BLACK ENTERTAINMENT TELEVISION (BET) has always been held to a higher standard by African-Americans than other networks because it’s ours. Respecting and reflecting the Black experience for generations since 1980, BET reached higher levels of relevance and audience numbers under the 30-plus years of guidance of former CEO Debra L. Lee, now 64. The Harvard-educated lawyer, who grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, began her career at the cable network in the legal affairs department in 1986. By the time she stepped down as chairman and CEO in May 2018, she had left a legacy of original programming (including Being Mary Jane and The New Edition Story), refreshed BET’s standing in the public eye and founded an offshoot network devoted to Black women. EBONY recently spoke with Lee about her legacy in entertainment, gender equality, advice for millennials and more.
EBONY: What’s your personal mission statement that gets you out of bed in the morning?
DEBRA LEE: One of my missions in life is to inspire and motivate young people of color. To let them know they can do anything they want in the world and, hopefully, provide a role in that in terms of what’s possible and how you get there. Education has always been very important in my life, and I’ve always loved giving back and helping our community.
EBONY: On her Becoming book tour, Michelle Obama said, “It’s not always enough to lean in” when it comes to women speaking up in corporate America. What do you have to say about Black women leaning in at corporate American jobs?
LEE: I think among Black women, it was always understood that [Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg] was not written for them. I’ll just start with that premise because that’s never been our problem as Black women. Most of us have our strong voices. I think in a workplace, we have to sometimes temper our voices to be acceptable. You see what happened with Michelle Obama in the White House. She said something, [and] all of a sudden she was an angry Black woman or they were making caricatures of her.
I think for Black women, we have different issues, [such as] finding a company or a corporate environment that we feel comfortable in and that we feel able to be ourselves in. Then it’s really about trying to figure out how to make that environment work for us. That may mean leaning back a little bit more, or it may be speaking up when it’s a really critical issue. I think that’s what Michelle was trying to say, that that book wasn’t really written for us. We may need another type of book. [laughter] I think there are different issues, and we have another discussion that needs to be had. It’s not as simple as saying we need to lean in.
EBONY: What do you consider your legacy after over 30 years at BET?
LEE: I was the first lawyer at BET and the only lawyer for a long time. So from that perspective, my goal was to make BET the best company I could and make sure we didn’t get into any legal trouble. And not just the best Black company, but the best company. I always wanted us to be compared to the other great brands of the world, whether that was HBO or Disney, and to have every aspect of BET be high-class and high-quality.
As I moved more into the content world, as I took over the business activities, it was very important to me to have authentic images in content. A large part of that was producing our own original content. When I became CEO in 2005, that’s what I said my vision was, to produce high-quality authentic entertainment for the African-American community. I believe I did that. You look at shows like Being Mary Jane, The Game, BET Honors, Black Girls Rock!, The New Edition Story. I’m really proud of the content that was created during my tenure at BET; I really hope that’s going to continue. We developed an organizational structure to be able to continue that, and that’s why I felt comfortable stepping down. I knew BET was going to continue and, hopefully, [maintain] the same quality of programming. I think that’s my legacy: improving on a brand that can last and really be an authentic reflection of our community.
EBONY: Can you speak to the changes you’ve seen in gender equality in corporate America since the 1980s?
LEE: I haven’t seen a lot of progress, I’m sorry to say. The numbers have been stagnant in terms of CEOs, in terms of COOs, in terms of women on boards; [they] just have not moved. There’s so much more to be done. I really hope that what comes out of the Time’s Up/#MeToo movement is that women will speak up and their voices will be heard, that companies will realize the only way to stop harassment and the mistreatment of women is to have more women in the room. If the media had more women making green-light decisions, you wouldn’t have had a CEO being able to use that to control women: “I am the only one that can green-light your show.”
EBONY: What advice do you have for younger business leaders in entertainment?
LEE: The first thing I would say is, don’t be afraid to start your own business. That is the way you create wealth and you’re able to hire other people and create the kind of content you want, if you’re in the programming business. It really motivates me to see the Issa Raes of the world or Ava DuVernay or Kenya Barris, young Black programmers who have their own production companies. Right now it’s a great time, because in that world, networks realize that Black programming is really working, especially if you do it in the right way.
Find something you’re passionate about. Because we all work so hard, you have to be passionate about it or it will feel like work. And plot out your course, what you want to do and how you want to do it. Don’t be afraid to say you want to do anything. Because we really do have opportunities, and it’s a matter of applying yourself and finding the right opportunities. Explore your options. Get a great education wherever you go, and see what’s out there.
EBONY: You recently received EBONY’s first Chairman’s Award. What was it important for you to convey in your acceptance speech?
LEE: I was really happy to have the honor and to have it come from EBONY. That’s what I tried to convey in my speech: how important EBONY was to me and my family growing up. I talked about how it was always on the coffee table in every Black household, how EBONY always stood for quality and aspirational things. And I tried to draw the comparison of EBONY and BET. Because when I took over BET, EBONY was one of the North Stars. It had been around for a long time, it was a great brand, the community loved it and knew what to expect from it. And I pointed out how happy I was that EBONY is still around. It is being rejuvenated.
EBONY: What advice do you have about maintaining longevity or not aging out in the entertainment industry?
LEE: I would just say you have to stay in tune with what’s going on, especially in the content and media business. You have to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening. I went to a club in Miami once, I was down there for New Year’s Eve, and some young people in the club noticed me. One of them came up to me and said, “Miss Lee! Are you here doing market research?” [laughter] I said, “No, I’m just having a good time.”
I’ll never forget that. She was like, “Oh, this must be how she stays in touch.” But you really just have to. And today, it’s easier because of social media and all the different cable channels. You don’t have to go to the clubs just to know what’s happening, you have to keep in touch with the music. It really helps to have kids. They help you stay in touch. That includes not just staying up with what’s hot in music or programming but also with technology.
“One of my missions in life is to inspire and motivate young people of color. To let them know they can do anything they want in the world . . .”
“My goal was to make BET the best company . . . not just the best Black company, but the best company.”
“It really motivates me to see the Issa Raes of the world or Ava DuVernay or Kenya Barris, young Black programmers who have their own production companies.”