(WOMENSENEWS)–As a girl growing up in the Midwest, I had no way of imagining that someday I would become a founding partner in a business that would eventually bring me wealth beyond anything I had ever dreamed. Nor did I imagine that I would someday be in a position to give away not just thousands, but millions, of dollars to worthy causes.
One thing I did know, however, because my mother drummed it into me–and as I have, in turn, drummed into my own daughter–that as a woman, throughout my life I have been worthy. And I have been powerful. And I remain so to this day.
As a young woman, I helped build Black Entertainment Television (BET) into a global brand. In those days I was not merely a full participant in the building of the business, I also was the driving force behind the creation of content that had real meaning for viewers of our fledgling cable network; content that reached out to our target audience, especially the youngest and most at-risk among them.
Even as my former husband and I continued to build the company, I began to "own" something else my mother impressed on me: the importance of reaching out and giving back, whether it was giving five cents or five dollars, or offering a visiting student a place to sleep or some other act of kindness.
Although my father was a neurosurgeon, his ability to practice was severely circumscribed by racial prejudice. He could not work in the best hospitals and because of that never earned a wage commensurate with his talents. For that reason, we did not always have that much to give, but my family remained steadfastly committed to giving whatever we could. I began to practice that ethic as a professional by directing all BET’s charitable giving.
Taking a Quantum Leap
In 2002, BET was bought by Viacom, and a sizeable slice of that was my share. At that point my philanthropic giving, which had begun years before, suddenly took a quantum leap forward. I was able to step up to the plate like never before.
Once the dust of the sale had settled, I asked myself one critical question: What did I really want to achieve as a philanthropist?
The answer was soon clear. Above all, I wanted to be a catalyst. I wanted my giving to have meaning. I wanted it to impact people’s lives for the better. With that in mind, I began to give in a number of different directions: to children, to the arts, to education, to any number of worthy causes.
Today, women are an enormous and increasingly important component of my strategy for giving and this is due to my own experience. Something in my DNA always rankled me when I was told I couldn’t do something because I was female. Do not tell me I am not allowed, not worthy, not powerful, because I know in my heart that not only is that wrong, but in fact quite the contrary is true. And I want that truth to be as real for women around the world as it is for me.
In 2007, I made a significant commitment to the international relief agency CARE to help that organization advance its "I Am Powerful" campaign.
This initiative is part of a massive effort on the part of CARE to engage women in the United States in the fight to improve the lives of less fortunate women and young girls in the developing world.
Catalysts to End Poverty
As I write this, a matching gift component, known as the "I Am Powerful" Challenge, has motivated over 32,000 donors to contribute more than $4 million to CARE in 68 countries. That gift, like the initiative itself, is based on one simple yet profound truth: Women remain the most important catalyst and our single, greatest weapon in ending global poverty.
Yet here at home we are still struggling to create a place, a space, where women can claim their rightful role in society. Inequities continue to abide.
This grim reality vividly became evident to me when I first entered the locker room of the Washington Mystics, the Women’s National Basketball Association team I own along with some partners. Because we also own part of the Washington Wizards of the National Basketball Association and the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League, I had toured the locker rooms of the men’s teams and admired their gleaming and capacious spaces.
But when I entered the Mystics’ locker room I was shocked by what I saw: useless urinals, one toilet, one shower and ancient lockers. There was even a rat in one corner. I was outraged and became even more so when my male partners couldn’t see that anything was wrong.
At that moment I became firmly convinced that these female athletes were worth fighting for.
So my recent gift to the Women’s Sports Foundation was a natural way for me to serve as a catalyst of change for women and girls, and not just for professional athletes but for countless young girls in this country who have so much to gain from participating in sports. The Women’s Sports Foundation is a leader in the global Women’s Funding Network, channeling millions of dollars to empower communities through women and girls.
Paying Tribute, Building Confidence
Part of my gift was allocated to the Billie Jean King International Women’s Sports Center. This center will pay tribute to the accomplishments of great female athletes the world over. I hope visitors, especially women and girls, will be inspired to get active, to start playing sports and to help us continue to break barriers. I believe through sports girls learn to be team players, compete successfully, and build confidence and self-esteem.
Another part of my gift was directed to the Women’s Sports Foundation’s GoGirlGo! program, which uses grants and scholarships to further the organization’s noble mission, which is to help shape young girls into strong, confident women.
Even as I channel more and more dollars to charities designed to advance the rights and opportunities of women, the evidence continues to mount that such an investment is not merely the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. Women are the backbones of their families. When you strengthen women, you strengthen families. And when you strengthen families, you strengthen communities.
As the CEO of a major hospitality company, I know a good deal about ROI, "return on investment." Study after study shows that empowering women is perhaps the single most effective way to change the world. And an investment in women is an investment as solid as any vehicle in my portfolio.
The intangible rewards from supporting these causes have been countless. Recently I spoke at an event in Washington, and women came up to me and told me how something I had done had made a difference in their lives. They did not have to tell me that, in turn, they were making a difference. I was and remain confident in that knowledge. And that, without question, is the greatest reward of all.
Sheila C. Johnson is an entrepreneur and philanthropist whose accomplishments span the arenas of hospitality, sports, TV/film, the arts and humanitarian causes. A founding partner of BET and currently CEO of Salamander Hospitality, Johnson is an ambassador for CARE and the first woman to have a stake in three professional sports teams. Her focus is building solidarity and empowering women and girls to become catalysts for change in communities around the world.
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