Story by Teena Apeles. Photo by Conan Thai.
Overseeing more than 150 television, film, new media and original entertainment partnerships for YouTube is no small feat, especially when they involve striking deals with networks as big as NBC Universal, as cutting edge as Vice, and as treasured as the Discovery Networks. Welcome to Laura Lee’s world. As head of YouTube’s Entertainment East Partnerships since 2007, 38-year-old Lee is the highest-ranking Asian American woman at YouTube and is one of the highest-ranking Asian American female executives across all of Google. And, she will tell you, her job is certainly no cakewalk, but it is thrilling.
“No day is typical for me,” says the New York-based Lee by phone, whose territory includes the East Coast and all of Canada. Not only does she work with TV networks, she also advises top magazine publishers, like Time, Inc. (Time, Sports Illustrated, People) and Condé Nast (Vogue, Vanity Fair), on what kinds of video to produce for their channels.
One day Lee could be meeting with Jimmy Fallon and his production team, brainstorming about how to expand his YouTube audience en route to becoming the king of late night. (She notes that his channel hit a million subscribers recently.) Another day she could be working on an initiative like Ignite New York (ignitenyc.org), which Lee and her team conceived to make sure that all local creators — whether in news, music, education or sports — understand how to fully utilize YouTube. As a native New Yorker, she is particularly passionate about this project. “What we are trying to do with Ignite is not just for film or TV, but for any kind of creator … to let them know that through YouTube they have a platform to become a global brand.”
Lee says that one rewarding aspect of her job is helping a brand “give birth” on YouTube and then charting “their progress to adolescence.” Lee points to the hipster magazine Vice as an especially inspiring success story, which went from print to a “multiplatform creative juggernaut.”
“Some brands have made the transition effortlessly, but some of them, they need a little bit more handholding. But that is part of what I do,” says Lee. “It is really talking to all these different brands and making sure that we are getting the best of their creativity [so] that we can broadcast that to the world.”
A quick review of her enviable résumé reveals that Lee is good at getting original content to the masses. She was vice president of business development and operations at MTV, has produced an original series for VH-1, and oversaw the development of sports projects at Spike. The interesting thing is, Lee first started her career as an investment banker — while spending nights performing at nightclubs with her R&B group.
“I think that I always walked that fine line between being the subdued Asian daughter, but on the other hand wanting to make sure that I always engaged and nurtured my passion,” she explains. “My problem was, do I really take the big leap and try to do the singing thing 100 percent, or do I go to business school? And my parents said, ‘You are going to business school.’”
Lee did finish business school, albeit without a job because she couldn’t let go of her desire for a more creative endeavor. But look at her today. No longer the “subdued Asian girl,” Lee says that not a lot of people expect to encounter an assertive Asian female in the workplace. It’s something Lee and her Asian American friends in the industry are quite cognizant of. “We joke around about that bamboo ceiling and that we are experiencing breakthroughs,” she says. “But we would like to see more, and we hope that it is our generation that does it.
“Each company has a different rhythm,” she continues, “and to be successful in any company you have to be able to adapt and fall into that rhythm, hopefully without sacrificing your own personal style,” she says. Indeed, Lee went from wearing torn jeans at her first YouTube meeting (someone commented that she looked like a kid), to more grownup attire. “I love wearing dresses, and I love wearing heels,” she says. “I just feel more confident.”
So how many hours in a “no day is typical” workday does it take to break that bamboo ceiling and become the highest- ranking Asian American woman at YouTube? “I don’t want to scare people,” says Lee, laughing. “The honest answer is that I am a work in progress.”
This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 Issue. Get your copy here.