It is the entertainment business that helped launch Ms. Johnson into prominence as a businesswoman in Washington. Her ex-husband, Robert L. Johnson, was the founder of Black Entertainment Television, and the two became billionaires when Viacom bought the network in 1999.
The couple divorced in 2002, and she immediately gained status as one of the wealthiest black women in the United States, with a net worth approaching $1 billion. She remarried in 2005 to William Newman, a judge in Arlington County.
She since has become a force in business in her own right, with her most high-profile position as president and managing partner of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Mystics. She took over control of the team in 2005 and remains one of the few women with an ownership stake of a WNBA franchise. She has become fast friends with new female owners in Los Angeles and Seattle and has pushed for more independent owners to enter the fray.
“For so long, the WNBA has been an extension of the NBA team and really has been the dirty rag at the end of the season,” Ms. Johnson says. “So we have whatever’s left of whatever energy the NBA staff has. They throw them out there and say, ‘OK, let’s make this work through the summer.´ By me taking it over and having my own staff, we run that team year round.”
Ms. Johnson talks effusively about the Mystics players and their ability to serve as role models, particularly to young women. And much of her work revolves around supporting the advancement of women in society.
Last year, she worked with CARE, a global humanitarian organization, on a campaign to connect with women in impoverished countries. She produced a documentary, “A Powerful Noise,” that chronicled the stories of such women, and she currently is helping develop a documentary about female matadors in Spain.
Ms. Johnson also assisted Ted Leonsis, the former AOL executive and the majority owner of the Mystics and Washington Capitals, with the financing for “Kicking It,” a film about an international soccer tournament for homeless people.
“Whatever she does, she gets totally committed to,” said Mr. Ein, another co-producer of “Kicking It.” “She throws her mind and her energy and her passion behind all her projects. And she does it in a really nice way that makes everyone else feel supportive of whatever she’s doing.”
But Ms. Johnson does not wholeheartedly embrace the notion that she is influential. Unlike her friend Mr. Obama, she has no interest in running for public office. And she is particularly demure when asked about her status as female, black and rich.
“I don’t even look at that, I don’t like to look at my own press releases,” she says. “I just do what I want to do in life, and however things fall it’s the way they fall. Because if I concentrate on being the first African-American to do something, you’re paralyzed from doing anything else. If opportunities open up, you go for them.”