Deciding whether to cover a funeral is generally a routine call for a network television executive. But when civil rights icon Rosa Parks died in 2005, it was anything but routine for Debra Lee, who had just become CEO of BET, the parent company of Black Entertainment Television.
Lee, who had been with BET since 1986, knew that the funeral could last many hours and it wasn’t likely to score stellar ratings. But as one of the few African American television operations at the time, not covering the service could open BET to criticism.
Ultimately, she decided not to do a live broadcast of the funeral, and as expected, BET did catch some flak for it, Lee recalled during a recent View From the Top talk at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Still, it was a good lesson for a newly minted CEO. “That was the first time that I literally had no one to talk to," Lee says. “I remember just that odd feeling that, ‘Okay. Now I’m CEO. The [buck] really stops with me.’ I really had to stand up for the decisions I made and be the leader of the company.”
Today Lee is one of the best known and most influential female African American business leaders. BET is thriving, she planned the farewell party and concert for Barack and Michelle Obama, and some of Hollywood’s biggest stars showed up as Lee was named an industry icon ahead of the 2017 Grammy Awards.
During the Stanford session, Lee talked about her journey from a segregated town in North Carolina to Harvard and eventually to the top job at BET, and shared some of the career-building lessons she has learned over her more than three decades in business and the law.
Lee grew up in the segregated South of the 1960s. She lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, the site of the famous Woolworth’s sit-in of 1960, and attended an all-black junior high and an all-black high school. “We had a street down the middle of the city called Market Street. Black people lived on one side of Market Street, and white people lived on the other side,” Lee says. “That sounds horrible, but we never felt like we lacked for anything. We had black doctors and black lawyers. There was a black bank.”
The experience, she says, helped develop her ability as a leader later in life. “One thing, it showed me that you could be anything you wanted to be. We had teachers who cared about us, who really pushed us, who made sure that we had the basic skills that we needed. They told us every day, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’”
Lee says she was inspired to go to law school by the example of Thurgood Marshall “and the people who had changed laws to help society.” But when she began studying at Harvard Law School, she found that “the school didn’t support women. The school didn’t support African Americans or minorities.”
Nonetheless, she stuck it out and landed a job at a large law firm. But after five years, she asked herself: “Do I really want to buckle down and kill myself for two years to become partner — which is something I never really wanted to do anyway — or is it time to leave?” She left, and to the bewilderment of her father took a job as general counsel for BET, a then-struggling and barely known niche television network. Lee explained the decision to her father this way: “Well, Dad, I’m just not having fun anymore. I think work should be fun.”
Moving to the fledgling network was a risky career move. “No one in most of the major cities — because major cities were just starting to get cable — had ever heard of BET,” she says. But it was the move she needed to make.
“Those of you who are starting your careers, you’ll find that at a certain point in your life, you get to that point where it’s like, ‘This is what I want to do. I have enough qualifications. I’ve done all the right things. Now it’s time to really devote myself to what I want to do,’” Lee advises.
Shortly after becoming CEO she realized that staying competitive with the new entrants into the black-oriented television market meant that BET needed to make major changes. Lee and her executive team spent 18 months evaluating BET’s brand and core values. “The first problem we found is our employees were not proud of what we were doing. They were getting criticism from their family and friends: ‘Why does BET show these music videos?’ ‘Why don’t you do more about this?’” she says. There were even demonstrations in front of her home.
With the help of an outside consultant BET shifted away from its emphasis on music videos and began doing original programming. Lee determined her company’s values should be based on three pillars: Respect, reflect, and elevate the audience. “If programming didn’t meet at least two of those three pillars, then we shouldn’t do it,” she says. The network began work on programs like The Game, Being Mary Jane, and The Quad.
The pivot to a new strategy worked, Lee says. “I think we’ve come a long way in showing our audience who we are and what we believe in, and increasing our audience,” she says. And her audience has grown more loyal for it. “For the first time, we don’t have to defend ourselves. People are coming to our defense. Our viewers are coming to our defense.”
As for joining that risky startup as a general counsel years ago: “It’s been 30 years, so it’s worked out.”