Debra Lee says she’s tired of hearing “the first” when it comes to women and people of color.
The world has a long way to go when it comes to inclusivity. Thankfully, Hollywood and other professional environments are taking steps to fix the layered sections of inequality. In fact, the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of BET says her time as a Black woman in media has shown her that the industry is surely moving towards advancements in equality, but it’s a slow-moving train.
Lee became BET’s first VP and General Counsel in 1986 and moved on to become the network’s president/COO in 1996, and then chairman/CEO in 2005. She held that position until 2018. Today, she is BET’s CEO emeritus. In her 17 years with the brand, Lee produced several defining moments for the network, including the relaunch of former CW series “The Game” in 2014 with 7.7 million viewers (“That felt like a drop-the-mic moment,” she said) and the 2017 miniseries “The New Edition Story” – the highest-rated TV biopic of all time with a record-setting 28.4 million total viewers, according to Nielsen.
In an interview with Billboard, the former CEO opened up about her three decades with the famous network. “Getting on Billboard’s Power 100 in 2013 was very validating. Then I went to my first reception. As happy as I was to be honored, I looked around the room and realized there weren’t very many women at all — and very few people of color. I was surprised that the upper echelon of the industry didn’t look diverse. I stayed on that list until I stepped down from BET a year ago,” said Lee.
She continued, “It made me commit more to making sure people of color and women rose to higher levels. At BET, I made sure our management team was very diverse. And it made things a little easier just because of the company’s name. (Laughs.) It attracted executives of color. But I also focused to get more women involved. You really do have to make an effort and stick to it.”