Former Chief Executive Officer of BET
Honored as one of the most powerful women in the media and entertainment industries, Debra Lee led BET Networks to become the largest global company dedicated to African American programming. She blazed new trails as one of America's rare African American female CEOs, growing BET's brand presence from a network known mostly for music videos to a ratings record-breaker serving a demographic with more than $1.3 trillion in buying power.
By her retirement in 2018, BET reached 100 million homes globally. Lee defined the network's brand mission and increased investment in authentic programming that resonates with Black audiences. These include shows such as “The New Edition Story," “The Game," “Being Mary Jane," “The BET Awards," “Black Girls Rock!," “BET Honors" and many others.
During three decades in leadership roles, Lee saw BET become the first African American company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange (going from $17 to $29 a share on the first day) and be acquired by media giant Viacom for $3 billion in 2001. Today, BET is the leading provider of entertainment not only for the African American audience but for consumers of Black culture worldwide.
Lee's barrier-breaking journey to the corner office and the ranks of industry power players is as inspiring as her many achievements. Raised in the segregated South, she went on to Brown University and Harvard, earning both a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School and a Master of Arts in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
After clerking for a federal judge and working at a corporate law firm, Lee joined BET in 1986 as vice president and general counsel. Ten years later, she was named president and COO. In 2005, Lee was elevated to chairman and CEO, replacing the network's founder, Robert L. Johnson. Now chairman and CEO emeritus of BET, she is active as a board member, philanthropist, keynote speaker and champion of diversity and women's leadership.
Lee currently serves as a member of the Recording Academy's task force on diversity and female inclusion, which is charged with identifying the “various barriers and unconscious biases faced by underrepresented communities throughout the music industry." Since 2010, she has organized Leading Women Defined Summit, an annual invitation-only gathering of the most prominent African American women. Her summits have included such luminaries as former first lady Michelle Obama and Sen. Kamala Harris.
Lee also serves on the corporate board of directors of Twitter and Marriott and on the board of trustees of nonprofits The Alvin Ailey Dance Company, American Film Institute and Paley Center. She is a trustee emeritus at Brown University and member emeritus of the FCC's Advisory Committee on Diversity for Communications in the Digital Age. Lee is the mother of two grown children who are both in the music industry.
During her 30-plus-year career, Lee was regarded as one of America's most respected business executives. Her many honors and recognitions include being named one of The Hollywood Reporter's “100 Most Powerful Women in Entertainment," Billboard's “Power 100" and “Adweek"'s Disruptors list. She is the first and only woman to receive the Grammy's Salute to Industry Icons Award on behalf of her contributions to American music and culture. She is a recipient of the Ebony Power 100's Chairman's Award and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association's Leadership Vanguard Award. Lee has also been inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame and the American Advertising Hall of Fame.
Sharing an inspiring life story, leadership lessons from the C-suite, valuable insights on managing change and a passion for empowering women and people of color, Debra Lee brings incredible presence to the speaking stage. Her talks on diversity and inclusion are known to not only “point out the elephants in the room" but motivate action and change.