Debra Lee, the former CEO of BET, will be honored at the EBONY Power 100 gala on Friday with the first-ever Chairman’s Award for her groundbreaking work at the network. During Lee’s tenure, BET saw monumental success with shows such as The Game and Being Mary Jane.
“She’s been a pioneer and trailblazer in the media industry,” said Michael Gibson, chairman and CEO of EBONY Media Group. “We looked at who could be a candidate for this inaugural award, we couldn’t think of anybody better than Debra Lee.”
Lee, who stepped down from her position after 32 years with BET, recently spoke to EBONY about her success and why Black women should follow their passion.
EBONY: Ms. Lee, you presided over one of the most iconic Black brands in entertainment. How does it feel to be receiving EBONY’s Chairman’s Award?
Lee: I am very honored to receive the EBONY Chairman’s Award. I grew up on EBONY magazine, and it is an incredible brand that stands for achievement and excellence in the Black community. It means so much to me to be recognized by this stellar brand that John Johnson started over six decades ago.
You have seen tremendous success in your decadeslong career, what was your primary source of motivation?
During my career, my primary source of motivation was wanting to create authentic images of African-Americans on air; images that were high quality and high impact. Media is so important in shaping the way in which minorities are seen in this country and around the world. I have been honored to create such images in a way to make our audience proud.
You joined BET in 1986 as executive vice president and general counsel and stepped down as chairman and CEO earlier this year. What is something that you wanted to get done when you started out at the company that you were able to accomplish?
When I started at BET Networks over 32 years ago, I was committed to working hard to make BET one of the most successful companies in the United States. Achievement and quality have always been important to me. I wanted BET to be the best in all aspects in front of and behind the camera and I am happy to say we achieved these goals.
You are a seen a trailblazer for Black women as CEOs. What piece of advice would you give to Black women interested in running their own company one day?
I would advise young Black women interested in running their own company to find their passion and their voice in whatever they do. Listen to your voice as you address issues that inevitably arise in the business world. Profits are crucial but don’t forget your values as you build your company.
What was your proudest moment during your time as chairman and CEO of BET?
I would say I have had two very proud moments during my tenure at BET Networks. The first was when BET became the first African-American company to be traded on the NY Stock Exchange. The second would be when our series The Game premiered and broke all records by having 7.7 million viewers on its first night. It still holds the viewership record for the premiere of a sitcom on a cable network to this day.
When you stepped down, you mentioned that you would be working with other media companies and working to advance opportunities for women, girls and people of color. Can you talk about any of those upcoming projects?
I am working with the Recording Academy on a task force to help them with their diversity and inclusion efforts. Also, I started a conference titled “Leading Women Defined” 10 years ago to help motivate women of color in the corporate and business worlds. I will continue to hold that conference and encourage young women to pursue careers in business.
The 2018 midterm elections saw a record number of women win political office. In the current political climate, what did those wins mean to you?
I am excited to see a large number of women elected to political office in the recent midterm election. These wins indicate that voters want a more diverse Congress that supports the rights of women, rights that currently are under attack by this administration.
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Teddy is a multimedia journalist who serves as the culture and political writer for EBONY. His work has appeared in NBC's Owned and Operated stations, as well as DNAInfo, which covered local neighborhood news in New York City. He received his Masters in Journalism from the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY in 2017.