Throughout her 32-year tenure at Black Entertainment Television, Debra Lee led the Viacom-owned network’s push into scripted TV — with shows like The Real Husbands of Hollywood and Being Mary Jane — and kept the network No. 1 among African American audiences for the past 17 years.
As BET’s first vp and general counsel in 1986, Lee ascended to president/COO in 1996 before rising to chairman/CEO in 2005 — a role she held until 2018. Now, the former chairman holds the title of CEO emeritus for the network. Some of her biggest career coups include the relaunch of former CW series The Game in 2014 with 7.7 million viewers (“That felt like a drop-the-mic moment,” she says) and the 2017 miniseries The New Edition Story — the highest-rated TV biopic of all time with a record-setting 28.4 million total viewers, according to Nielsen.
The Brown and Harvard alumna shepherded the launch of the BET Awards in 2001, the televised iteration of Black Girls Rock! in 2010 (the show was founded by Beverly Bond in 2006 and later brought to the network) and BET Honors in 2008. In March, Lee also celebrated the 10th anniversary of her industry summit Leading Women Defined, an annual three-day gathering that brings together 100 black thought leaders during Women’s History Month.
Below, the longtime BET chief looks back at three decades of milestones at the network.
Getting on Billboard’s Power 100 in 2013 was very validating. Then I went to my first reception. As happy as I was to be honored, I looked around the room and realized there weren’t very many women at all — and very few people of color. I was surprised that the upper echelon of the industry didn’t look diverse. I stayed on that list until I stepped down from BET a year ago.
It made me commit more to making sure people of color and women rose to higher levels. At BET I made sure our management team was very diverse. And it made things a little easier just because of the company’s name. (Laughs.) It attracted executives of color. But I also focused to get more women involved. You really do have to make an effort and stick to it. You can’t just say “I’m committed to this.” I was inducted in the Advertising Hall of Fame recently, and that industry has the same problems. I said to the executives: “If you look around your senior team meeting and it’s just white males, then you have a problem. You need to set goals to change that.” I think I’ve done this not just during my time at BET, but also the boards I sit on: Twitter, Marriott International. In terms of nonprofits, I’m on American Film Institute, The Paley Center for Media and The Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation. California just passed a rule that there should be a certain number of women on boards, but there shouldn’t have to be regulatory initiatives to make companies do this.
This past year I’ve worked with The Recording Academy on their Task Force for Diversity and Inclusion. In most cases, we’ve solved the entry-level issue, and now it’s about retention. Diversity is really getting people in the door and asking them to dance. Inclusion is being asked to dance. It’s inspiring that a woman has been appointed as the new CEO and I have a feeling she’ll make a lot of changes. We’ve been looking at the overall industry in terms of representation of women and people of color. Also at the Recording Academy itself, in terms of its membership. We’re in the process of developing recommendations for the board of the Academy on ways it can improve the diversity of its membership. Membership is so important because those are the people who vote for the Grammys. You want people who win these awards to feel good about who nominated. It should be a true reflection of the industry.
I’ve fronted Leading Women Defined for 10 years and it has turned into something magical. Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Tina Knowles and more have attended the conference. Bethann Hardison, who’s been in the modeling business for years, interviewed Iman. A couple weeks ago, we had new artist Victory Boyd perform and the women embraced her. Once you get to the higher ranks [at companies], you need that because there’s very few people who look like you. We tackle different issues: raising kids, taking care of your elders, relationships, financial literacy. Women also create businesses through Leading Women Defined. Keisha Smith-Jeremie created an adult applesauce business. She went on Shark Tank and got Mark Cuban to support her. I keep it small — about 200 women — so everyone can feel relaxed and comfortable for those two days.
I would advise young women that they can do anything they want to do. They should know they are capable of joining the C-suite and have their eyes set on it. That’s something that we should strive for. That wasn’t my goal when I was coming along — I was a general counsel on the legal side before I found out I enjoyed business. Women should find the support they need within and outside the company to get there — whether it’s leadership programs or going to advisors. I get asked a lot about how to balance family and careers at a high-level position. I tell women all the time that it’s not a perfect path; sometimes you give more to one side. There’s no real balance, but it is possible to make it work.
This article was updated to correct an error that originally implied Debra Lee founded Black Girls Rock!.
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 29 issue of Billboard.