Upon buying the Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club last year, Sheila Johnson promised to give back to the Tampa Bay community.
On Thursday, she did, on her own turf.
The resort owner addressed about 300 people during the third annual Millionaire "Herstory" Brunch in a ballroom on the resort grounds.
Hosted by Chaslo Marketing and Promotions, the event aims to celebrate successful local African-American female business owners.
"Sheila was the epitome of that to me," said Lorian Williams, 45, who owns Chaslo. Each year, the banquet features a keynote speaker who is a black female business owner and a millionaire.
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Johnson, who co-founded Black Entertainment Television (BET) with her ex-husband, reached the billionaire mark after the couple sold the network in 2000 for $3-billion.
Since their split, Johnson has made waves in the hospitality business, building luxury resorts in Virginia and South Carolina through her company Salamander Hospitality. Since July, she has made repairs to the Innisbrook golf course greens and hired a new chef.
At Thursday's brunch, she also announced a coup for the resort: The Women's National Basketball Association will conduct its 2008 draft at Innisbrook. Securing the event was not easy, Johnson said.
"I'm a woman; I'm the first to support a WNBA team," said Johnson, who is president of the Washington Mystics. "(I told them) get out here."
Johnson, who also has stakes in the NBA's Wizards and the NHL's Capitals, used Thursday's brunch to share her own struggles as a female business owner.
"I have learned to put walls up," she said.
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Seated in front of the audience on a cushy couch wearing a navy blue pant suit, the petite Johnson chatted about everything from child rearing to battling racism and sexism.
For example, when Johnson arrived in Middleburg, Va., where she owns a resort, she was not welcomed with open arms.
Driving down the street, she often saw signs that read: "Don't BET Middleburg."
"My life has not been all roses," she told the crowd. "I've hit detours, brick walls. … . You have to be resilient enough to step back and assess another route," she said.
Johnson, an ambassador to the humanitarian organization CARE, also emphasized how philanthropic efforts have helped build her company. Education, arts and women's empowerment are top causes, she said.
In December, Johnson gave the commencement speech at St. Petersburg College. "She is one of the biggest partners in Pinellas, having invested funds in Innisbrook," said college president Carl Kuttler. "It was a way for us to roll out a welcome mat as an institution."
In the future, Clearwater NAACP officials hope to tap Johnson to support the Life Force Academy afterschool program.
"I'm looking forward to pointing to her as a role model," said Nathaniel Patterson, its economic development committee chair.
Johnson welcomes it. "The community supports this resort," she said. "So I support the community."