Former BET CEO Debra Lee wants others to learn from her #MeToo story

March 10, 2023, 1:52 PM UTC
Debra Lee, Former CEO of BET Networks
Sharon Suh

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Investors are taking a big bet on a startup founded by ex-Apple employees, the Academy Awards’ new president is trying to revive viewership, and former CEO of Black Entertainment Television Debra Lee shares her #MeToo story in her new book. Take care on this Friday.

– “My story is different.” Debra Lee had a pit in her stomach as Black Entertainment Television CEO Bob Johnson delivered a toast to her, his right hand and COO, at a lavish birthday party he threw for her in 2004. It was his way of publicly confirming that they were romantically involved as rumors swirled about their relationship. “This wasn’t what I wanted,” she remembers thinking.

In her new memoir, I Am Debra Lee, Lee shares her journey breaking into the media industry as general counsel of BET, getting promoted to COO, and holding on to that seat through a workplace relationship with Johnson that she calls “poisonous,” before ultimately becoming the company’s CEO.  

“I Am Debra Lee: A Memoir”
Courtesy of Legacy Lit

It took until the groundswell of #MeToo in 2017 and the Time’s Up movement for Lee to understand that her relationship with Johnson was inherently problematic. 

“Some men are, you know, much more obvious about it…that’s one reason I wanted to tell the story,” she told me in an interview. “I wanted to say, okay, my story is different. But I still ended up in a relationship that was partly harassment and partly abuse, and the relationship became tied to my career.” 

Johnson was Lee’s sponsor and mentor early on. “Whenever anyone asks how I eventually made the transition from lawyer to CEO, the answer is Bob and money,” she writes, describing the feat of taking BET public. 

Johnson promoted her from general counsel to COO in 1995, elevating her to be next in line to take over the company. But six months later, he made a sexual advance, shaking Lee’s resolve that she had earned her promotion. 

Facing that self-doubt, Lee clung to the fact that she had been promoted before his advance. She rationalized the encounter as consensual at the time, but looking back she understands the professional power dynamics at play made the situation more complicated

“Whether or not I gave voice to this concern back then, there’s no denying that turning down Bob would have affected my career. The man had just offered me the keys to the kingdom. If I rejected his advances, would I suffer for it?” she writes. “I knew that my place in the corporate world, as a Black female COO, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” 

The relationship started out with fancy dinners on business trips, an escape from their lives at home. But over time it turned toxic. If she walked away from a fight, he would barge into her house or hotel room, Lee says. At times, their arguments turned physical, she writes in the book. 

A person who picked up the phone at Johnson’s office said “we have no comment” on the allegations. Fortune’s other calls and emails for comment went unanswered.

Lee knew she needed to get out of the relationship, but leaving Johnson would mean leaving the company she had worked so hard to build. She said that when she tried to break off the romantic relationship with Johnson, he told her she would have to resign.

She stayed, and when Johnson’s contract expired in 2005, she was named CEO. She held the job for 13 years and helped bring BET into a new era. She defined the company’s values as “family, community, and uplift.” She canceled the raunchy late-night program Uncut, launched BET Honors and Black Girls Rock, and acquired a hit scripted show The Game. On her last day as CEO, she received the BET lifetime achievement award. 

Lee’s story embodies a common struggle among alleged victims of workplace abuse; they feel trapped, being forced to choose between their career and their well-being.

Lee said sticking it out to get to the CEO spot wasn’t easy. But it let her advance work she loved—growing a business that celebrated Black culture. By finally telling her story, she hopes that fewer women will have to make that tradeoff. 

Kinsey Crowley

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"Sometimes work wins and sometimes life wins. And it's important also that your company or wherever it is that you work understands that."

Ellen Cooper, Lincoln Financial CEO

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