September 17, 2003

BET Co-Founder Speaks

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It is difficult enough to succeed in media, let alone start a television station targeted primarily towards minority viewers. Sheila C. Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), delivered a lecture yesterday afternoon that proved otherwise.

John Jaquette, director of Cornell’s Entrepreneurship and Personal Enterprise Program, began the program by introducing President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77. Jacquette detailed Lehman’s career, including the president’s involvement in the recent Supreme Court affirmative action decision.

Lehman then introduced Johnson, telling of her success as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and humanitarian. Johnson responded warmly to Lehman’s introduction saying, “It is indeed an honor to finally meet you.”

Johnson began by speaking about her many endeavors in business and charity. In 1980, Johnson, with former husband Robert L. Johnson, co-founded BET, the first cable network aimed at African American audiences.

“We called it black because African American wasn’t the term used then,” Johnson said.

As executive vice president of corporate affairs, Johnson was an important contributor to the expansion of the network into the three billion dollar behemoth Viacom acquired in 1997.

Johnson also created the award winning program “Teen Summit”, a show where young adults speak openly about diseases, sex, drugs, violence and other topics.

After recounting her achievement in the business world, Johnson spoke about the reasons behind her success. Integrity was important to Johnson, “We, as a nation, have lowered the bar in our code of conduct.”

Johnson concluded the lecture to a standing ovation, preceding a question and answer period. She later made herself available to additional student inquiries at a reception.

Besides her work at BET, Johnson is most notably known for her philanthropy and music. She currently serves on the board of the Salvation Army and the Hill School in Middleburg, Va. Additionally, Johnson has donated over two million dollars to the United Negro College Fund and seven million to Parsons School of Design. In her spare time, Johnson is also a music teacher and accomplished violinist.

The lecture, held in Statler Auditorium, was part of the Moses and Loulu Seltzer Speaker Series created by Samuel Seltzer in honor of his parents.

Archived article by Jack VanArsdale