JMU Alumni are the Heart and Soul of BET
For 20 years, Black Entertainment Television has reigned as the first -- and until just recently the only -- black-owned media enterprise that targets black consumers. Based in Northeast Washington, D.C., and founded by Robert Johnson, the $200 million-a-year media giant's programs range from movie, jazz and pay-per-view cable channels to magazine publishing to its digital BET.com. It has even branched out into dining with a series of clubs and restaurants located around the country.
In recent years, a handful of JMU alumni have been at the center of the network's broad scope and success, which now reaches more than 55 million cable households.
Some, like Francine Tolliver ('91) and Mocha Lee ('92), find themselves center stage with their own cable shows, while others are less visible but critical to the superstructure of BET's sprawling enterprises. They are Corporate Communications Director Wes Mallette ('93), BET.com Director of Administration Vonya Alleyne ('93), Lamont Wright ('91-'93) and Nikki Black ('90).
In her ninth year at BET, Tolliver ('91) has been co-host of BET's Saturday morning, socially conscious program, Teen Summit for the last four years. She also produces the show and has worked behind the scenes on others.
"It's hard to switch hats," she says, "but to be the talent and know all the aspects of the show is a plus."
She prides herself on shaping a show that zeroes in on issues important to teenagers.
"We always go back to communication and peer pressure, being able to communicate feelings and thoughts," she says, "and to deal with peer pressure."
One of her recent programs dealt with the controversial but never-ending story of sexual politics among teens.
"It was a he-said she-said kind of thing," Tolliver says. "The girls against the guys, and the issue comes down to communicating: Who's responsible for providing protection, who puts out more information, who's the aggressor? It's all about kids and the peer pressure they deal with."
Especially with a teen audience, Tolliver feels celebrity guests with something to offer are crucial to her show. Her work
has enabled her to meet such legends as journalist Bryant Gumbel, actor Denzel Washington and poet Maya Angelou.
"It helps drive home the points you're trying to make when you have teenagers seeing the issues, and celebrities can get the dialogue started," says Tolliver.
Tolliver's own prominence brought her to the attention of author Julian C.R. Okwu,
who included her in his book, As I Am: Young African-American Women in a Critical Age (Chronicle Books, 1999.)
Explaining his criteria for selecting his book subjects to interviewer Diane Kwan, the author said, "They are successful on another level other than their resume. They were people who were able to forget that some of the obstacles and adversities in their lives had crushed many people before them," Okwu said. "At the same time, they were people who remembered that strength can come from those adversities, and that, in fact, you can propel yourself forward by facing some of the same obstacles. It was that balancing act that people were able to do, and I think they should be praised for that."
Her own youthful road was not easy, but Tolliver looks back on it with realistic humor. The mass communication and marketing major interned for two semesters in her junior and senior years at WHSV TV3.
"Not many African-Americans had interned for TV3 and it was difficult because I dealt with a lot of racism, covert and overt," Tolliver says. "I didn't know how to deal with it other than to be angry. I couldn't look at it and think they don't know any better."
Tolliver says she was usually given what an assignment editor would call "a black story," stories seemingly relevant only to African-Americans. One incident, however, sticks out in her mind.
"I was in the studio for a live show, running the teleprompter, setting up the camera, loading copy on the prompter, and the anchor at the time said, 'You do a good job, you must have been a slave in your past life,'" says Tolliver with more matter-of-factness than bitterness. "It was those kinds of things."
Mocha Lee ('92), co-host of BET's popular Sunday morning physical fitness show, Heart and Soul, encourages viewers to pursue fitness in their own way, and recent subjects have included the prevalence of heart disease among African-Americans and gospel aerobics. Lee's celebrity has led to public appearances such as a recent Leukemia Walk-a-Thon at Washington's Union Station.
Known as Felecia DeBerry at JMU, Lee graduated with a B.B.A. in business management and a minor in public relations.
"I was into the jock scene, running track, but I definitely have a major that's corporate," says Lee. I thought I would be an athlete, while I was being a professional and putting on a suit. Then I got a job in the insurance industry and realized that that was not my cup of tea either."
She landed at BET via Wesley Mallette ('92), BET's corporate
communications director. He wanted Lee to run in a Corporate Sports
Battle among D.C. area firms. Mallette said Lee's fitness, beauty and
enthusiasm prompted BET folks to ask her to audition for a
What has helped her succeed in the show, Lee says, is that in celebrity interviews she brings the subject of fitness around to the fore. She also believes her JMU business courses helped her career in entertainment.
"I am an entrepreneur," she says. "I am my own product, I do the follow-ups, I show up on time, I'm organized."
She remembers professors such as Kent Zimmerman who mentored her. "He was very significant in the learning process; he had a creative management type class where he helped you think outside of the box, you know what I mean?"
While Tolliver and Lee are in the public eye, Corporate Communications Director Wesley Mallette makes sure they and all of BET's divisions and subsidiaries remain so. A consummate professional, Mallette crisscrosses the country staging media events and grand openings, never more than a page away from media and press inquiries and emergencies. His voice mail is always full, and he often lives out of a suitcase.
"You're always seeing, hearing or reading about the BET network," Mallette says. "That's been our charge. We've accomplished that. From the smallest newspaper to 60 Minutes, Fox Morning News, CNBC, BET stories are everywhere."
In between that breathless activity, however, Mallette has also accomplished the more strategic work of revamping and re-building BET's corporate communications and media relations efforts.
His portfolio includes media relations, special events, promotions, crisis communications, community relations, public affairs, corporate affairs, strategic planning and development.
"It's an incredible experience to be able to help direct and lead a team that has generated more publicity and media coverage in the last four years than in all of BET's previous 16," he says. "That has meant proving the value of PR and what it means to a company. I've been able to show the positive effects and impact of professional PR practitioners to the programming group, the producers and talent, the executives, and to top brass."
Mallette speaks with the confidence that comes from success. "I've had the opportunity to make history every day," he says, "working with different shows, launching new enterprises and subsidiaries." He counts among his top achievements the opening of the Soundstage Club in Orlando, the Soundstage Restaurant in Largo, Md., and the BET Movie Channel, three of the most successful entertainment efforts in BET's history.
The New Jersey native played football and ran track for JMU. He looks back happily on the football playoffs during his senior year.
"These guys are friends I will keep for life," says Mallette. "At the end of the day, no one cares what your stats are, what games you won or that you were a superstar. It's what you do for the team as a whole."
"The one thing [JMU public relations professor] Mae Frantz as well as others stressed to me was the importance of interning," says Mallette. "And the JMU alumni, we watch out for each other, too. When I get a resume from a JMU student -- I got one recently from someone who's young but she wants to go from the sports industry to entertainment -- as soon I saw that person was from JMU, that stood out like, 'Boom!'"
Recruited heavily for the last few years, Mallette finally said goodbye to BET and will continue his marketing and media relations efforts for the parent company of Victoria's Secret, in Columbus, Ohio.
"After four years at BET, it's time to move on and pass the torch," he says. "It's time for bigger and newer challenges."
JMU alumni he leaves behind at BET include Vonya Alleyne ('93), director of administration at BET.com, who oversees employee well-being and accountability. She is in charge of corporate administration, employee relations and marketing, including recruiting, appraisals, compensation, physical facilities, where abstract concepts like ergononomics become practical considerations for her.
"There are things you would never think about, like what the shape of a chair or a mousepad should be to accommodate an employee who on average works with them for 12 to 14 hours a day."
Alleyne has settled right into BET's digital enterprise. "E-commerce is very fast," she says. "You learn a lot, quickly. And my work here is multidimensional. My background is human resources, and [at the BET network] I had to learn facilities and corporate administration. It is huge. I was in charge of working with construction contractors and real estate brokers to get our office space built out.
"In e-commerce, just from a technical perspective, there is so much you can do to outfit employees. There's graphics, coding, the whole gamut of communication from two-way pagers and cell phones. It's so quick and mobile. All our departments here move at the speed of sound."
At JMU the marketing major was active in the Black Student Alliance, Contemporary Gospel Singers and Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity. She still keeps in touch with COB professor Joyce Guthrie.
"My junior year was my best year," Alleyne
says. "I was team manager for
After graduating from JMU she spent 5 1/2 years with Pizza Hut, rising steadily from an assistant store manager to a human resources manager supporting 120 restaurants, traveling, conducting EEO investigations and so was primed to become part of BET's fast-moving corporate culture.
"I've had a lot of good mentors and training, and I've formed lasting partnerships," adds Alleyne.
The same goes for her JMU associations. "There are a fair amount of us from JMU in this area who keep in touch." She and her former suitemates "have quarterly girls' nights-out. We've been in each other's weddings. We're a small close-knit group. We will always have this connection."
Nikki Black ('90), who graduated with a degree in psychology, went on to receive her master's in social work at Howard University. She has appeared on Teen Summit for three years, where she serves as a sort of teen-focused "Dear Abby," answering phone and Internet questions from young listeners. She also has appeared on Fox Morning News and in several magazines.
Lamont Wright attended JMU from 1991 to 1993, which "played a big part in finding who I was," he says. At BET, Wright started out as a receptionist, "which helped me get my foot in the door," he adds.
Wright has modeled a new line of BET clothing. His full-time job at the network is overseeing the paperwork, such as royalties regarding musicians who play on the network. That comes in handy since he's a member of the hip hop group, Buffalo Soul.
Whether in front of the camera or behind the scenes, the presence of these JMU alumni has contributed to the success of BET, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. And it bodes well for continued success as BET continues to catch fire well into the 21st century.
Story by Patrick Butters ('83)