The truth can be painful. In spite of that Debra leans into her truth and brings forth a deeply honest and transparent narrative that brings us wisdom from her hard-earned lessons as a high-powered executive in entertainment.
After starting her career at a law firm Debra went on to become general counsel at Black Entertainment Television (BET) and eventually went on to become CEO. She retired in 2018 with 32 years at BET (and 13 years as CEO) under her belt. Currently, Debra serves as a Board Member for AT&T, Burberry, Marriott, and Procter & Gamble. Her legacy is undeniable.
But no matter how much you gain in life, it doesn’t protect us from the losses. On the journey of writing her new memoir, I Am Debra Lee, Debra’s son, Quinn Coleman, passed away. It was during the pandemic and he was just 31 years old. While anyone would understand the desire to drop everything, instead, she did what her son would have wanted her to do, which was to share her story with the world.
Being honest when things are not picture perfect can feel scary but Debra chose to push past the fear and her perspective on the challenges she experienced as a CEO in a male-dominated company and the reality of the relationship she had with Bob Johnson.
We had the opportunity to speak with Debra about her memoir, the highlights of writing her book, the lessons learned from her career, and tips for becoming a CEO.
Her Agenda: What inspired you to write your memoir?
Debra Lee: I believe what Michelle Obama said, that ‘We all have a story in us.’ I also have always loved books. When I stepped down from BET around 4 years ago, I decided it was a good time to tell my story and focus on my career. I wanted it to be half memoir and half business advice. So I decided the best way to give my business advice was to tell stories about how I grew up, about how I made decisions at BET, and I’ve always believed that people remember advice more if you put it in the form of a story so that’s why it was the right time to do it.
Her Agenda: What do you want people to take away from your book?
Debra Lee: A very important one is to be yourself and to find a career that you’re passionate about whether it’s an organization, a company or a cause, and to get a good education – my dad taught me that. The second is to work really hard but to leave time for self-care. The part a lot of us forget is no matter how driven you are and how ambitious you are, you need to take care of yourself, your family, the people around you, and only surround yourself with people that will add to your self-care. Also, take care of your mental health. We saw a lot more mental health issues after COVID and it’s important that if you are having issues, you should get help. Some things that helped me throughout my career were talking to friends and to a therapist. So I want people to focus on self-care and mental health.
Her Agenda: What is your strategy for creating harmony with your commitments to motherhood, executive life, and being on the board of so many organizations?
Debra Lee: In terms of self-care, you also need to get help. At home and at work, I had three or four people working for me at home to help me make it, especially when I became a single mother after I was divorced. You have to be okay with asking for help. Then in terms of the organizations and corporate boards, I was on and still on, I love that work and it’s a great learning experience for me to learn about other industries and give advice to other CEOs. So you have to make room for the things you enjoy and hopefully one of those is working. But you really have to find the time and there is no balance. You just keep moving forward and trying your best to be there for all the important moments in your children’s life and your spouse’s life at the same time as you’re having a successful career. I would also add that you cannot get all of your satisfaction from work. It’s great to do charitable work and be active in your community but you shouldn’t expect to get all of your satisfaction from work.
Her Agenda: What has been or what was the biggest challenge you had as a businesswoman and how did you overcome it?
Debra Lee: One of the biggest challenges I had was making the transition from General Counsel to COO because when I became COO of BET (and I talked about this in my book), I had to learn new parts of the company; ad sales and programming areas I hadn’t dealt with before. So that was a real learning experience and at the same time, I had to manage other people who were mostly men who knew more than I did about their areas of specialty, and I had to get them to want me to be successful and want the company to be successful which was a challenge. It depends on what time it was but when we went public, that was an amazing experience but also challenging. Then another challenge was raising a family at the same time and just being a woman in the workplace because we still don’t see a lot of CEOs especially not Black women CEOs – and we have to work harder on that so it’s not such a rare thing anymore.
Her Agenda: Do you have any advice for women who want to be CEOs? Especially Black women? Do you have any advice on what things they can do or the avenues they can take?
Debra Lee: If you’re interested in being a CEO, the first thing you should do is get as much experience as you can in all aspects of the company or organization because [when you are the] CEO, you don’t have to do it all but you have to understand it all. You have to understand what drives the business, and how you generate revenue and profit. It really is a question of learning over the years and you can’t be too narrowly focused. Luckily, as General Counsel, I was involved in a lot of the deal-making and new business and contracts. So I had seen a lot of the company but I still had to learn some of them. But when I’m on corporate boards, I see people (men and women) that are interested in being CEOs, they rotate around the company. They don’t stay in one division or one department. If it’s an international company, they go overseas for part of their careers and they just have to prove to the current CEO and to the board that they’re interested in the entire company – and it becomes a great decision point for the board when it’s time to appoint a new CEO.
Her Agenda: Did you have any challenges writing your book and how did you overcome them? Specifically, did you have any fears, doubts or worries when you were writing and publishing your book?
Debra Lee: Of course, the first fear is whether anyone’s going to buy it and be interested. But as you get into it and realize you have a lot to say, that goes away. My son passed away while I was writing this book. It was during COVID and that was really hard but I kept going and said, this is something he would want me to do. The other thing is, I talk a lot about my personal relationship with Bob Johnson and that was hard to talk about publicly because I have never really done that before. But it was an important part of my story and I felt like I had to tell it. I wanted young women to know that there are unfortunately abusive and harassing relationships that you might have to deal with even though they start out really nice and great. We had a great relationship for a number of years but then it started affecting my career.
I talk a lot about my personal relationship with Bob Johnson and that was hard to talk about publicly because I have never really done that before. But it was an important part of my story and I felt like I had to tell it. I wanted young women to know that there are unfortunately abusive and harassing relationships that you might have to deal with even though they start out really nice and great. We had a great relationship for a number of years but then it started affecting my career.
Her Agenda: Let’s talk about a highlight real quick. Were there any highlights or any favorite moments while writing your book?
Debra Lee: I guess reliving some of the incredible experiences in my life. Being CEO of BET was amazing. Getting to know celebrities and politicians. The eight years that the Obama’s were in Washington, I lived in Washington and got to know them even better and that was incredible. Meeting my childhood idols like Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin. Getting to produce programming and having it be successful. I’ve had an amazing life. I want that to be the takeaway; that it’s been an amazing life. I’ve been able to live out my dreams and be successful, but I’ve also had challenges and I wanted people to know both. So that’s why I tell a lot of the stories about celebrities, learning from them, and learning how to say no to them which is not an easy task when you admire someone so much. So writing the book helped me relive those experiences. I’ve always had a sense of humor so I tried to tell them in a funny way because part of my secret sauce is my sense of humor and being able to get through tough times by reliving these moments and telling them in a way that people enjoy them and remember them.
Her Agenda: What is your personal motto?
Debra Lee: My personal motto is to live my life honestly. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do but a recent motto for me has been, ‘No is a complete sentence.’ If you can’t do something, tell the person, the executive, or whoever, and don’t feel guilty about it because we can’t do everything and we can’t make everyone happy. You just have to live your own life. We only have one chance.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]