Debra Lee, Former CEO of BET, Visits Colgate for ‘Media Mogul’ Event


Debra Lee, former chief executive officer of Black Entertainment Television (BET), visited Colgate University to give a talk on Tuesday, April 18 in Golden Auditorium. The discussion was co-sponsored by the ALANA Cultural Center, Harlem Renaissance Center, Office of the Dean of the College and Dean of Students, Office of Student Involvement, Office of University Communications and Events and the Women of Color Network.

Vice President for University Communications and Events Hazel Jack moderated the conversation, referencing Lee’s recently published book as well as her numerous honors and achievements. Select students were invited to a private book signing event with Lee ahead of the moderated conversation.

“Dean Dorsey Spencer has worked hard to bring a variety of speakers to campus so that students can engage with multiple luminaries,” Jack said. “It was an honor to moderate the event with Ms. Debra Lee, as her career and activism have long been inspiring to me.”

Lee discussed her journey from corporate law to the entertainment industry and the highs and lows of her long and storied career. She stressed how she chose to join BET despite the risk because their mission was something she believed in.

“I left this 200-person law firm, a corporate white law firm, to go to this small Black media company that had one cable network at the time, had 80 employees, had just broken even, and only had one office,” Lee said.

“It was just so much fun in those early days, being on this mission, trying to keep everything high quality and build it for the future, and so it was great, I never ever regretted the decision to leave the law firm […], Lee added. “Even the legal part was fun because I knew it was going toward a client that I cared about and a mission that I cared about.”

A constant theme throughout the talk was Lee’s emphasis on the importance of following your passions and doing something you enjoy. She encouraged students to look beyond their parent’s expectations and set their own goals. Lee’s views on ambition resonated with sophomore Clementina Aboagye. 

“I really enjoyed what she said about finding a balance in your life and being able to follow your passions but also figuring out what makes you happy and what path you want to follow, and just giving yourself time to figure that out, I thought that was really inspirational,” Aboagye said. 

Lee held leadership roles in BET for three decades, and under her leadership became the first Black-owned company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991. She has also been on the boards of several prominent companies and engaged in extensive philanthropy. Aboagye was inspired by Lee’s achievements.

“I thought that today’s talk was very inspirational,” Aboagye said. “Oftentimes, it’s not every day that you see a woman in the kind of position that she was in, that she held for such a long time- It’s not every day that you see a woman in power, especially not a Black woman in a position as a CEO in such a big entertainment channel.”

Lee’s contributions to the celebration and visibility of Black culture cannot be understated. By transforming BET into a modern media giant, Lee brought Black representation to the forefront of media.

“Growing up BET was something I tuned in to, I watched a lot of movies and shows, especially Tyler Perry movies from BET, so it’s one of my favorite channels,” Aboagye said. “It is a cable channel that I go to when I want to see people who look like me when I want to just bask in Black joy and just be happy and it’s also just a wonderful place to really enjoy entertainment when it comes to music, movies, shows, [and] sitcoms.”