Debra Lee has led a career with Black culture, Black women and our communities at the forefront. As the former CEO of BET for nearly 12 years, Lee has created spaces that further position Black men and women to excel and climb industry ladders. In 2010, she launched her invite-only Leading Women Defined (LWD) Summit to give Black women execs a safe space to not only network but to let their hair down from all the corporate battles they face in their careers.
"I started LWD after leaving the BET Hip Hop Awards show in 2009. I was on the plane with other Black women execs, and we all began talking about the industry and how it was mostly male-dominated," Lee shares with EBONY. "The idea came to create a space where we as women could come together in an intimate space to just be in the company of like-minded women. That was in November, and our first LWD launched in March 2010."
Starting with 100 women in power across some of the world's top industries, including: entertainment, politics, finance and more—the inaugural summit exceeded expectations all around. And the overall consensus was, this should be an annual event, and this space was more than needed.
LWD spent its first five years in DC, followed by the next five in Miami. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2020 event to be cancelled and 2021 was held virtually. In 2022, the event came back swinging, with Lee also introducing smaller half-day versions to allow more women to get a glimpse of the magic of the larger private summit. And the 2023 installment—happening March 16-19, 2023 in California—is gearing up to be just as dope.
"We've had everyone from Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris to Issa Rae and the late Dorothy Height attend. I keep the roster to no more than 200 women so that attendees can have a more intimate experience while also providing these powerful women a safe environment to enjoy themselves," explains Lee. "While most of what we do during the 3-day summit isn't shared publicly, it's really just a great time all-around."
The handpicked list of attendees are treated to fireside chats and masterclasses, insightful panels on topics affecting them in their careers, fashion shows, nightly parties with some of the country's most talented DJs, and more. Lee even holds space for up-and-coming musical artists and Black business owners to showcase their talent and products during the event. There is also an annual awards ceremony, the Butterfly Awards, which honors one of the women in the room for her work while giving her flowers.
"This year, our butterfly award recipient is Misty Copeland," she shares.
It's no question that Lee's vision has always been to see people who look like us reach the heights she knows they are capable of reaching. Raised in Greensboro, North Carolina—and although heavily segregated during her childhood—she has always witnessed strong examples of the power of Black people coming together and supporting one another. And, when it comes to the legacy that she wants to leave on this Earth, being known as a supporter is certainly one of the goals.
"With BET specifically, it was to create original, high quality programming that was authentic, and I was able to do that with the introduction of some of our scripted shows. I was able to change what people thought about BET," she shares. "I also want to be known for hiring quality Black professionals and giving them opportunities that they wouldn't have at other companies. Now, I focus on helping get more Black people on corporate boards through my company, Monarch Collective. I think that it's an area of wealth generation that most Black people don't know about. Leading Women Defined is definitely also a part of my legacy and my work to help Black women," adds Lee. "I've just always wanted to reach back and help men and women of color get ahead in the corporate world and other positions. I just want us all to reach for greatness."