In recent years, a lot has been written about the deep challenges African Americans face in terms of representation and leadership across TV and film both behind the camera and in front of it. But finally, damaging beliefs and misguided fears about the potential public appeal of black lead characters and stories that pivot around them, have been obliterated. Debra L. Lee, Chairman and CEO of BET Networks and arguably one of the most influential female voices in the entertainment industry, discusses how diversity is being developed and supported in entertainment today
Kathy Caprino: Debra, what are 3 pieces of advice you would give young women aspiring to work in the entertainment field?
Debra Lee: First, find something you’re passionate about. Whether it’s a profession or a company, just make sure it’s something you love within the entertainment industry. No matter what, you’ll always have to work hard and I find that if it’s something you really care about, you’ll be willing to put in the time necessary.
Second, young people should always be willing to take on new assignments that are beyond their current role and those assignments may come without additional pay. I found that in my career, doing things beyond my role as general counsel really taught me about the business of BET Networks and showed me how to get into other areas, eventually allowing me to grow the head of business development and then COO and finally CEO.
And finally, I would encourage young women to find their voice early on and not be afraid to speak in support of or in opposition to ideas. They should bring their values and their personal beliefs to everything they do, not be afraid to speak up and give their opinions on whatever the issue may be.
Kathy Caprino: As one of the most powerful African American women in television, what challenges and opportunities have you faced during your 30-year career?
Debra Lee: Well, let’s deal with opportunities first. In my 32 years at BET, I’ve been given many opportunities to grow in the business area and to expand my role beyond general counsel. I also had the opportunity to grow in an entrepreneurial, fast-paced company, learning a lot in a very short period of time. So, as the company grew, I continued to grow and take on new opportunities. In terms of challenges, I would say it’s been a challenge running a for-profit company while staying true to my values and true to the values of the African American audience. To our audience, BET represents a brand that they are very proud of so they expect us to be competitive with broadcast networks and produce programming of the same quality.
Kathy Caprino: Do you have any final words to help inspire women of color (and all women) to pursue their highest visions involving leadership, impact and influence?
Debra Lee: I would encourage all women to find their authentic voice at an early age. Have confidence in your own opinions and values and speak up loudly when necessary. I think as women we sometimes sit back too long and are uncertain of our own beliefs. Be bold, be strong and be heard!
Read more about Debra Lee’s Interview on Forbes.com.