Women in Business Q&A: Debra Lee, Chairman and CEO, BET Networks

06/22/2015 06:38 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Debra L. Lee is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of BET Networks, a unit of Viacom Inc. (NASDAQ: VIA, VIAB) and the leading provider of entertainment for the African-American audience and consumers of Black culture globally. Ms. Lee oversees one of the most influential multiplatform media companies in the world, including several cable television networks, digital offerings, and a home entertainment business.

BET Networks is committed to providing its audience with quality entertainment that speaks to where they are in their lives and where they want to go. Under her leadership, Ms. Lee has led the company's successful reinvigorated brand and successful programming vision that has created hits such as Real Husbands of Hollywood, Being Mary Jane, The Game on BET, Black Girls Rock!, BET Honors, Sunday Best and many more - resulting in consistent increases in viewership and revenue.

Ms. Lee's vision for BET's reinvigorated approach is built on supporting families, embracing and encouraging their dreams, and focusing on the issues that are important to them.

In September 2009, Ms. Lee managed the launch of Centric, the 24-hour music and entertainment network featuring the artists, music, series, movies and reality programming that reflects the lifestyle and sophistication of today's African-American and multi-cultural adult. She also oversees the company's current growth initiatives, including international distribution of the brand in Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

Prior to her being named Chairman and CEO, Ms. Lee was President and Chief Operating Officer of BET Networks for almost 10 years, during which she guided the company to consistent increases in viewership, revenue and earnings. She first joined BET as Vice President and General Counsel in 1986 after serving more than five years as an attorney with Washington, D.C.-based Steptoe & Johnson, a corporate law firm. Prior to that, she served as a law clerk to the late Honorable Barrington Parker of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Named one of The Hollywood Reporter's 100 Most Powerful Women in Entertainment, Ms. Lee's achievements in a 25-plus year career at BET Networks have earned her numerous accolades from across the cable industry, as well as recognition as one of this country's most respected business executives. Ms. Lee was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, the Washington Business Hall of Fame, and was honored with the Distinguished Leadership Vanguard Award by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. She serves on the corporate board of directors of Revlon, Marriott and Washington Gas & Light. Her business acumen and strategic approach to management make Ms. Lee a popular speaker and lecturer on a range of business topics.

Affiliated with a number of professional, civic and cultural organizations, Ms. Lee is a member of the national board of directors for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Economic Club of Washington and the Kennedy Center's Community & Friends Board. She also serves on the boards of the Paley Center for Media, the Ad Council and the Grammy Foundation. She was appointed by the White House to the President's Management Advisory Board and is a member emeritus of the Federal Communications Commission's Advisory Committee on Diversity for Communications in the Digital Age.

Ms. Lee earned her juris doctorate at Harvard Law School, while simultaneously earning a master's degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She graduated from Brown University with a bachelor's degree in political science with an emphasis in Asian politics. She is a member of the Board of Trustees for Brown University and was awarded with a Doctor of Humane Letters (L.H.D.) from Brown University in May, 2014.

Ms. Lee resides in Washington, D.C. with her two children.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in the 1960s South and I was going to change the world by fighting for justice through the Courts. Thurgood Marshall was my hero. After I became an attorney and practiced corporate law for several years, I learned that it just wasn't my true passion. So, I trusted my instincts and went to work as general counsel for a new cable company called BET.

At BET Networks, everything clicked and I found my purpose. Diversity on television matters. I learned that media is another powerful platform to change the world - and that BET played a pivotal role. The fastest way to get to know another ethnic group or religion or sexual orientation is to see it portrayed and represented on television in a respectful and responsible way. I remember how much Diahann Carroll as the single mom on Julia meant to me growing up. I remember seeing the Supremes and the Jackson Five on Ed Sullivan. And I remember Phylicia Rashad as Claire Huxtable, the funny, sexy, lawyer mom on The Cosby Show.

These moments of diversity on TV matter to me... to you... and to our children. It's been a privilege for me to play a role in changing the face of television over the past 30 years.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at BET?
Before I became Chairman and CEO, I was President and Chief Operating Officer of the network. I served as the Vice President and General Counsel before that. During those years, I worked with everyone across the company and really learned every aspect of the business. That knowledge and those relationships proved to be extremely valuable when I moved into my current role.

My previous experience as an attorney with Washington, D.C.-based Steptoe & Johnson, a corporate law firm, was where I first learned about BET because it was one of the law firm's clients. All of my experiences have been valuable, and they eventually led me to my next opportunity.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at BET?
We are celebrating our 35th anniversary this year at BET. I am proud that diversity is popular on television and that BET Networks led the way.

There have been so many amazing moments that could not have happened anywhere else except on BET - and I just can't name them all! I remember when Michael Jackson put the cape on James Brown at the BET Awards, when The Game debuted on BET with 7 million viewers, and when Michelle Obama told our young girls to "rock on" at Black Girls Rock! I also remember feeling extremely proud as we stood on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange when BET became the first Black-owned company to be publicly traded.

Our industry is constantly evolving as consumers' viewing habits change, but we have always emerged from challenges stronger. Our audience recognizes that BET fights to respect, reflect and elevate them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year - and that's why we remain the #1 network for African Americans and a top 20 cable network among all viewers.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a leadership role?
Women seeking leadership roles should take some risks. People often say women are promoted on accomplishments and men are promoted on potential. We need to start fighting to be promoted on potential. Tell yourself, I haven't done this job yet, but I'm smart and I can learn it. Be self-confident about that.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Years ago, I spent a lot of time trying to be there for my kids and run a company. I would take care of business and then travel home on the red-eye if I needed to attend their sporting events because I wanted my kids to know they were a priority. I gave them the advice and encouragement they needed and also involved them in my work by asking for their opinions. They've turned out to be amazing people who chose to work in the entertainment industry, and I like to think that it's because they saw me take the time to ensure that they had my total support while - at the same time - build my own career. They learned that family and work can co-exist - and that you can enjoy them both.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Sometimes when I look at my career, I feel like I was pushed and pulled a lot. When I became Chief Operating Officer I wasn't looking for a COO position, I was general counsel and I was very happy in that role. When I took the COO position, I found out that two or three guys at my level had already asked for it. There wasn't even a job, so how did they know to ask for it?!

That just shows the difference between how I was looking at my career and how they were looking at their careers. They were positioning themselves for the next step and I was just happy being where I was. I would encourage women to seek out those opportunities and take the next step even if you're not 100 percent ready. You can learn on the job.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The late Herb Wilkins Sr. served as a board member for BET. I quickly learned two things about Herb: He had an opinion, and he wasn't afraid to share it! His unvarnished advice challenged us, but was in fact the best advice we could have received. His goal was to help us grow - and in the long run it made us better business people.

Time revealed that beneath his tough exterior was a surprisingly soft side. While he invested in our business financially, he invested in us personally. He mentored me, and so many other professionals, because he cared about us as individuals and wanted to see us succeed. I consider myself fortunate to have known Herb and to have benefited from his no-nonsense approach to business. He was an industry icon, an extraordinary businessman, a true visionary, and a wise mentor - and he made us all better people.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I've had the pleasure of knowing Ms. Cecily Tyson for many years. She exudes a certain confidence and radiance everywhere she goes. That kind of confidence comes from a woman who has trusted her instincts, proved them right and positively impacted others by being true to herself.

She's a three-time Emmy Award winner, an Academy Award nominee, a film icon, a Broadway legend and a philanthropist. She's a woman to admire, but not only for what she's done. She should also be admired for what she would not do. Cicely recognized the power of the medium and made a choice early in her career to only accept roles that sent a positive message to women - especially women of color. She used her career as a platform to make a statement.

A woman who stands for something can accomplish anything. And that's why I'm proud to call her my mentor, my role model and my friend!

What do you want BET to accomplish in the next year?
We are kicking off the summer with the BET Experience at L.A. Live, a three-day festival from June 25-28 that is full of music, culture and entertainment. It all culminates with our 15th anniversary celebration of the BET Awards. We're thrilled to have Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as our co-hosts, and we have an amazing line up of hot performances! Last year we had 11 million tweets about the show. It's going to be fun!

I know the audience is also excited about our returning hits, including the final season of the hit series, The Game; a hilarious season of Real Husbands of Hollywood starring Kevin Hart; and a steamy third season of Being Mary Jane starring Gabrielle Union. We have some new programs on BET coming up this fall that feature Brandy and Kelly Rowland. And on Centric, the first network designed for Black women, Queen Latifah and Whoopi Goldberg will produce new shows for us!

BET News has specials planned that will focus on the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, tackle issues of justice and race, and feature a biographical tribute about boxing legend and icon, Muhammad Ali.

As you can see, our slate is full! Our audience turns to BET Networks learn what's hot, what's next and what matters - and our audience consumes all of our content across every screen. In this next year, we will continue to deliver these immersive experiences to them - no matter where they are - and we look forward to working with our amazing talent, partners and advertisers who are just as passionate about creativity and innovation as we are.