Alumni Short

BET CEO Debra Lee Speaks at the Law School

Ithaca, NEW YORK, Apr 26, 2016

“If the President calls and says, ‘Come to this meeting,’ I’m there,” Debra L. Lee told an audience of law and business students on April 4. She was at the Law School to discuss her career in “The Vanguard of Law, Business, and Entertainment.”

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Lee is the chairman and CEO of BET Networks. She is one of the highest ranking African-American women at the media giant Viacom, Inc., and was recently inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame. Based in Washington, D.C., she is involved in various policy discussions and has served on President Obama’s Management Advisory Board.

Lee detailed her journey to her current position, which included a bachelor’s in Chinese communist ideology from Brown, degrees in law and public policy from Harvard, and a goal of changing the way African Americans are treated. While working at a law firm in the 1980s, she discovered an interest in communications, which led her to accept an in-house position at the fledgling Black Entertainment Network (BET). She has now been with the company for thirty years.

Lee reflected, “You know, sometimes people say, ‘Oh, you get to meet Denzel and Jay-Z,’ and, you know, I do. That’s the fun part of it. But there’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes, and even though I’m not practicing law anymore, I think my legal career helped me prepare for that, and I think my public policy training helped me prepare for what I do from day to day. So none of it was a waste. It was all useful, and it all helped me get to where I am.”

Lee spent the second half of her presentation answering questions from the audience, which touched on such topics as how BET approaches controversial content. Recalling an instance when she refused to air a violent Kanye West video, Lee remarked, “If I have to be the adult in the room, I’ll be the adult in the room.” On the other hand, she said, its important to recognize evolving social mores. Ultimately, “the audience votes with the remote.”