Meet The Butler’s Powerhouse Producer

Sundance Institute Leadership EventPublished on LinkedIn Influencers on August 21, 2013.

Sheila Johnson is a highly successful businesswoman, entrepreneur, producer, and philanthropist, with achievements and accolades far too numerous to list. I have the honor of serving on the Board of Trustees of The Sundance Institute with Sheila, and we share a passion for the advancement of women and girls as members of Women Moving Millions. This article will be the first in a series I will doing to profile extraordinary women leaders that I am blessed to know and work with.

You are likely to have heard of Sheila as the founder of the television network BET, owner or partner of three major sporting teams (Washington Mystics, Washington Capitals, and Washington Wizards), board member of numerous charitable organizations, and CEO of Salamander Hospitality, a company she founded in 2005, it would appear that there’s nothing Johnson doesn’t do. When I asked her this very question she simply replied, “I don’t eat meat”. That is one of the few things we don’t have in common. I love a good steak!

Dietary preferences aside, Sheila’s resume is remarkable, and this past weekend marked another milestone: producing the number one movie at the box office. In her first outing as Executive Producer of a feature film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler opened to positive reviews and nearly $25 million in ticket sales, landing at the top of a box office weekend that featured several other high profile debuts. An ensemble drama that tells the story of a White House butler serving eight presidents over thirty years of social change and upheaval, The Butler wasn’t a guaranteed hit, nor was it even expected to be by analysts, but given the star power of the cast, featuring no less than Oprah as the titular character’s wife, and producers such as Johnson backing it, you have to wonder why people ever doubted The Butler‘s prospects. I saw it over the weekend and loved it, as did many others as judged by the applause at the end of the film.

Sheila had previously produced (with others) the documentary Kicking It, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, and later became the only Executive Producer on the documentary, A Powerful Noise. The Butler is her first foray into narrative features, with the late producer, Laura Ziskin, first approaching her for involvement with the film. As Sheila says, “The script was brought to me by … Laura Ziskin. She was an incredible and talented woman. Laura and I shared the view that this story had to be told. I loved the script right away. There were elements of history and of course the human drama with the family.”

Sheila is reported to have invested over $2.5 million of her own money into the project, as well as bringing on several other investors within the African American community. “As Executive Producer, I knew I had to make an investment myself if I was going to ask others to do the same. Additionally, I had a role to help find other investors who would believe in the script and invest. Despite the countless rejections, in the end – we pulled it together and the film came to life!” Operating on a reported budget of $30 million, the film was shot in New Orleans beginning in September of 2012, and quickly attracted attention for the large cast it had assembled. “Lee [Daniels] prefers to work with actors he knows and has worked with in the past. He likes the challenge of getting the audience to re-think these actors that [the audience] has typecast in their minds. For example, you have Jane Fonda playing Nancy Reagan, Robin Williams cast as President Eisenhower, Mariah Carey as Hattie Pearl and of course, Oprah. The whole cast was incredible!” says Sheila. I could not agree more.

While box office success is always a goal of filmmaking, Sheila hopes that many people will see the film because of the historical importance behind it. “It takes us through eight Presidents and the turmoil and obstacles that our great nation has faced and overcome during Cecil Gaines’ tenure as The Butler in the White House. Then there’s the human element of Cecil Gaines and his family. Everyone can learn and perhaps have experienced what they went through as a family.” With its impressive debut and whispers of Oscar, it would appear that The Butler is well on its way to reaching the wide audience it deserves.

As if Sheila didn’t already have enough on her plate this summer with The Butler’s debut, she is also overseeing the Grand Opening of her new resort in Middleburg VA, the Salamander Resort and Spa. Opening at noon on August 29, 2013, the Salamander Resort and Spa sits on 340 acres in the heart of Virginia’s horse and wine country. “From the moment I stepped foot on the property, I fell in love with it and envisioned creating an iconic retreat – one where guests would enjoy exceptional service. As the resort approaches completion, I am extraordinarily proud of what we have created. It will serve several purposes to many, including a gathering point for the community, a political retreat for Washington, D.C., and an exciting new destination for travelers from all over the world.” The Salamander Resort’s opening has drawn attention from both Forbes and USA Today as one of the most anticipated hotel openings of 2013, and with three major airports within 90 minutes of the property, the resort appears poised for success.

Film, television, hospitality, philanthropy; Sheila Johnson really can do it all. While her achievements are extraordinary, it is her commitment to her community and the example she sets as a role model that truly sets Johnson apart and makes her a leader in today’s world. One can be forgiven for thinking that after a summer overseeing two major project launches, Sheila would be entitled to some well deserved time off, but I have a feeling that she will not rest on her laurels for long. And I for one can’t wait to see what she does next.

Jacki Zehner with the incredible help of Laura Moore.

Photo: Andrew H. Walker/WireImage via Getty Images

What’s All the BUSTLE About?

14ec881Published on LINKEDIN Influencers on August 15, 2013

Bryan Goldberg, one of the founders of the online sports website Bleacher Report, recently announced that he had raised $6.5 million for a new start up company called Bustle, billed as a feminist publication that aims to “redefine what ‘women’s interests’ looks like”. The reaction from the Internet was swift and brutal, with commentators criticizing everything from the language of Goldberg’s announcement, his lack of awareness of women’s content on the Internet, to the name and tagline of the company itself.

While it is true that Goldberg’s announcement does suffer from a case of mansplaining, the $6.5 million raised for a content-based start-up is a sign of something big. At a time when people tend to shy away from the word feminism, Bustle is a publication that is proudly feminist and is able to attract top-level investors. Woo hoo!

It should be noted that the fact that Goldberg is a man most likely greatly aided his quest for funding, as the rampant inequalities between men and women entrepreneurs trying to raise capital for their start-ups is well documented. Only 4.2% of all VC funding goes to women, and a report by the National Council for Research on Women highlights numerous other obstacles faced by women trying to succeed in business and finance. However, to simply condemn Goldberg because of his gender is reflective of the negative connotations that have been associated with feminism over the decades. He is a creating something that is, in theory, positive for women. Yes, there are learning curves, and no, he may not get it all right, but at least he is trying, and he is putting his (and others) money where he believes there is opportunity; WOMEN. Hasn’t that always been the goal? For men and women to work together to create a more just and equal world?

Furthermore, Goldberg is right when he declares that women are an underserved market. The underrepresentation of women’s voices in nearly every medium of media is widely chronicled, and there are numerous websites solely dedicated to addressing this issue. Why not one more? Bustle could join the ranks of the numerous amazing female content websites that currently exist, such as World Pulse, Feministing, Hello Giggles, Women’s E-News,, LearnVest, The Daily Beast: Women in the World, The Huffington Post: The Third Metric, and 85 Broads. All of these sites, including the many more listed in Forbes Top 100 Sites for Women, help to increase women’s representation online and make our voices heard. All deserve our support and investment capital. Do I secretly wish that a woman had started Bustle and thus was the one to raise $6.5 million in start- up capital? Yes I do. But I support this man, any man, who is trying to positively increase women’s representation online with thoughtful and empowering content.

Perhaps what I worry about most about the controversy surrounding Bustle is the level of criticism currently being lobbied at Mr. Goldberg. He has been called an asshole and a douchebag, ignorant and pompous, ill-informed and pandering, and while his lack of awareness about his intended audience is somewhat shocking for someone starting a business, I have read nothing to suggest that Mr. Goldberg is an inherently bad person. On the contrary, he is a man who feels that women are being underserved and underrepresented, and has done something about it; boldly stating that he wants Bustle to become a multimillion dollar company within a decade. If every man who tries to create something positive for women is attacked so vehemently, won’t they eventually all stop? Instead of attacking Goldberg, lets celebrate his ambition, educate him on how to move forward from Bustle’s less than impressive launch, learn from his mistakes, and support his effort to help women have a stronger voice online. He clearly wants to be our ally. We could at least suspend judgement and let him try, while at the same time ensuring that we continue to support the many established channels that have proven their commitment to our shared values for gender equity. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt, until proven otherwise, is always a good thing.

–Jacki Zehner and Laura Moore.

Photo: A screenshot from the homepage of

Women You Should Know

4427930_300There are so many inspiring stories about women and girls who are taking a stand and changing our world for the better. There is the story of 16 year old Malala Yousafzai, an activist for girls’ right to education in Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban last year, but who has since recovered and recently delivered a historic speech at the United Nations and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. There is the story of 13 year old Talia Joy Castellano, the honorary Cover Girl who won the hearts of millions with her self produced YouTube make up tutorials and her bravery in the face of her ongoing cancer battle. Talia passed away earlier this month, and in a heartwarming turn of events, people around the globe have taken it upon themselves to complete her bucket list, written a mere five days before she died. Finally, there is the story of Marte Deborah Dalelv, a Norweigan woman who was jailed in Dubai for having sex outside of marriage after she reported being raped to the police. She shared her story in the hopes of raising awareness of the deeply conservative customs in Dubai, and was recently pardoned and released.

All of these stories have made headlines, revealing the strength, courage, and tenacity of women worldwide, but there are many other stories of incredible women doing amazing things that never make the front page. Looking to fix this, entrepreneurs Jennifer Jones and Cynthia Hornig launched Women You Should Know in 2011, an online community that celebrates women who are changing the world and making a difference, and who deserve to be recognized and lauded for their achievements. I recently asked Jones about her experiences since launching the website, and I’ve included her answers below.

What have you learned since launching this website?

That you don’t have to be moving a mountain to be doing something of great importance. That women are truly amazing and across the board, we seem to thrive when the going gets toughest (in life, business, career, health, etc). That women are the mothers of reinvention. That women do help other women and hold each other up, despite what reality TV would like us all to believe. That the need for the type of brand we’re building is greater than we could have ever imagined. That there are women we should all know EVERYWHERE doing really remarkable, important and cool things… finding them and telling their stories has been the most rewarding work I have done in my entire professional career.

What kind of impact are you hoping it will have?

In its short life, the impact we’ve already seen is the positive affect our site has on women. For the women we profile, it gives them a strong voice and puts a much deserved, but rarely received spotlight on how they are making things happen in their world, whichever world that might be. In certain cases, the women don’t even realize how extraordinary they are until they read or see their own story on our site. That’s a magic moment for us. For the women who consume our content, which is so varied and engaging, it’s a place they come to learn, think, be entertained and moved. It’s an incredible feeling to know we are that kind of resource for our readers and a place where women can be inspired by one another.

Which profile inspires you the most?

Since I have no children, I can’t defer to the old standby response, “That’s like asking me to choose which one of my kids I like best.” What I will say is that so many of the women we have profiled have inspired me for different reasons. Some for their unfathomable courage, some for their enviable tenacity, some for their creativity. But if I HAD to pick just one it would be our profile of Dr. Anita Sengupta, a 35 year old NASA engineer and EDL expert whose sheer brain power blows my mind! She is the woman who, working amongst a legion of male colleagues, designed the first-of-its-kind, colossal parachute that performed flawlessly in getting Curiosity, NASA’s most ambitious rover, into Mars’ atmosphere and onto the planet’s surface. Without her engineering feat, Curiosity would not be roving right now. Talk about the ideal female role model for STEM… why she is not on the cover of magazines and newspapers is beyond me.


There are so many wonderful women in this world, and sadly not all of them will have their stories told by the mass media. However, it is wonderful to know that websites like Women You Should Know are out there, telling these important stories and providing a community and support system that inspires women around the world. If you want to know more, you can visit their website at or follow them on Twitter at @WomenYSK