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Everything You Need To Know About The First African-American Real Estate Billionaire


From founding and selling a TV network—making him a billionaire overnight—to launching one of the largest hotel REITs in the country, business mogul Robert L. Johnson has blazed trails from entertainment to real estate. Closing out Black History Month, here's the breakdown of the first African-American billionaire Bob Johnson.


  • He became the first African-American billionaire in 2000 after selling BET for $3B, a network he co-founded with ex-wife Sheila in 1979.
  • Johnson made his foray into real estate when he founded RLJ Cos in 2002, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
  • His hotel REIT, RLJ Lodging Trust, is among the largest public REITs in the US ($2.64B market cap), with 146 properties and over 21,200 hotel rooms.
  • Bob became the first African-American majority club owner of a major American sports league with his 2002 purchase of the Charlotte Bobcats.

The BET Saga 

Black Entertainment Television had its first broadcast in January 1980, initially for two hours per week. But soon enough, BET grew in popularity and expanded its programming. After turning a profit in 1985, BET became the first black-controlled company listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991 and by 1998, Johnson and Liberty Media bought all outstanding shares of BET, giving Johnson a 42% stake. Viacom acquired BET in 2000 for a reported $3B, which he and then-wife Sheila divided halfway. Johnson remained BET CEO until 2006. 


Venturing Into Real Estate

Bob Johnson took his billion and started RLJ Cos shortly after selling BET. Within the RLJ's diverse portfolio, Johnson's businesses range from hotel investment; private equity; financial services; asset management; automobile dealerships; and sports. He quaintly calls this post-BET period his "second act."

The RLJ Cos is headquartered in Bethesda, MD, with affiliate operations in Charlotte, NC; Little Rock, AR; Los Angeles; San Juan, PR; and Monrovia, Liberia.


Philanthropy Overseas

Building on the blocks of his success at home, Bob has taken his business savvy and personal philanthropy overseasinvesting $30M into the Liberia Enterprise Development Fund in 2007 to provide credit for Liberian entrepreneurs. In 2011, Johnson worked with Morgan Freeman to raise funds for hurricane prep in the Bahamas and released a neckwear line called he RLJ Ella Rose Africa Tie Collection, in 2012 to benefit the charity org Malaria No More in coordination with PVH and The Ella Rose Collection.