Robert Johnson: Playing by his own rules


Robert L. Johnson has proven to be one of America’s premiere innovators and with his RLJ Companies empire and other ventures; Johnson’s legacy could ultimately be defined by what he’s accomplished to level the playing field for African-Americans and other minorities in corporate America.

The Black Entertainment Television founder’s RLJ Rule has the attention of some executives at Fortune 500 companies after already being endorsed by President Barack Obama and by members of the United States Senate who, led by Republican Tim Scott, recently passed a resolution establishing best business practices to fully utilize the potential of the country based on the RLJ Rule.

“It’s a way to break up the old boys system, the mindset,” said Johnson, 69. “Hiring is a process busy people do when they have to fill a position. It’s a natural kind of behavior when a position is open to check their email list, see who they went to school with, who they play golf with and the next thing you know, African-Americans are left out.”

That’s exactly what Johnson proposes to change with the RLJ Rule, which encourages companies to voluntarily implement a plan to interview a minimum of two qualified minority candidates for every job opening at the vice president level and above.

Johnson also wants companies to interview at least two qualified minority-owned firms for vendor and supplier services contracts before awarding a new company contract to a vendor.

He says the decision by Xerox this month to implement their version of the RLJ Rule will hopefully motivate other Fortune 500 Companies to recognize the compelling need to encourage minority and ethnic diversity in hiring at every level and to encourage procurement opportunities for qualified minority businesses.

“We are not telling people that they have to hire African-Americans, what we want is for them to be given an opportunity,” Johnson said, noting that the approach has worked well for him.

“Tom Baltimore, who is responsible for all of the activities of my RLJ Development, was working at Hilton Hotels and he wasn’t in line to be a CEO. I gave him a chance and now he’s a CEO,” said Johnson. “The point is to make certain that minorities are given an opportunity to compete as equals and contribute with their talents to the growth of the economy both nationally and on a global scale. Also, once you bring them in for an interview it maybe that they don’t get that job, but when something else comes up they are in your database and you know them.”

Naturally, Johnson says he is not trying to bully anyone into adopting the rule or mandating that they hire minorities.

“The RLJ Rule is principally designed to encourage companies to voluntarily establish a best practices policy to identify and interview the tremendous talent pool of minority individuals and businesses that are often overlooked because of traditional hiring or procurement practices,” he said.

It’s also a sort of spin-off of the NFL’s “Rooney” Rule, which mandates that teams interview minorities for coaching and executive positions.

Born in Hickory, Mississippi in 1946, Johnson founded BET in 1979 with his wife, Sheila. He became the first African-American billionaire after selling the network to Viacom in 2001.

Johnson has since started a new business, the RLJ Companies, and has invested in an NBA team, a film company, and political causes and campaigns.

His latest venture, the Urban Movie Channel was launched earlier this year. The online and subscription-based channel features urban-themed movies and live stand-up comedy performances by such stars as Kevin Hart and Jamie Foxx.

“UMC was designed so that the African-American and urban creative community could directly reach consumers in a way that removes many of the restrictions associated with the legacy content development and distribution models,” Johnson said. “As more video is consumed over broadband, we believe that we can quickly become the preeminent provider of quality urban entertainment to what has largely been an underserved, yet highly engaged audience.”

The channel and RLJ Entertainment is yet another avenue that provides African-Americans and other minorities an opportunity to showcase their talents and express themselves, Johnson said.

“We’re committed to given opportunities and the new digital world can create amazing success stories,” he said. “It’s an example of what I did with BET.”