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Diversity and Inclusion

Women You Should Know: Harvard’s First African-American Woman MBA

Strong, successful women of color are everywhere – just look around you. Oprah Winfrey, actress and entrepreneur (see her stunning speech at the Golden Globes ceremony in January about gender and racial equality for inspiration); Michelle Obama, attorney and former First Lady who made children’s health and girls’ empowerment her signature issues; and the female mathematicians depicted in the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures, a true story of their remarkable contributions to NASA in the 1960s amid formidable prejudice – all are inspiring African-American women leaders.

Black women have also made names for themselves in the business world. Women like Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox and the first African-American woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and Rosalind Brewer, former CEO and President of Sam’s Club and current COO at Starbucks, are recent trailblazers for African-American women in business.

But what about the black women who preceded them? In honor of Black History Month in February, meet an extraordinary woman who achieved a major milestone for women in business despite the obstacles imposed by society at the time.

Lillian Lincoln Lambert: The first African-American woman with a Harvard MBA

Women today are still a minority in MBA programs, but that is changing as more women fill the ranks at top business schools. This disparity was even more pronounced in the 1960s. After getting an BA at Howard University, Lillian Lincoln Lambert – who grew up on a Virginia farm during racial segregation – wanted to pursue further education. After a Howard professor told her she was “Harvard material,” she applied to Harvard Business School (HBS) but was rejected.

Before the days of pre-MBA resources such as GMAT prep classes and the Forté Foundation, Lillian did not know how to prepare for her application. Down but not out, she found out why she was not accepted and prepared more thoroughly for her second application, and this time she got in.

When she arrived at HBS in 1967, Lillian was just one of nine African-American students and the only female. HBS was not set up to accommodate female students so Lillian lived on the Radcliffe College campus and walked half-a-mile to the business school to attend classes. In 1969, she became the first black woman to graduate with an MBA from HBS.

After getting her MBA, Lillian became an entrepreneur – launching a building contracting services business in a male-dominated industry that grew to become a $20 million operation with 1,200 employees. Lillian sold the business after 20 years and is now an author and speaker. In 2003, Harvard Business School awarded her its most prestigious alumni honor – the Alumni Achievement Award.

When asked her advice for young entrepreneurs, Lillian offered these tips:

Know that you will be knocked down from time to time, but be willing to get up and try again.

Look at failures as a learning experience; sometimes success comes after a failure, or after more than one failure.

Don’t be discouraged by those who say you can’t do something or should not do something.

If one door closes for you, open another one.

Don’t be overly concerned about what others think of you.

Surround yourself with positive people who will be there to support you.

Don’t be reluctant to ask for help. It is a sign of strength; not weakness.

Take calculated risks.

This is timeless advice from a groundbreaking woman in business who carved a path for the young women who have followed in her footsteps.

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