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Debra  Lee

Debra Lee

Chairman & CEO Emeritus, BET Networks


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. Read More >

Ms. 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 J.D. from Harvard Law School and an M.A. 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 & CEO Emeritus of BET, she is active as a board member, philanthropist, keynote speaker and champion of diversity and women’s leadership. Ms. Lee recently became the fourth female member of the AT&T's board of directors, and 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 First Lady Michelle Obama and Senator Kamala Harris. Ms. 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. Ms. Lee is the mother of two grown children that are both in the music industry.

During her 30-plus year career, Ms. 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 & Telecommunications Association’s Leadership Vanguard Award. Ms. Lee has also been inducted into the Broadcasting & 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. Energizing, authoritative and disarmingly candid, Ms. Lee treats audiences to an unforgettable encounter with one of the most remarkable business leaders of our time. Read Less ^

Speaker Videos

Creating Diversity and Authentic Content

BET: Leading a Company and a Community

Debra Lee talks new memoir, 'I Am Debra Lee’ l GMA

Why Competition Matters

BET Ultimate Icon Award Acceptance Speech

On Dr. King and Hope

Speech Topics

Getting More Women in the Room: Be Bold, Be Strong, Be Heard!

As a pioneering female CEO and early member of Times Up and the Recording Academy’s diversity task force, Debra Lee has spent her ceiling-shattering career encouraging women to not only find their voice, but to use it to empower other women. With the numbers of female CEOs, COOs and board members stagnating, the CEO Emeritus of BET Networks believes that only by having more women in the room making green-light decisions, will things get better for all women — and our workplaces. In this inspiring and insightful talk, Lee shares experiences from her decades as one of the most powerful women in the entertainment industry. Applauded for her commitment to leading BET “as though a woman was the head of the company,” she shares wisdom for leaders and those who shape corporate culture and brand. She also provides sage, frank advice for aspiring young women and women of color. With her signature candor and warmth, Debra explores what it means to bring your values and personal beliefs to everything you do, find your authentic voice, be bold, be strong and be heard!

What Do Men Really Know About Lipstick? Why Diversity is Essential to Successful Brands

“What do men really know about lipstick?” As one of only two women serving on cosmetics giant Revlon’s corporate board, Debra Lee called out the elephant in the room. Today, Revlon’s board seats more women than ever before and Lee has gone on to tackle diversity issues in Silicon Valley as a current member of Twitter’s board of directors. For Lee, embracing diversity isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s key to achieving your organization’s full potential and maximum success. “A variety of voices and experiences can only mean good things,” she says. If your team reflects the many different aspects of your business and audience, then you have a big advantage. Adding women and people of color to your team will strengthen it and bring new, fresh ideas that benefit your bottom line.” In this empowering presentation, Debra Lee provides strategies for making diversity key to your brand’s vision and purpose — empowering employees, reflecting and delighting customers, and achieving your highest level of success.

Transforming Your Brand: How BET Went from Music Videos to a Global Entertainment Giant

During three decades at BET Networks, Debra Lee saw it become the first African American company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and later, acquired by Viacom for $3 billion in 2001. Under her leadership, BET went from being known mostly for music videos to creating award-winning original programs that grew market share to more than 100 million homes globally. The secrets to this success story are the stuff of legend in the entertainment industry. They also provide invaluable insights to any company seeking to revitalize their brand or take a successful company to an even higher level. “Of all the things that I did in my career, improving on a brand that can last and be an authentic reflection of our community is what I consider my legacy,” says Lee. In this dynamic presentation filled with business acumen and actionable insights, Lee takes audiences through BET’s success, emphasizing the importance of  setting goals, providing a clear vision, and most of all, respecting, reflecting and elevating the customers and communities you serve.

Embracing Change & Triumphing Over Disruption

During her three decades-long career with BET, Debra Lee saw her industry radically disrupted by technology, undergo a revolution in content delivery and celebrate the ascendance of the Black media consumer. She also saw BET both go public and be acquired by media giant Viacom. All capped off by a highly successful transition of leadership as she succeeded the company’s legendary founder as Chairman and CEO. These experiences transformed Lee into not only an agent of change, but a triumphant champion of it. She went on to shape BET into a catalyst for change via ground-breaking programming that challenged perceptions and more authentically reflected Black America. The re-brand, culture shift and mission focus under Lee’s leadership transformed BET into the largest global company dedicated to Black programming. In this compelling talk for companies that are facing external disruption or internal change, Debra Lee shares lessons learned from her career as one of America’s rare African-American women CEOs and on boards ranging from Marriott to Twitter. Honored as an Adweek Disruptor and as a champion for change in the Times Up movement and a change agent on prominent corporate boards, Lee provides essential approaches for individuals and organizations to thrive and triumph in a constantly changing world.

Creating a Positive, Inclusive & Values-Driven Culture

According to Debra Lee, “An organization without vision is just a commodity and commodities come and go. But when a company has a vision, with core values that are supported in their daily action, that is what drives a powerful culture and a powerful, successful brand.” As Chairman and CEO of BET, Lee created and championed a set of core values that drove the company to success both internally and externally: Respect, Reflect and Elevate. These values not only created a positive and inclusive corporate culture, but took BET to a higher level as a creator and provider of authentic entertainment to African-American audiences. Recounting BET’s story and her experiences on a variety of corporate and nonprofit boards, Debra Lee walks audiences through the importance of organizational vision, values and purpose — connecting them not only to elevating corporate culture, but to dramatically improving the bottom line.