International Women’s Day is celebrated on the 8th of March every year. The purpose of the day is to celebrate women’s achievements, recognize challenges, and focus attention on women’s rights and gender equality. To honor this special day, Recommend reached out to Sheila Johnson, founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, for her insights. Here is what she had to say.
Andrea Doyle (AD): You are an exception to this, but do you feel the glass ceiling, the invisible barrier that blocks women from top jobs in this industry, still exists?
Sheila Johnson (SJ): In my time in the hospitality industry, and throughout the previous roles I have held, I have found that we are not lacking talented qualified women, including women of color. What there is, is a lack of opportunity. There needs to be a recognition that women and people of diverse backgrounds bring forth new ideas and experiences and look at life from a different perspective. It is the only way we are going to evolve the industry and make an impact. Change truly starts at the top, and at Salamander Hotels and Resorts, it begins with me.
AD: Is there anyone who mentored you early in your career, or helped you become the type of leader you are today?
SJ: My parents instilled into me an incredibly strong work ethic. My father was one of only 11 African-American neurosurgeons working in America at the time and struggled to find employment. Eventually, my father secured a position with Veterans Affairs, and we were transferred about every ten months. I learned to adapt; it was our life.
AD: What is your proudest accomplishment?
SJ: Undoubtedly, my proudest professional accomplishment was finally opening Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, VA, in 2013. It took me over a decade to attain this goal due to design, development, and the recession. However, it has since become one of the most successful resorts in the country and has just retained its Forbes Five Star rating. That makes me immensely proud.
AD: What are the challenges that keep you up at night?
SJ: It is our obligation as a society to continue to elevate the curious, intelligent, inspiring leaders of tomorrow and remove the preconceived notion of what that looks like across all industries, including hospitality.
AD: What attributes and/or qualities have you developed that have helped you become successful?
SJ: I learned my lesson the hard way, but I always surround myself with smart and loyal people. They will lift you up, and make your companies successful.
AD: How do you define success?
SJ: I measure success in two ways: financially and socially. I call it the ‘double bottom line,’ and I always strive to make sure all my companies and myself adhere to this philosophy.
AD: What is the one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
SJ: The first act in my life was as a music teacher and concert violinist. I received a scholarship to study music at the University of Illinois, and afterward, I taught at both a private school and with a traveling orchestra, which performed for Queen Noor in Jordan.
AD: How did you get started in this industry?
SJ: I have always been fueled by an independent, entrepreneurial spirit. After leaving Black Entertainment Television, which I co-founded with my then-husband, I carved out a new life for myself, both personally and professionally. I was introduced to the hospitality industry because of the opportunity to build and open Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, VA. And, as a result, I became the founder and CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, which is now a highly respected luxury hotel company.
AD: Is this what you envisioned yourself doing?
SJ: When I graduated from the University of Illinois, I certainly did not envisage myself as the owner of a hotel company; however, I’m thrilled it worked out this way. I absolutely love the hospitality industry and it allows me to connect the dots between my other ventures, including sports, fashion, film, education, and philanthropy.
AD: What does the future hold?
SJ: Salamander Hotels & Resorts continues to evolve with the addition of new properties to the portfolio. On March 1, we will open Eclipse at Half Moon in Montego Bay, Jamaica, which promises to be the finest property to open in a generation in the Caribbean.
AD: Anything you would want travel advisors to know?
SJ: Our leisure sales team is composed of highly experienced professionals who work closely with travel advisors and their clients to craft tailored experiences. Whether it’s a family reunion or an intimate milestone anniversary celebration, guests can expect a thoughtful and effortless stay.
Salamander also either hosts or is a close partner in a variety of interesting events that fall under our Salamander Style umbrella. They include the Middleburg Film Festival at Salamander Resort & Spa, the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Golf & Spa Resort, and the Charleston Wine + Food Festival at Hotel Bennett.