In May 2018, after spending more than 30 years at BET Networks, Debra Lee stepped down as chairman and CEO, following a series of reorganizations within Viacom cable networks.
But Lee, who also oversaw the launch of the first network for black women (BET Her) and the related invite-only annual women's conference Leading Women Defined, has hardly retired from public view. On the contrary, she remains an active and vocal proponent for all women, and women of color particularly, and at the Upfront Summit in Pasadena, Calif., yesterday, Lee used a speaking opportunity to applaud a new IPO diversity initiative announced by Goldman Sachs last week -- and to hint at a new investment fund that would support women of color in tech.
Lee was first asked by reporter Julia Boorstin about California’s mandate that boards of directors overseeing public companies include women -- a law that passed in late 2018 and that is reportedly catching fire as lawmakers in numerous other states consider similar mandates. Boorstin then asked about Goldman Sachs's announcement from Davos last week that beginning in July, it won't take public any company that doesn't have at least one "diverse" board member, with a particular focus on women.
It's a bigger deal than some might imagine. The initiative would have cost Goldman up to $101 million in underwriting fees from as many as 18 U.S. IPOs had the policy been effective in 2019, according to a new analysis by Bloomberg Law. That's roughly one-third of the $318.68 million that Goldman earned in advisory fees from the 59 U.S. IPOs it underwrote last year.
"I mean, we've been talking about this for so long that I understand why they did it," answered Lee. "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."
Having diversity on the board can have more impact than some appreciate, said Lee, when asked about the ripple effect that boards can have in terms of impacting companies' policies. She first 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 emphasized 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."
Lee spent three years on the board of Twitter, for example, and was a director at Eastman Kodak years earlier. In both places, she sat on nominating committees where she said she expected to see a diverse slate of candidates when it came to roles that needed to be filled. 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 those kind of things aren'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."
It may also give her fuel for her next act. After noting that a "couple of businesses have even come out of the conference," she suggested that she and others of her powerful friends are talking currently about creating a fund that would support women of color in tech.
Undoubtedly, there's a need for it. While U.S. venture funds poured more capital than ever into female-founded startups last year, it was still a small fraction of the overall dollars raised by companies -- $3.3 billion, or 2.8% of capital invested across the entire U.S. startup ecosystem. And a far smaller fraction of that already tiny percentage was raised by women of color.
Peering into the audience of largely investors at the event yesterday, Boorstin joked with her from the stage, "So if you do create a fund, perhaps there's some potential LPs [you could talk with here]."
"I would love that," said Lee. "If you all know of anyone . . .