Former CEO of BET Networks is Beginning a Second Career Helping Women in Tech
In May 2018, Debra Lee stepped down as Chairman and CEO from BET Networks after spending more than 30 years following a string of reorganizations within Viacom cable networks. But Lee, who supervised the launch of the first network for black women named BET Her, remains engaged and a vocal advocate for all women, and particularly women of color. At the Upfront Summit Lee applauded a new IPO diversity initiative announced by Goldman Sachs and hinted at an investment fund that would help women of color in tech.
When asked about California’s mandate that Boards of Directors supervising public companies must include women and Goldman Sachs announcement at Davos with the same policy she responded as follows.
“I mean, we’ve been talking about this for so long that I understand why they did it. I think [both initiatives] are a good thing, because the companies aren’t going to do it,” she said. “We’ve been talking about it for 30 years, and for a company to have a board now with no women or no people of color, they should be truly embarrassed. But there’s still a lot out there . . . it’s sad to see that we have to implement either, you know — California, Goldman — but we really have to hold these companies’ feet to the fire.”
The initiative would have cost Goldman up to $101 million in underwriting fees from as many as 18 U.S. IPOs the company was involved in had the policy been effective in 2019. That’s about one-third of the $318.68 million that Goldman received in advisory fees from the 59 U.S. IPOs it underwrote last year.
Lee referenced her work with the Time’s Up organization, saying that “all the issues that Time’s Up was investigating — the harassment, revenge, retribution, women being harassed — those things can’t happen if you have women in decision-making roles. You can’t have a ‘casting couch’ if you have women in the C suite at the studios, [or at least] it’s less likely [than] if men have all the power and can do whatever they want.”
Lee also stressed that when companies have “diverse people on your board, they’re going to hold you accountable. I’m not going to sit in a boardroom where I’m the only black woman, and not ask why there isn’t another black woman, or why there aren’t other people of color.”
In fact, she said, she “didn’t hire a search firm that was trying to get Twitter’s business because they told me there were no black CEOs. I’m like, ‘Don’t you know [former Amex CEO] Ken Chenault? Don’t know you [current Merck CEO Ken Frazier]? I’m just naming people off the top of my head . . .”
“Once you have one person in the room or a couple of people, you can hold the company’s feet to the fire,” Lee continued. “When issues come up, you can make sure they’re dealt with in a more equal way. If it’s a discrimination suit or a harassment suit, you can ensure that that kind of stuff isn’t swept under the rug. So boards are really important. It’s not only to oversee strategy and financials and all of that, but also succession planning. One of the questions I ask on the boards all the time is, ‘What do the people coming behind the CEO look like? Are there women? Are there people of color? . . . You gotta tell me who they are and what they look like so I can ensure that it’s going to be a diverse group that’s ready to take over.”
Lee separately talked about her annual conference, where she brings together prominent women of color to talk about “everything from what’s going on in Haiti, to getting out the vote, to elder care and financial planning, to how do we raise our black boys.” (Michelle Obama has attended twice.)
Crucially, she noted, she tries to pair up women who know each other and who nominate other women, which has turned the affair “into something much more important than I ever thought.”
Unquestionably, there’s a need for it. U.S. ventures spent $3.3 billion, or 2.8% of their capital invested across the entire U.S. And a far smaller fraction of that already tiny percentage was raised by women of color.