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Earvin “Magic” Johnson has always known how to pivot.
In addition to being recognized as the best NBA point guard of all time, he’s been a professional coach and president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers. And since retiring from the sport, he’s ascended in the boardroom as chairman and CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises (MJE), his namesake investment company that catalyzes economic growth and empowerment in underserved and multicultural communities.
With Johnson at the helm, MJE has opened everything from movie theaters to restaurants and electronics stores—the goal being to increase the quality of life in the surrounding areas of these businesses. In 1998, Johnson even teamed up with Starbucks, becoming the only franchisee in the coffee giant’s history as he acquired and eventually sold 125 stores.
So when the COVID-19 epidemic turned the world upside down in March of 2020, Johnson and his colleagues were ready. Just ask Vice President of Finance and Operations Sheila Ewing.
“Every year, we have a corporate retreat, and one of the things Mr. Johnson always says—even in non-pandemic times—is that we need to adapt and adjust,” Ewing says. “So that’s what we did. There was of course some initial shock at what the world was going through. But we quickly moved on, as that kind of adaptable mindset had already been incorporated into our thinking for years. What’s that saying? ‘If you want God to tell you a joke, make plans.’”
Ewing first came to MJE nearly twenty years ago, shortly after the first phase of the Starbucks deal. “We were still establishing ourselves as a brand in the community,” she says. “Our mantra is ‘We are the communities we serve.’ Now, we’re more of an established brand.”
Since then, her duties have expanded to overseeing the financial logistics of ten different entities within MJE. She describes her job as being similar to a controller—planning and managing budgets, payroll, and transactions with business partners. She previously oversaw the day-to-day finances of her boss’ nonprofit organization, the Magic Johnson Foundation, which officially dissolved in February 2020 after thirty years. She also functions as the liaison between human resources and the rest of MJE. The job is operational as much as it is financial.
But when asked what her proudest moment or project is at MJE, she names something that’s decidedly more personal than a budget or a business deal.
“We did a whole remodel of the office,” Ewing says. “So I created this timeline—a history wall, if you will—of Magic Johnson’s life. It shows him as a baby, then follows him through high school to college at Michigan State to his time with the Lakers and all his business ventures. It was really fulfilling, putting a life together like that and seeing how many different people he’s positively impacted.”
Among those people are Ewing and the rest of MJE’s employees. She goes on to describe Johnson’s acts of generosity toward his team, including taking them all on several trips to other countries, including a European sojourn for the sixtieth birthdays of Johnson and his wife Cookie.
“For me, travel is a great equalizer,” Ewing says. “It just opens and brightens your eyes. It helps you realize that as much as people are different, they are also alike. I come from a small town in Alabama, and when I started coming to Los Angeles, I realized that travel just gives you more empathy and understanding.”
Hailing from Lansing, Michigan, before finding success as an NBA legend, Johnson has a similar perspective. He wants everyone at MJE to expand their worldview beyond the place where they grew up, just like he got to do at a young age. “You’re bigger than your immediate surroundings,” Ewing says.
Of course, MJE had to put travel on hold for a good portion of 2020 and 2021. Trips were canceled, corporate retreats took place online, and Magic Johnson transferred his renowned motivational speeches—usually delivered to a packed stadium or conference room—to Zoom. But now, after a hard-fought year, operations are gradually returning to some semblance of normalcy. At the time of writing in June 2021, Johnson had resumed his in-person speaking engagements, having just taken the stage with fellow NBA Champion and Hall of Fame inductee Isiah Thomas at a rally for United Wholesale Mortgage.
As for Ewing, she’s stayed busy with a variety of projects, including helping Johnson’s daughter Elisa launch her own line of luxury (yet still affordable) eyewear in May 2021.
“We’re always busy,” Ewing says. “But now we’re back to a different kind of busy.”