Interview by Dinah Eng @FortuneMagazine
(Fortune) - You may know Robert L. "Bob" Johnson best for launching Black Entertainment Television (BET) back in 1980. But after selling BET to Viacom for $3 billion, the 66-year-old Johnson has branched out into hotels (Marriott), auto dealerships, part ownership of the Charlotte Bobcats, and even British drama. His story:
I was born in Hickory, Miss., the ninth of 10 children. My mother was a schoolteacher, and my father was a farm worker. We moved north to Freeport, Ill., where both of them became factory workers to earn better wages and get away from discrimination in the South. They taught us there's no such thing as lowly work as long as it's honest.
By the time I went to college in 1964, there was a movement to push African Americans toward higher education. I attended the University of Illinois through the National Defense Student Loan Program, and was a history major. After I graduated in 1968, I went to Princeton, which was looking to recruit minorities, and attended the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs for my master's degree.
I didn't think about going into business at first. After college I had a series of jobs, working for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, the National Urban League, and as press secretary for Walter Fauntroy [the first D.C. delegate to the House of Representatives].
In 1977 I was introduced to Bob Schmidt, president of the National Cable Television Association, and became vice president for governmental relations. I met the leaders of the industry and struck up a friendship with John Malone [then president and CEO of TCI]. He said to me, "I'm a business guy, and if you have any ideas, I'd be interested in supporting it."
What defines you? Maybe it’s the shade of your skin, the place you grew up, the accent in your words, the make up of your family, the gender you were born with, the intimate relationships you chose to have or your generation? As the American identity changes we will be there to report it. In America is a venue for creative and timely sharing of news that explores who we are. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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