The Story of the First Black Woman to Earn a Harvard MBA
In 1969, Lillian Lincoln Lambert made history as the first Black woman to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School. In those days, Lambert didn’t even know she was making history. She applied to HBS seemingly as an afterthought—from the recommendation of her Howard University undergraduate professor, H. Naylor Fitzhugh, who was one of the first Black men to graduate from Harvard Business School.
In her interview with Forbes, Lambert illustrates her life and how she’s since paved the way for future generations of underrepresented communities.
“I had no idea what to expect when I got there [Harvard],” Lambert tells Forbes. “That first day, I was the first person to get to the dorm. I got there early and was greeted by this older lady who told me, ‘The dorm isn’t ready. Won’t be ready for a couple of hours. You can put your bags here and go sit in the park.’ So that’s what I did. While sitting there, I was thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ I just wanted to go back, get my suitcase and go back home. I didn’t want to be there. But then I started thinking about all the people that supported me to get there. I had been excited about being there. They were excited about me being there. Something said. ‘You’ve got a responsibility to stay here and see this through.’ So I went back to the dorm and checked in.”
ONE OF ONLY NINE BLACK STUDENTS
When Lambert arrived at Harvard in 1967, she was one of only nine Black students.
“At the time, Harvard broke the 800 students into sections, with no more than two women in each section,” Lambert says in an interview with Sarasota.” And there were no Black students together. It took a while before I met the others. One was Roy Willis, a graduate of the University of Virginia where he experienced racism and a lack of Black students, as well. He thought that Harvard would be different, but he noted that there really was no difference.”
Willis and Lambert would go on to start Harvard’s African American Student Union, a space where Black students could meet and share resources—a school-sanctioned club that still exists today.
“We met with the business school’s dean, George Baker,” Lambert says. “We didn’t know if he would be receptive or kick us out, but we thought that it was worth a chance. Dean Baker was a big, overpowering guy who stood more than six feet tall. In his office, he had a big oval table instead of desk, where we sat. He was attentive and listened to everything we said. By the time we left, the school agreed to send us to each of our former universities to recruit Black students. And he promised to go to corporations for scholarship money. He delivered on his end, and we delivered on ours.”
In the year after Lambert and her fellow Black students met with Dean Baker, Harvard’s Black student enrollment increased to 27 students. And while Lambert had laid the foundation for future generations, she also felt very drained after her two years on campus.
“What’s interesting is that when I left the campus in 1969, I promised myself that I’d never set foot on the university grounds again,” she says. “Those two years were difficult and lonely; I did not enjoy my time there. Yet, again, Prof. Fitzhugh intervened. He reminded me that it was my responsibility to support the Black students who came behind me. I knew he was right, and I did. I got so much out of it the more I became involved.”
After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1969, Lambert transitioned through six different jobs before, ultimately, working in the building maintenance industry.
“Over time, I found that there were very few women in the industry,” Lambert says. “It was mostly white men. The women did the cleaning, the men ran the companies.”
After working for a couple years, Lambert went on to start her own building maintenance company, Centennial One, a $20 million enterprise that operated across six states with more than 1,200 employees with services such as cleaning and landscaping. Lambert successfully sold the company after 25 years.
Nowadays, Lambert is retired and takes speaking engagements telling her story—one that she hopes will inspire women, like her, to write their own history.
“Women need to not be afraid to step out and allow themselves to make mistakes,” Lambert says. “Don’t be intimidated by men or people that think they’re smarter than you. Most of the time, they’re not as smart as they think they are.”