2012 Honoree

Debra L. Lee

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of BET Networks

“We are at the start of a new decade and a new opportunity. Our First Lady, Michelle Obama, is a shining example that anything is possible.”

What do you think of the media’s portrayal of women?

We are seeing a lot more diverse portrayals of women; however, we can always do better. I made a commitment to bring more positive images of women to BET Networks. We have done this through the creation of shows, such as Black Girls Rock!–which delivers a powerful message of empowerment to our young girls–and our popular scripted shows, such as The Game and Reed Between the Lines.

Have you seen any changes in the political landscape for women over the past few years? What are they?

We are at the start of a new decade and a new opportunity. Our First Lady, Michelle Obama, is a shining example that anything is possible.

Can you tell us about one of the biggest challenges in your life that you think helped you become the person you are today?

When I became C.E.O. of BET Networks, I had to learn different skills and become the leader of the company. I had to decide what my vision was, what I’m passionate about and how I motivate my executive team to help me carry out my vision and my goals. The first thing I turned to was original programming. I didn’t feel the company had really created enough original content to give it its own brand identity. I wanted to address that first to make us known for being a great content company, in addition to being a great business.

Do today’s young people face a bigger challenge than you did?

It’s hard to say. Challenges are very different. I grew up in the segregated South; given that we were among the first, much was expected from us. I always tell young people to pursue something they’re passionate about and to be flexible. Success often lies in your ability to take advantage of opportunities that arise, whether they’re expected or not.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

The best piece of advice I ever got came from my father, Richard M. Lee. He told me to never burn your bridges. No matter what the circumstances, don’t leave on bad terms and make it a priority to maintain relationships throughout your career. As you can imagine, this has been particularly helpful in my 27 years at BET. In business you never know what is going to happen next. The first time I met Phillippe Dauman we were both serving on the same board. Years later, he turned out to be my boss.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

It would be President Barack Obama. I would love to talk with him about his first four years in office and what he would plan to do for the next four years if he gets re-elected.

What is your favorite book (fiction or nonfiction)?

When I was growing up the book that made the biggest impression on me was the autobiography of Malcolm X. I was struck by the many different phases of transformation and enlightenment in Malcolm X’s life.

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