Debra L. Lee Challenges 568 PVAMU Graduates to ‘Be Courageous’

Debra L Lee
Commencement Address
PVAMU Fall 2018
December 16, 2018


Good Afternoon!

Thank you to President Ruth Simmons for that warm introduction.

To the administration, faculty, and staff.

Families, friends and most importantly to the Prarie View A & M University graduating class of 2018… You did it!

To the parents, this is a day that you will never forget.

I have been in your place — TWICE.

I had heart palpitations just thinking about sending my kids off to college and then to the real world?

But just like you, at their graduations, I was beaming with pride at all they had accomplished.

It is thanks to your hard work and persistence that we are here today so take a deep breath.

Let go of any anxiety or fear for now and just celebrate this special moment.

To the graduates, this is a day that you too will never forget.

Some of you are the first in your family to graduate from college — starting a new family legacy.

And you ALL have achieved so much over the past 4 years.

You have built a community of friends and family here at Prairie View.

Pulled all-nighters to get those papers in, study for those final exams, and prepare for presentations and group projects.

You’ve also pulled all-nighters for a party or two.

What’s a college experience without a few good parties?

Most importantly, you all have grown into a better version of yourself and this is just the beginning.

I am so very proud of each and every one of you.

It is my hope that today you will be encouraged to go after your dreams and this next phase in your life with resilience, creativity, strength, tenacity, and courage.

Because this world, and especially this country, could use more courageous leaders — and I believe we have over 565 graduating here today.

But what is courage?

And what does it really mean to live your life courageously?

Webster’s dictionary describes courage as —  “The quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, and pain, without fear; bravery.”

It also means the ability to do something that frightens oneself.

As you all contemplate your next steps in life, you must know that every stage and transition, like the one you are experiencing today, comes with a little fear of the unknown.

Fear of failure, rejection, sharing an idea, perhaps even fear of success.

Feelings of not being good enough, smart enough or just doubting your own ability.

We all experience this.

And unfortunately there is no way around it and that is where courage comes in.

Today you have a choice.

Will you leave Prairie View to live your life courageously?

Or will you shutter in your fear and be unable to reach your full potential?

Will you be able to fight through the fear?

In fact, will you embrace the fear?

Growing up, I was an Army brat who moved around a great deal as a child.

I was born in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, lived in Germany, Washington, DC and Compton, California before settling in segregated Greensboro, North Carolina in the mid-sixties.

I know, I know…. sounds like ancient history.

And I was a very shy child before leadership sought me out.

Today they call it being an introvert.

My 6thgrade class voted me class President on the first day of school– I really think it was because I was the odd girl who just moved from California…

But of course, I graciously accepted anyway.

It was at that moment that I had to step up to the plate.

Come out of my comfort zone – speak in front of a large audience of about 25.

Huge difference from today!

I could already see my future as the CEO right within my grasp….

No, but seriously — This moment in my childhood taught me to embrace the fear.

To fight through it, not run away from it.

All throughout our lives and careers, not only do we have to choose courage, but we have to make a choice to fight through the fear.

Fight– According to Webster’s dictionary means to “gain by struggle”.

And through struggle, I have grown tremendously and so can you.

After serving my time as class president of the 6thgrade, and finishing junior high and high schools in Greensboro,  I found myself at my first crossroads.

Growing up in segregated North Carolina, secondary educational options were limited for African Americans.

Also, very few students ventured out of the state.

If you were brilliant you would go to Duke and if you were really smart maybe Chapel Hill.

This is as far as you would go.

Most of my peers went to the Historic North Carolina A&TUniversity but I wanted something a little different.

Because I moved around as a child, I was open to change and new places.

Instead of staying close to home, I chose Brown University.

My friends and teachers didn’t really get it.



I can still remember my mom putting me on that Greyhound bus and off I went to Providence, Rhode Island.

I might as well have fallen off the face of the earth as far as my classmates were concerned.

That was one of my first acts of courage – and fighting through the fear.  I was off to a new adventure far away from home. I am happy to say it was one of the best decisions of my life.

Next, my junior year of college provided me with another choice in courage.

Many don’t know that I majored in Chinese Communist Ideology.

I’m sure you are thinking —-  and she was the Chair and CEO of  BET Networks?

I’ll just let that sink in for a moment.

This just goes to show that your college major doesn’t always predict where you’ll end up.

During my junior year, I had the desire to travel abroad and while most of my peers were going to Europe… I was thinking China.

But this was the 70s and China was still very close to citizens of the United States at that time.

MyAcademicDean then suggested… how about Southeast Asia?  I replied, “I’ll take it”!

I don’t know if this was crazy OR courageous, but I spent my semester abroad in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Of course, my parents weren’t thrilled, but I made this choice with confidence, for myself.

I remember I sold it to my parents by telling them that a semester in Southeast Asia was $200 less than a semester at Brown.

While there, I witnessed the historic fall of Vietnam and the end of the Vietnam war.

I will never forget the incredible time I spent there and all the life-changing experiences I had as a result.

Looking back I am confident that I made the right choice as unconventional as it was for this little black girl from North Carolina to live in Southeast Asia for 6 months.

This experience alone helped to change the trajectory of my life forever.

My next stop was Harvard Law School.

As crazy as it may sound – this didn’t really feel like a courageous move.

I was not even sure I wanted to go to Harvard Law.

A good number of my college classmates also went the law school route.

I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to be a lawyer, however, my father really wanted me to practice law.

Regardless, I put my head down and worked hard.

I also followed my interests and passion for politics and policy by enrolling in the Kennedy School of Government while at Harvard,  and I graduated with a dual degree in law and public policy.

After graduation, I settled in DC and I loved it!

At that time I did not want to work for the political party that occupied the White House. So I decided not to pursue my dreams as a policy wonk just yet, but instead wait it out.

I joined a cushy corporate law firm and here are two words that I use to describe my experience…. HATED IT.

Six years later — I was still waiting for a political party change in DC.

I’ll save that depressing story for another speech.

Now it was GO time.

It was time for me to take control of my future, step out of my comfort zone, take a risk and find a career that I truly loved.

The CEO of a small black-owned cable network, which was a client of my law firm, called and asked me to come start their legal department.

I know you guys are millennials and have NO idea about this… but cable was such a new thing at that time.

Washington, DC didn’t even have cable services.

No one really understood or believed in the concept that people would really pay for TV service.

Actually… I take that back. Not too many of you want to pay for it now!

I remember folks saying to me – cable had a few years tops and it would tank.

Obviously, they are eating their words now.

And of course, my father — who dreamed of me becoming a lawyer one day, could not understand why I would leave such a stable well-paying job for an industry NO ONEbelieved in or ever heard of.

It was in this moment — I had another choice:

Follow my heart to an unimaginable and hopefully exciting future — OR stay at a job that did not feed my soul.

I chose me — and I chose courage to fight through my fears.

So I left my cushy 200 person corporate law firm for this small black-owned cable network you all know today as BET, to be its ONE and ONLY lawyer.

I built a legal team and rose through the ranks of the company eventually being appointed its Chairman and CEO in 2005.

I’m happy to say that my Dad ended up being very proud of me.

All of this new responsibility meant that not only did I make the decisions — I was also the face of BET Networks.

BET is the nation’s leading provider of quality entertainment, music, news, and public affairs television programming for the African-American audience.

The primary BET channel reaches more than 100 million households and can be seen in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, France, and sub-Saharan Africa.

BET is also the dominant African-American consumer brand with a diverse group of business extensions like, the leading Internet destination for Black entertainment, music, culture, and news.

While at BET, I worked hard every day to make it number one while creating new experiences and content for our audience.

And believe you me; creating great content takes daily courage.

By embracing and fighting my fears,  I  had the courage to make tough choices as CEO, take great chances on ideas alone, and I have lived a life I never dreamed of.

And courage surrounds each of you daily. I know each of you have your own individual stories of courage and perseverance. When you have a moment think back over the times in your life when you have needed and exhibited courage.

Now I’m pretty sure that you all want to get those well-earned degrees in your hands.

Parents and Families, I know you are anxious to snap those photos and hug your loved ones — so let me give you the cliffs notes version on continuing to live your best courageous life.




A healthy dose of fear means you’re alive! And you are about to grow.

If it doesn’t scare you, it’s not worth doing.

Every job or opportunity you take should come with a little fear or nervousness.

Someone once told me if you don’t have butterflies in your stomach at times, you have stopped learning.

It should challenge you.

You’ve already made it through one of life’s many challenges – higher education and today you have conquered it.

No one can ever take that away from you. Remember that.



There is no courage without taking risks.

There is no roadmap in this life. No instruction manual.

You are the executive director, the president, COO, and CEO of your own life. You are it. You are the decision maker.

Without risk, there is no great reward.

Most importantly, you cannot expect something different in your life by doing the same thing over and over again. It just doesn’t work.

Continue to take risks!



It takes so much energy to be mean.

I’m sure if you think about it, you can remember just about every person that has been really mean to you so far in your life.

And I know that you will always remember the people who were kindest to you. Trust me, I remember both.

It doesn’t matter your experience, what school you have degrees from or how much influence you think you have …

Bad energy is never wanted, nor tolerated and kindness goes a very long way.

The great poet Maya Angelou wrote:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”




We can be so hard on ourselves and dwell on mistakes and missteps.

If you are mired down in what happened yesterday, you can’t prepare for tomorrow.

Yes, we must take a moment to reflect and then we must forge ahead.

I learned very quickly in business, people don’t dwell on what didn’t work, or didn’t happen.

You tried it, it failed, now move on. Have you ever heard of a write-off?

So when YOU do make a mistake — and you will many times… learn from it, but shake it off.

As my friend Kendrick Lamar says… Sit down, be humble.

Sometimes mistakes happen to slow us down to learn a lesson.

But the key is to move on! Humbly.



Only what is good will last.

As you establish yourself in your career, figure out how you can affect change.

How will you give back to the institution that has given you this education and opportunity?

Will you mentor? Will you tell your story courageously to inspire someone else?

Will you take the skills you’ve learned and organized your community?

Will you teach? Run for office? I hope so!

At least be sure to vote!

Only what is good will last.

And if we hold that close, it doesn’t matter what you end up doing as long as you find a way to do good.

Because as you can see now more than ever — we are all interconnected to each other in so many ways that we are just starting to appreciate and realize.

We are connected locally, nationally and globally.

And in understanding that, it has been my honor to connect people of color around the world —  and the lovers of black culture.

We all know that we are living in some very strange times.

And in a moment when we are faced with so many divisions from economic, religious, racial, gender and even affordable health care —  I could go on and on….

The world is counting on a courageous few – just like you!

We must remember that regardless of what we are faced with our courage is the light that shines brightest in the midst of darkness.

Because you see, you can’t really be courageous without HOPE.

No matter what — keep the hope that you have for your future today close.

Never lose it and share it with the world every chance you get.

I know that each and every one of you here today are some of the brightest and most creative minds the world has seen.

You are the leaders of the future.

So today, TRULY commit to face difficulty, danger, and even pain.

They are all facts of life.

Fight through your fears — and no matter what, live courageously.

Winston S. Churchill once said:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Congratulations to the Prairie View A & M University Class of 2018!

And remember always in life, be courageous.

Thank you and good luck to all of you!