FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A standing room-only crowd greeted entrepreneur Lillian Lincoln Lambert, the first African-American woman to earn a Harvard M.B.A., as she arrived at the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship to speak about her road from the farm to self-made businesswoman.
Lambert founded and grew the building services company, Centennial One, and author of the 2010 book, The Road to Someplace Better: From the Segregated South to Harvard Business School and Beyond. She is the first African-American woman to receive a Harvard Business School MBA during the tumultuous 1960’s, and then became a barrier-breaking entrepreneur in the mid 1970’s.
Born on a farm in the segregated South, at age 18, Lambert journeyed to New York City and Washington, D.C., holding menial jobs as a maid and typist. Realizing that education was fundamental, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Howard University and took the advice of one of her professors and applied to Harvard.
Lambert is a fervent proponent of education, saying that “If you get it in your head, no one can take it out. I went from growing up in a town of 200 to living in New York City, where I was working in buildings that had that many people in them,” she recounted. “The opportunities were endless, but it was hard to make enough money.” Making note that “while working at Macy’s for $45 a week, I was never able to afford a second pair of shoes.”
She told the story of a professor at Brown who took an interest and planted the “seed” in her head that she should go to graduate school, and also planted the idea of a Harvard education in her head. “Harvard rejected my initial application and I thought, ‘the nerve of them!’ So, I re-took the GMAT and applied again, and I got in.” Lambert didn’t know at the time that she was the only Black woman to be accepted into Harvard Business for an M.B.A. “I didn’t go to make history, I went to make a better life for myself.”
As Lambert became more aware of the absence of African-Americans on campus, she asked the dean why there weren’t more Black students, and he replied “we don’t know where to find them.” And so, she worked with fellow students to recruit more African-American students and the dean worked to raise scholarship money from corporations. The next year’s class increased from six to 27 Black students, and there was an African-American student union for support.
Asked about her experience with racism at Harvard, she recalled that “There was always an undercurrent of racism, but then again people thought women shouldn’t be there – much less Black women. It was there; I knew it was there, I dealt with it.”
Lambert was one of six black students and one of 18 females in a class of 800 students at Harvard Business School at that time. In 1969, in the midst of civil and women’s rights movements, Lambert earned her M.B.A. and achieved the historical milestone as the first African-American woman to receive a Harvard M.B.A.
Lambert founded a building maintenance company in her garage on just a few thousand dollars. She grew the company to more than $20 million in revenues with 1,200 employees and operations in four states. Clients included blue-chip companies such as Dulles Airport, ABC News and Hewlett-Packard. Reflecting on her earlier days as a maid, Lambert notes, “Owning the mop is better than pushing the mop.”
Currently she devotes her time to speaking, writing and coaching. Clients include the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, UBS Financial Services, Freddie Mac, and other corporate, government and educational institutions. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including:
- Enterprising Women Hall of Fame inductee
- M.B.A. of the Year, Harvard Business School African-American Alumni Association
- Small Business Person of the Year, State of Maryland
- Entrepreneur of the Year, Black M.B.A. Association
- Top 50 Women-Owned Businesses, Washington Business Journal.
About Nova Southeastern University: Located in Davie, Florida, Nova Southeastern University (NSU) is a dynamic fully accredited Florida University dedicated to providing high-quality educational programs of distinction from preschool through the professional and doctoral levels. NSU has more than 28,000 students and is the eighth largest not-for-profit independent institution nationally. The University awards associate’s, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, specialist, and first-professional degrees in a wide range of fields, including business, counseling, computer and information sciences, education, medicine, optometry, pharmacy, dentistry, various health professions, law, marine sciences, early childhood, psychology and other social sciences. Classified as a research university with “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, NSU was also awarded Carnegie’s Community Engagement Classification in 2010 for the University’s significant commitment to and demonstration of community engagement. For more information about NSU visit www.nova.edu.
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Brandon Hensler, APR, NSU Office of Public Affairs
office (954) 262-5385, cell (954) 393-5926, or e-mail: email@example.com