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Whenever audiences saw Debra Lee as chairman and CEO of Black Entertainment Television (BET), she was an example of a powerful, confident woman head of a global media empire. As it turns out, she never enjoyed making those television appearances on BET’s awards shows. Lee was a “let’s get it done” leader who did not require on-camera visibility, as she shares in her new memoir “I Am Debra Lee,” published by Legacy Lit.
With this book, Lee’s goal was to share insights that could guide women, especially Black women, on how to attain C-suite status in corporate America. Lee felt her approach would be received better if her advice were backed by her real-life experiences, peppered with humor.
“Playing small and staying quiet not only stole my power, but it also took away my purpose, said Lee about one thing she learned climbing the ladder to success.
Bringing Her Memoir to Life
Lee was recently in a conversation at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture with Michel Martin, newly named co-host of NPR’s “Morning Edition.” The vibe in the Oprah Winfrey Auditorium was set as Lee walked on stage to applause and the sounds of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” After reading her memoir, it felt like Lee always wanted to be respected, but she first had to figure out a few things about herself, then own her value.
Lee credits the late attorney and activist Vernon Jordan, who convinced her to write an autobiography. When she stepped down from BET four years ago, Lee began the writing project.
“As I got more into my career, I thought about writing a book, but was not sure what it would be about,” Lee said when Martin asked Lee if she hesitated about writing the book.
Starting from humble beginnings in Greensboro, NC., Lee’s mother was a ward clerk at the Black hospital. Her father was a career military man raised in D.C. and graduated from Dunbar High School. It was instilled in Lee to always be nice, with the idea that was how you get ahead.
Life Led by Male Drivers
In the interview with Martin, Lee said her father had mapped out her Ivy League education and career. Readers learn about Lee’s experiences at BET, there are parallels between her father’s approach to her life and how Bob Johnson, former BET chairman and CEO, planned her career trajectory at the company. She went from being BET’s general counsel to COO, then succeeded her boss at the company.
Lee did talk to Martin about her affair with Johnson, which started after she had been with BET for a decade. But the Me Too and Times Up movements clarified for Lee what she had knowingly been doing. Yes, she was having an affair, but the many times she attempted to end it, she was threatened that her career would be over. That is sexual harassment.
Like with other challenges in her career, Lee forged ahead, gaining control of her business life to retire with an impactful legacy. Under her leadership, Lee moved BET forward following the merger with media giant Viacom. The network produced movies and awards programs that elevated “the culture.”
In addition to now being an author, Lee is founder and chairman of the Leading Women Defined Foundation, an organization committed to uplifting and supporting black female thought leaders. She also launched the Monarch Collective, a venture to put more people of color on corporate boards and executive leadership positions. This is Debra Lee, and she feels good about it.
Listen to the Smithsonian Institution recording of Debra Lee and NPR’s Michel Martin at https://bit.ly/DebraLeeSmithsonianVideo