as writers and film critics.

The Butler is my first feature. I had such a keen interest in the story. It talks about a unique individual called Eugene Allen who was the butler to eight presidents. Through his eyes, it tells the story of the layers of history and the struggles of his family. It’s an important story with an all-star cast. It’s a brilliant movie. I hope it does well at the box office.

There are so many complex issues out there, and they need to be told. Three of the four documentaries I have produced—Kicking It, She Is the Matador and A Powerful Noise—tell the story of three extraordinary women who changed their community and are taking issues head on. The Other City is about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which is pandemic in Washington, D.C. People think it has disappeared but it has not. It’s a silent killer. It’s a way for me to be able to get the issue out in front of all the eyes on Capitol Hill.

I had no idea that I was going to get into the hospitality industry. After leaving the media business, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was too young to retire but I needed some purpose. I realized this was a business I believed I could be good in. When we got in the cable business, my ex-husband and I didn’t have a clue about the television business. We hired the best in the business to help us. It’s the same with the hotel. Prem Devadas [president of Salamander Hotels and Resorts who formerly managed properties for CCA Industries, which include The Jefferson in Richmond] helped me build it from ground up, and I have learned a lot from him. We have a team of experts. We have the best in the country.

I found a marvelous location [near Middleburg, originally named Salamander Farm] that belonged to Bruce Sundlun. [Johnson, who asked Sundlum permission to use the original Salamander Farm name, later purchased the property and now resides there.] He told me the meaning of Salamander. He was a bomber pilot in WWII and was shot down. He escaped and worked with the French Resistance. They gave him the code name Salamander. A salamander is also the only animal that can walk through fire and come out alive. I love that story and what it meant. All of us go through ups and downs through life. It was the perfect time for me. I asked if I could brand it. I built my life around salamander perseverance, courage and fortitude. I fought the fight to take the resort up and build a company that I really believe is going to be successful.

My mother has always reminded me that, as a little girl, I would make potholders and sell them door-to-door for two cents or five cents. I had a piggy bank so I could get what I wanted. I was always thinking that way. When business opportunities come along, you have to be able to recognize them and take risks. Those are the biggest lessons. You have to see beyond your immediacy and see the bigger picture.

What drives me is the success of a project. The biggest thrill for me is seeing the resort being built. I love seeing things evolve. When I don’t have anything to do, that is when I get bored. I love creation—scarves, resorts, soccer, films—and philanthropy is important to me. I work with women who are suffering, and I am able to help them solve problems in their lives. That gives me great satisfaction—to help the community and make it stronger. I have been enormously blessed with great fortune. It’s important to keep that in mind and give back.,

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