Debra Lee, who served as the groundbreaking CEO of BET from 2005 to 2018, is sharing her life story in I Am Debra Lee, her fascinating new memoir. Starting with her life growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, she shares how her parents, especially her dad, steered her toward excellence. Lee reveals how she rose in the ranks to become BET Network’s top executive and transformed the landscape of television for Black Americans.

Now Lee is molding others with her group Leading Women Defined: A Foundation Supporting Black Female Leadership. Her book is dedicated to a new generation of leaders to follow in her path. “That's the purpose, to inspire greatness and to tell young people to live their truth,” she declares to EBONY. “I want to encourage that.”

EBONY: Why did you decide to write your memoir?

Debra Lee: I wrote this book to tell my story, from growing up to my career and how I did it. I wanted it to be part memoir, part business advice. But I also wanted it to be authentic—not only the glorious moments but also the challenging times—to help people who are coming behind me. There still aren't a lot of women in the business world. I get a lot of questions about how do you do it and where do you start. I wanted to write this book especially for young Black women, but for everyone. And it was therapeutic in a way. It's nice to look back at a couple of chapters of your life. 

I am Debra Lee
I am Debra Lee
Debra Lee (Legacy Lit, March 2023)

Price: $26

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You talk a lot about your dad in the book. How did he influence and nurture your driving ambition?

He was a career military officer, a career he loved, but he always wanted to be a lawyer. So he put that dream into me at an early age. And his sister had gone to Mount Holyoke College in the 1940s. So he put that desire to go to an Ivy League school in me. He used to give me $1 for every "A" that I brought home, so that was very meaningful. And my dad encouraged me to tell him what books I wanted for Christmas. He guided and really advised me all my life. He never said or thought that there were things I couldn't do because I was a girl. He made it clear that “you can do anything.” And I could never use the fact that I was Black as an excuse for me not to be the best or reach for the stars.

He passed away many years ago, as did my mother, but I find myself quoting them very often in conversations and giving advice to other people. My mother was more of a homemaker even though she had a full-time job. She taught me how to sew, crochet and knit, and how to have empathy. So she influenced me in different ways, and the combination of the two really made me who I am today.

You grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, attending an all-Black school. How do you think that environment helps children succeed?

I think it gives you a sense of identity and of achieving the impossible. We had great teachers at our Black schools in the south. The teachers are pouring only into you; they wanted us to be successful and they knew what it took. That really helped and gave me a sense of identity when I went to Brown University, which was an integrated environment. A lot of parents felt that we would never have equality in our schools until we integrated, and that separate but equal did not work. But when we were there in Greensboro and all the fights for Civil Rights were going on, we saw the advantages of being in an all-Black environment. I think we miss some of that love of the teachers and our parents’ involvement and being proud alumni who have gone on to do our thing. It was really great for me. It gave me a really good sense of self and wanting to give back.

After working as an attorney, you were offered an opportunity of a lifetime to join the BET team. What was one of your biggest accomplishments there? 

Being the first Black-owned company to go public on the New York Stock Exchange was an incredible moment. I was very much involved in that as general counsel. Standing on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, the morning we went public and seeing that the price started at $17 and got up to $29 per share, that is what an American success story looks like. Seeing the Black folks who worked at the New York Stock Exchange be so supportive and so excited to see us there was really something. 

That is an incredible feat.

I would say in my own career, my biggest goal—and I feel very great about accomplishing it—was bringing high-quality original programming to BET. That's what the audience was asking for around the time I took over. We jumped in and had tremendous success with The Game, which was one of our biggest, first original shows that we took over. We got 7.7 million viewers on the first night. And we went on to do Being Mary Jane, BET Honors, Black Girls Rock and The New Edition Story, which was another huge success for us. That's what I was striving toward, to create a legacy of high-quality programming. We proved that if you provide high-quality programming for the African American community, they will show up. I'm also very proud of hiring young African American executives and giving them opportunities that they just didn't have at other companies. That was very important to me. I think I also left that as a legacy at BET.

In the book, you mention that you're often the only Black and female face in boardrooms making decisions. How did and do you hold your own? 

Back in the day, they’d call me shy. I didn't want to be on stage; I didn't want to talk in front of people. So as I moved further up in the corporate world and at BET, I had to use my voice more: I had to talk about the company at analyst meetings and do town halls; I had to do things on TV. It just took practice. The first couple of boards I was on, I was very quiet. I used the time as a learning curve to learn how the company worked. But I always spoke up when there were issues that were important to me. People say you got to find your voice. I think we all have a voice, we just have to know how to use it in a way that has an impact. And because I spoke seldom, when I did speak, people listened. I earned that reputation over the years.

The challenge for women is having it all: being a CEO, motherhood and relationships. How can we have it all, or is that a myth?

I think that's partly a myth. You can have it all, but not at the same time. There are different phases in your life where—if you marry and have children—your family is more important. You may have to cut back on work hours a little bit. You may have to fly across the country to get to that holiday program at school. You do crazy things, but you make it work. Then all of a sudden, your kids go off to college and you have this incredible amount of time again to devote to your work. I think there are different phases in life and different times when women have to make the decisions that are best for them. It may be having a supportive husband who doesn't work. It may be having a grandmother around or great childcare. I think it's important for this country to realize that childcare is important. That's the only way women are going to be successful at work if they want to try to do it all.

Is it possible to find a balance?

You have to try to find that balance, and it's always out of balance, but you do what you need to do. I think one of the most important things for me was getting my children involved. My kids both went into the music business, and I take some credit for that because they grew up in the industry. They loved it. I didn't push them in any one direction, but they both ended up in music, and I am very proud of that fact.

What are three pieces of advice from the book that women—or anyone—can learn from reading your book? 

How important it is to have a rewarding career in something you care about. And if the company doesn't have the same values you have, you really need to look for another position. I was so committed to BET and dedicated to the mission, it was easier for me to work the long hours and give my all. Take advantage of being in the room. When I was the only Black woman at board meetings, I made my presence felt. Lastly, I often talk about being very careful or avoiding relationships at work with your bosses because they have unequal power dynamics. They often don't work and can be hurtful.

What about one juicy tidbit?

There are a lot of little tidbits. I dealt with the Chris Brown/Michael Jackson situation, and people want to know how those decisions are made: is it a group? Is it one person? Who do you ask for advice? That's one of the reasons I started LWD because the higher up the ladder you get, the lonelier it is, and there's no one there to ask for advice. I mean, literally, no one is there. You can get input from the people that work for you. But the final decision is yours if you're the CEO. So we need more women in those positions to weigh in because I think women make better decisions.

You've been a fan of EBONY since you were a child. What does the publication represent to you?

I think EBONY has always stood for Black excellence, shining a light on people in the Black community who are doing amazing things in all different kinds of industries. It helped me get a sense of identity growing up. Let me tell you, the biggest impact EBONY had on me was the EBONY Fashion Fair show. It came to Greensboro once a year and the Black women in our community had never seen anything like it. We saw the fashions from Europe and heard the way the designers' names were pronounced. We learned a lot. That was one of the biggest inspirations that I had as a kid.