There have been many days Black Entertainment Television CEO Debra Lee felt successful.
“Having my first child was an amazing experience, the fact that you’re able to bring another being into the world,” she says. “The day I made my first six-figure salary. The day I became president and COO, that was a huge accomplishment in my life, with the recognition that I had a true leadership role in this company, and that I was its heir-apparent. The day we went public on the New York Stock Exchange.”
And now, a month into her job as the new CEO for BET, Lee is already facing the challenge of prioritizing the next round of challenges that will take her to a new level of success.
“Bob Johnson, the founder, is in the process of leaving the company, so my immediate challenge is taking over the absolute helm of this company and growing the company in terms of original programming and things I want to provide,” she says. “And being an African-American woman, you always feel like there’s added pressure, that you have to show that you can do it.”
And there’s more. “Then I have a son, who’s about to graduate from high school in two years, so getting him into a great college is a big challenge,” she says. “Looking at my desk right now, it’s a challenge to prioritize and to figure out what’s important to me.”
Lee’s responsibilities may all be clamoring to be on the top of her to-do list, but the truth is, the former corporate lawyer, who began working for BET 20 years ago, figured out what was important to her years ago: succeeding. And she accepts nothing less.
“I was raised by parents who really instilled in me a great work ethic and that your goal in life is to be successful, however you define it,” she says. “I grew up in the segregated South, but I was able to apply to and get into Brown University because my father pushed me. Then you go to Harvard Law School, and the feeling among the students there is, ‘We’re the best and the brightest and whatever we do should be something that changes the world.’ [The drive to succeed] just sort of snowballed as I progressed in my educational career, and that transferred over into my business career.”
Her passion — and a little healthy competition from other stations — has helped BET, the first African-American company to be publicly traded, prosper.
“Overall, [with] any company — especially if you’re the CEO — you want it to do well, and to earn its revenue goals, so there is a lot of pressure to succeed all around,” Lee says. “Personally, it’s helped me. It’s nice to have a goal every day and to care about the company that I run and to really want it to succeed. [Doing what I love and care about] really motivates me every day and keeps me working hard.”
For Lee, success has come to mean meeting both individual and societal goals. “[Success] for me personally is being able to provide a service, whether it’s entertainment or not-for-profit, to have the ability to change other people’s lives — not just your own and your family’s,” Lee says. “When my days are done, I hope I look back on my life and have really had an impact. I’m very fortunate that I can do it through my career, with the cause-related things we do on air and with our charitable causes.”
With a demanding job, a 12- and a 16-year-old, and positions on the Eastman Kodak, Marriott International and Washington Gas Company boards, Lee’s days are busy. However, in typical fashion, she’s already looking ahead and moving full-throttle toward the future — whatever that holds.
“Ten years from now I’ll be 60 years old, which I’m very sensitive to,” Lee says. “At that point I assume I’ll be wrapping my career up, at BET at least, and figuring out what I want to dedicate the rest of my life to. I can’t imagine, but I know there will be a new definition of success.”