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.
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.
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ALSO IN THE HEADLINES
- Government intervention. Corporate America has struggled to close the gender gap, as pay inequity and underrepresentation persist. Women feel that underlying sexism, lack of appreciation, and insufficient opportunities are partly to blame. Activists believe that government intervention to provide childcare or equality mandates will be necessary to close the gap. Financial Times
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MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Mary Beth Laughton is out as CEO and president of Athleta. Sheila Peters, chief people officer at Gap Inc., will leave the position at the end of the year. Dafna Linzer is stepping down as Politico's executive editor. Kathleen Pacini has been appointed as chief people officer at Patreon. Versapay has appointed Carey O’Connor Kolaja as CEO. Emily Heath is general partner at VC firm Cyberstarts. Haley Mixon will be Blue Shield of California's new chief human resources officer. Laura A. Rosenbury will be the next president of Barnard College. Tracy Ryan will join the Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty SE board of management as chief regions and markets officer for North America.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
- Single ladies. The number of single women who have never been married has increased by 20% in the last decade. As single women are more likely to work than married women, this means they are having an increased impact on the economy. But the pay gap persists for this group regardless, and never-married women have 29% less wealth than their male counterparts while earning 92% of income comparatively. The Washington Post
- 'Tip of the iceberg.' Kimberlé Crenshaw, an academic and lawyer who has been a leading thinker in critical race theory ideology, says that the rightwing backlash against the ideology and related subjects is only the beginning. Her teachings have been scrubbed from AP African American studies curriculums, and she warns that those leading the opposition may be capable of further undermining America's public school system. The Guardian
- Conspiracy in her ear. Fox News anchor Maria Bartiromo is at the center of Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation suit against the network. Court filings show she continued to allow false claims about the election to run unchecked even after the theory of vote outcome manipulation had been debunked. Los Angeles Times
- Academy revamp. The 95th Academy Awards on Sunday will look a bit different than past years, as new President Janet Yang and new CEO Bill Kramer seek to buoy falling viewership. They have partnered with Disney+ for international streaming and Letterboxd to reach younger viewers on social media. Last year's best picture announcement, which more viewers watched after the Chris Rock and Will Smith drama, still had almost 50% fewer viewers than five years ago. New York Times
ON MY RADAR
CVS's Karen Lynch on the future of healthcare Fortune
Soft power: Keira Knightley on the strength of a woman Harper's Bazaar
A world without men The Cut
The female mayor in Tokyo fighting Japan's sexist attitudes BBC
"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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