Rather than just acknowledging the 20:1 racial wealth gap between white and black Americans, Bob Johnson – founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), chairman of The RLJ Companies, and serial entrepreneur – has put his money where his mouth is.
On Feb. 1, Johnson, in collaboration with Ariel M. Friedler, president of Symplicity Corporation, which is the market leader in online career tools, launched yet another venture, OppsPlace, which is designed to address the systemic unemployment and racial wealth gap impacting minorities. OppsPlace.com is a Web site in the Monster.com genre that aggregates minority professionals for jobs and business opportunities with major Fortune 500 corporations and other entities seeking to connect with minority professionals and minority-owned business enterprises.
As of OppsPlace’s Feb. 1 launch, over 35 companies had signed on as Charter Members, including HBO, Capital One Financial, Lowe’s, CSX, McDonald’s, Dell, PNC Financial, General Motors, Colgate-Palmolive, and AFLAC. Johnson, a regular CNBC Contributor, co-hosted CNBC’s Squawk Box on Feb. 2 to showcase OppsPlace, where he interviewed Fred Smith, chairman and CEO of FedEx, and a huge supporter of OppsPlace.
“OppsPlace is much more than a jobs board,” says Kelli Richardson Lawson, president and COO of the company. “It is a diverse online network that aggregates rich content and resources in one destination and is dedicated to helping job seekers and minority business owners engage directly with key decision makers in corporate America. It is the only place on the Web that aggregates job seekers and minority businesses in the spirit of helping communities of color enhance their lives and financial well-being.”
In addition to signing on to OppsPlace, Johnson invites fellow corporate leaders to take a page from the “NFL playbook” by adopting what he is calling the “RLJ Rule.” The RLJ Rule is a voluntary adaptation of the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching slots in an effort to ensure that minorities are part of candidate pool. The NFL rule has resulted in an increase in the number of head coaches of professional football teams from 3 to 8 since 2003. Johnson believes that the companies’ voluntary commitment to use the RLJ rule, which means they will interview at least two minority candidates for any vacancy at the vice president level or above, will have a similar impact on increasing the number of minorities in corporate suites.
Johnson’s “serial entrepreneurship” helps to bridge racial wealth gap
Creating more economic opportunities for minority Americans has been Bob Johnson’s dream since founding BET in 1980. He made that dream a reality when he built BET into a preeminent household brand in the black community, becoming the first American American-owned company to have had its stock publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and employing thousands of employees of color over his 26-year reign at its helm. Johnson and his mentor and partner John Malone, founder of TeleCommunications, Inc., the first major cable television industry multiple system operator, reprivatized the company in 1999.
In 2000, Johnson became the nation’s first African American billionaire when he sold the BET media empire to media giant Viacom for $3 billion, creating instant double-digit profits for his shareholders, and making his senior management team, the overwhelming majority of whom were African American, millionaires. While Johnson hung around until 2006 to complete the transition of BET to current President and CEO Debra Lee, his RLJ Companies, which he affectionately dubbed his “second act,” were already in full swing with over $200 million under management in the hotel real estate investment, financial services, and automotive businesses. Today, The RLJ Companies manages over $5 billion in assets and employs over 10,000 people.
Johnson currently serves on the boards of KB Home, Lowe’s, and Strayer Education.
Indeed, to the extent that Johnson’s “serial entrepreneurship” has contributed to the professional and financial successes of thousands of minorities, his business ventures have unquestionably helped to bridge the racial wealth gap. Over BET’s 26-year success under his leadership, Johnson provided opportunities for minority media professionals to not only work in the television industry, but to grow and prosper in their chosen field.
In addition to CEO Debra Lee, many African Americans have benefitted professionally and financially from Johnson’s business ventures. The list includes author and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley; former radio and video D.J. Donnie Simpson; WHUT-TV General Manager and former BET Executive VP Jefferi Lee; HBCU Network Chief Curtis N. Symonds; TV news anchor Ed Gordon; former Emerge Magazine Editor-in-Chief George Curry; former President of the Johnson’s Charlotte Bobcats basketball team Eddie Tapscot; and former Bobcats Head Coach Bernie Bickerstaff; among many others. Lee, a member of Johnson’s original BET senior management team, has presided over BET’s transformation from a predominantly music-oriented format to a general entertainment format and winner of multiple NAACP Image Awards.
Johnson’s continuing concern about the economic well-being of African Americans is laudable, as is his “putting his money where his mouth is” to help bridge systemic racial wealth disparities with the RLJ Rule and OppsPlace. But perhaps what is more laudable is the fact that, with OppsPlace, he seems to have put his money where his heart is.
Maurita Coley, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of MMTC, is the former Executive Director of Capital Area Asset Builders and a former Partner at the Davis Wright Tremaine Law and Cole Raywid & Braverman law firms. She earned her law degree from Georgetown Law where she was a recipient of the 2011 Paul R. Dean Award, and she holds a BA in Communications from Michigan State University. Coley served on the BET executive management team in the 1990’s.