BET co-founder tells grads they’re part of a redefining
5/12/2017, 7:34 a.m.
By Saraya Wintersmith
Entrepreneur, philanthropist and BET co-founder Sheila C. Johnson lauded University of Richmond graduates for contributing to an era of reshaping.
Ms. Johnson delivered the address Sunday at the university’s 187th commencement. She told the 825 graduates they are part of a movement of redefinition, both within the private school and beyond.
“This university has undergone real change in a relatively short time,” said Ms. Johnson recalling a story from her husband, William T. Newman Jr., chief judge of the Arlington County Circuit Court.
“When he was in college, his band performed at a Richmond fraternity. Yet they weren’t allowed to spend time on campus. They could play, but he couldn’t stay.”
The crowd of about 7,200 people in the university’s packed Robins Center fell silent.
While Ms. Johnson wasn’t available to clarify specifics of the incident after her remarks, the university history notes that the institution admitted its first African-American students only in some night classes in 1964, while the first African-American undergraduate was enrolled in the fall of 1968.
“For years,” Ms. Johnson continued, “people of color were treated as ‘other’ in ways both indirect and overt. But just look at you now. During your time at Richmond, an African-American has become university president,” she said, referring to Dr. Ronald A. Crutcher, who was seated behind her on the stage.
The crowd then erupted into thunderous applause.
“Class of 2017, you have helped this university redefine itself for new times and I am confident you will help redefine your world for the better, too,” she said.
Ms. Johnson, now the founder and CEO of the luxury Salamander Hotels & Resorts, also recalled personal challenges she had to overcome to achieve her many accomplishments — from helping produce the film, “The Butler,” to becoming the only African-American woman to hold ownership in three professional sports teams. She encouraged the graduates to take notes from her journey by embracing intimidating challenges as opportunities and learning to quiet voices that inspire doubt.
“There used to be a time when I let fear get in the way of taking risks,” she said. “I worried about failing and what others might say, and that left me afraid to try until finally I realized it’s good to be afraid.
“I also realized that worrying about other people was a waste of my own energy … There will always be people who are dying to tell you why you shouldn’t dare try something new. They’ll claim you’re too young, too old, too green or too different to succeed.
“My advice is to put all of those voices on mute and follow your passion. Never limit yourself to what others may think or say about you.”
Ms. Johnson was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters following her remarks.
Dr. Crutcher, who assumed the school’s helm just two years ago, also praised the graduates for their ability to effect change by being kind and courteous members of the university community.
“I’ve watched you greet the dining hall and custodial staff by name. I’ve seen you hold open doors, acknowledge a kind deed and provide directions to visitors. You honor the facilities and landscape staff by taking pride in the pristine campus and the beautiful buildings in which you have lived and learned,” Dr. Crutcher said.
“It might be tempting to dismiss these kindnesses as simple pleasantries, but I believe they are compelling examples of the community you have built during your time here at Richmond … And as you embark on the world, I hope that you have the chance to build the kind of communities that you have created here.”