She went from nearby Powhatan County to Harvard Business School, but she still remembers lessons from home
by Cesca Janece Watefield | Twitter @cescasings
As a child, Lillian Lincoln Lambert wasn’t convinced of the value of chores on the Powhatan County farm where she grew up. “I certainly thought it was not the greatest place,” she remembers.
But as she made her way from Howard University to later become the first woman to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School, she realized that the values and fortitude she’d developed there were among her greatest gifts.
“Some of the things my parents instilled in me at that time were things that I saw more value in as an adult: the training, the work ethic.” After earning her MBA, Lillian would eventually establish her own company, Centennial One, a building maintenance company, which she ran for 25 years. In 2003, Harvard awarded her with the Alumni Achievement Award. Last March, Enterprise Women Magazine inducted her into their Hall of Fame. On March 24, Lillian will be honored at the Library of Virginia as one of 2011’s Women in History along with seven other women past and present. Today Lillian keeps busy with speaking engagements and as a consultant to small businesses. Lillian spoke to Urban Views Weekly from Florida, where she spends winters. www.lillianlincolnlambert.com
Her First Job
“I didn’t have people around me who were business owners or who had gone to college. To me, a job as a secretary seemed like a fairly good job. When I moved to New York City, I had this great ambition – I guess I thought New York was waiting for me- my goal was to get a job as a secretary. But I couldn’t find one and I took a job working as a maid in a private home for a family. That was my first job.”
“When I left New York and moved to Washington D.C., I still couldn’t get a decent job, although I got a clerical job in the federal government. It still wasn’t what I wanted. I wasn’t making money. I was living with a family and I began to socialize with college students and began to see that education was maybe what I needed. My mom had tried to tell me that but since there was no money to send me to school, I think I used that as an excuse for not going. I did not put forth effort to find the money to go to college. So I started going to school at night, but that was taking too long. I then decided to talk to one of my cousins who had gone to school and who was always on my case about going back. He helped me find scholarships and loans. The people that I knew were going to Howard and I thought that would be a good place to go.”
Harvard Business School
“They didn’t let women into the business school until 1963. When I arrived there, women could not live in the dorm. We had to live in a graduate dorm about a half a mile or more from the school. The workload was very difficult and very demanding. That was another thing to discourage me. I didn’t know anybody in Cambridge or Boston. I was the only black woman in a school. There were eight black guys and 35 women, I believe. So I didn’t have a social setting that was encouraging. That was two unpleasant years. People ask, ‘Did you enjoy it?’ No, I did not. But I had a mission and that is the reason that I stayed there. I see those qualities of persistence and resilience playing out during my two years at Harvard.”
Running Her Business
“There were times when I let it be known, ‘I know how to run this business. After all, I do have an MBA from Harvard.’ I didn’t throw it around, but there were times that I let that information be known. I don’t know whether most of my challenges were based on race or on sex. I encountered both and sometimes I couldn’t tell which one was playing.”
The Time Is Now
“It doesn’t matter whether you bloom late or whether you bloom early as long as you bloom [laughs]. If you want to do it, you just find a way to make it happen. We spend a lot of time finding excuses.”
“Be confident in what you bring. We bring more to the table than we give ourselves credit for. You don’t have to act like a man to play in a man’s world. A lot of times women felt like they had to act like a man. I say we have some unique qualities. Be yourself and draw on your strength. Prepare yourself, but of course, we have to be confident.”
Find Your Balance
“I think a lot of women are still wrestling with this issue – balance between family and work. My advice is each woman should find what works best for her and the people affected by the decision and not be swayed by what other people think she should do. Whatever decision she makes, there are going to be people who question her decision. Don’t feel guilty about the decision that you have made that impacts your family and your personal life.”
Lillian’s 6 Steps to Success
• Persistence: “I just don’t give up on things that I really want to do.
• Resilience: “Being able to bounce back when things don’t go well and being able to change your focus. Not being rigid so that once you set your mind in one direction that you don’t look at other options.”
• Courage: “Being willing to do something that makes you daring; getting out of your comfort zone and taking calculated risks.”
• Morality: Establishing values in your life and being sure that you can live with yourself based on the things that you do.”
• Faith: “There are times that belief in the spirit is the only thing you have to fall back
• Confidence: “You know yourself better than anyone. You know your strengths and you know your weaknesses.
Lillian’s 3 C’s
“Competent, confident and comfortable. There’s no short cut for education and you’ve got to do that. Then you’ve got to be confident. And then you’ve got to be in an environment where you’re comfortable.”