The ninth of 10 children, Robert L. Johnson was born in Mississippi in 1946. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and a Master's degree in International Affairs from Princeton University. After graduating, Johnson moved to Washington, D.C. where he lobbied on behalf of the budding cable television industry. During his time in the nation's capital, he established business and political connections that would later help him fund his dream.
While working as a lobbyist, Johnson realized that the African American population was largely underserved in the cable industry. He obtained a $15,000 loan as well as a $500 million investment and launched Black Entertainment Television (BET) in January of 1980. At its inception, BET aired mainly music videos and reruns of black sitcoms; but the network blossomed over the next decade adding a variety of news and special interest programs aimed at African Americans to its lineup.
BET became the first African American-controlled company to trade on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991; and by 2001, Johnson was listed on the Forbes list of the world's richest people, making him one of the first African American billionaires to make the list. Although Johnson sold the network to Viacom in 2003, he continues to support African American interests. One of his biggest campaigns is aimed at reducing unemployment in black communities. His proposal calls for companies to consider several African American candidates when hiring for senior level positions. His proposal also calls for companies to consider African American companies when contracting out work which would decrease the number of unemployed African Americans.