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5 Business Lessons From The First Black Female Harvard MBA Graduate

Lillian Lincoln Lambert made history as the first Black woman to earn a Harvard MBA—here are five key business lessons from the groundbreaking entrepreneur

Thu Mar 7 2024

Lillian Lincoln Lambert graduated from Harvard Business School (HBS) in 1969, just six years after Harvard first opened its doors to women. One of six Black students and 18 women in a class of 800, Lillian was unaware that she was the first Black woman to pursue a Harvard MBA.

Raised on a farm in Virginia without electricity until the age of eight, by 2001 Lillian had built and sold a company worth $20 million, known as Centennial One.

Through insights into her unique journey as an entrepreneur and business coach, here are five lessons we can learn from Lillian’s inspirational story.

1. Mentorship matters at business school

Establishing a supportive network is crucial for a successful career in business—perhaps even more so as the first Black woman in many spaces.

While Lillian was an undergraduate student at Howard University, marketing professor H. Naylor Fitzhugh—one of the first Black graduates of HBS—encouraged her to pursue an MBA. 

Going on to become a coach for business executives, a trusted mentor can recognize qualities you may not identify in yourself.

“You’ll find plenty of people who tell you that you can’t do it. Seek advice from people you trust and respect,” Lillian advised in an interview with Babson College.

At business school, networking is an essential part of finding impactful mentorship. As one of the founders of the African American Student Union at Harvard in 1968, Lillian’s work increased Black recruitment from six to 27 within just one year and has continued to provide resources and support for students over 50 years later. 

2. Be persistent

While being a pioneer among Harvard MBA graduates is a significant milestone, being a Black woman in business in the 1960s presented many challenges.

“In that era of the emerging civil rights and women’s movement, no companies knew what to do with me,” she said in her memoir ‘The Road to Someplace Better: From the Segregated South to Harvard Business School and Beyond’.

Founding her own building maintenance company in 1976, Lillian faced various hurdles. While balancing family life with two young children, Lillian was fired from her job for her entrepreneurship and rejected from a contracting program for minority business owners—named 8(a)—because they could not guarantee secure contracts for her. 

Demonstrating her ability to land contracts independently, Lillian was accepted on to the program, and Centennial One was off the ground within five months.

Soft skills such as persistence are strategic advantages to success, which business schools are increasingly teaching in MBA courses.

3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Everyone strives for success, so how can embracing mistakes help you get there?

Confronting setbacks head-on and rejecting a fear of failure is not only beneficial for your MBA application but at every stage of your career. 

Lillian made history at Harvard, but a low GMAT score in her application almost prevented this. Studying hard paid off eventually, and Lillian was accepted in her next application in 1967.

Her advice to women in male-dominated industries is not to be intimidated by others, no matter their position or intelligence.

“Women need to not be afraid to step out and allow themselves to make mistakes,” said Lillian in an interview with Forbes.

4. Leverage entrepreneurship as a tool for empowerment

Factors such as diversity and inclusion are increasingly valued in the business landscape, so using entrepreneurship as a catalyst for social change is more important than ever.

Within her company, Lillian’s investment in training programs that support women progressing into higher-level management roles demonstrates an initiative that both drives revenue and brings society one step closer to gender parity. 

On a larger scale, Lillian testified before Congress together with other female entrepreneurs to help pass the Women’s Business Ownership Act. This act, made law in October 1988, established programs to support female entrepreneurs and addressed discriminatory practices that favored male business owners.

5. Never stop learning

An MBA offers a well-rounded business education, but in a rapidly evolving economic and political climate, continuous learning is key to staying ahead. 

Describing success as a continuous journey and not a destination, Lillian encourages young entrepreneurs to adopt a growth mindset and recognize value in every professional experience. 

On her time as a maid in New York City, the exposure to a completely different lifestyle from that which she grew up with marked a shift in her professional ambitions. Likewise, working as executive vice president of a small company after her HBS MBA shaped her approach to entrepreneurship.

“That experience was instrumental in the success of my business because I learned so much on that job—I learned what to do and what not to do,” she said

There is still a long way to go to achieve gender parity in business, but learning from inspirational business leaders such as Lillian can help us take concrete steps towards lasting change.