Robert L. Johnson is an American business magnate, chairman and founder of the RLJ Companies, and founder of television network Black Entertainment Television (BET). In 2001, Johnson became the first African American billionaire, and the first black person to be listed on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people.
Robert Reiss: How do you know that an idea is a great idea?
Robert L. Johnson: The way I looked at it is, if it was something that I believed in, truly thought that it was needed, if there was a void for it, it was probably a good idea, and depending on how big the idea was, it could be a great idea.
RR: Is that an emotional feeling or an observational reason?
RLJ: It’s a combination of both. You can’t start a business without being emotional about it. You have to embrace a business the way you’d almost raise and embrace your children. You’ve got to want to have them and you’ve got to want to take care of them and you’ve got to want to nurture them till they grow. It’s the same way with investing and growing a business.
RR: A good analogy.
RJR: That’s the emotional side of it; it was like that when I started BET. I knew that there was a need for a cable channel to serve African-Americans. The reason I knew there was a need, was because there was a magazine called Ebony that was serving African-American readers. There was also black radio playing black music that black folks wanted to listen to. So why not a television show on cable serving African-Americans? It was simply a transmission system. You needed content to put on it, but it was not totally new. It wasn’t innovative.
It was just another technological platform to get content from producers, in the case of television to viewers, like radio to listeners, or magazine to readers, so the concept was there. What was missing was using this technology to reach that audience. So to me, it was just a matter of time. Either I was going to do it or somebody else is going to do it. There was no way the idea would stay under wraps for long.
RR: What is your proudest accomplishment over your incredible lifetime so far?
RJR: The thing I’m most proud of is that I have personally created more African-American multi-millionaires than anybody else in this country. It’s not so much the number that I’m proudest of, though, but the fact that I gave them a chance to prove what they could do if they had someone who would trust them and give them the resources to do it. And they succeeded!
RR: Any final advice to entrepreneurs?
RJR: Believe in yourself. It starts there. If you believe in yourself and you can convey that enthusiasm to either investors or talented people who want to come work with you, and bring them in as your full partners – that means full disclosure about everything and full economic opportunity to rise with you as the company rises – that will be your trigger to success.
*Reprinted with permission of The CEO Forum, Volume ll, Issue 2