MLK Day Speaker Recounts Her Path as an African-American Business Owner

January 21, 2014

As a girl growing up on a farm in a small town in Virginia, Lillian Lincoln Lambert had little notion that she would one day go to college, let alone go on to graduate school and become the first African-American woman to earn the prestigious Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School. Ms. Lambert, who is now retired from the world of business, shared lessons from her lifetime Monday as the guest speaker for the Martin Luther King, Jr., ceremony at University Campus.

Ms. Lambert emphasized the importance of education and mentors to her audience. She recalled that as a teen, she resisted college, thinking her high school diploma and good typing skills would lead her to the life of her dreams. When dead-end jobs were all she could find, she finally asked for the help she needed to locate the scholarships and loans required to allow her to enroll¬—at age 22—at Howard University in Washington, D.C., to study business. A faculty mentor there encouraged her to press on and apply to Harvard Business School. She was accepted on her second attempt.

When she enrolled in 1967, she was 27, and did not realize she was the first African-American woman to be admitted. The population of African-American male students enrolled was still small. The students of color met for mutual support, and also asked for the support of the dean in enrolling more African-Americans. The students felt that with the expansion of civil rights, America would need more top managers who would be able to manage diversity in workplaces. The dean actually asked the students to assist by recruiting more undergraduates from their various alma maters to Harvard. The dean, in turn, agreed to raise money for scholarships.

But also during that time of progress at Harvard Business School, she related, came the crushing news in April 1968 that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. She was still in her first year (of two) at business school, and recalled the day she went back to her dorm room especially tired, and decided to take a nap. Right after she awoke at 7 p.m., she heard the the news on her radio that the civil rights leader had been slain. She had lost her father only months before, and the added news of Dr. King’s death was a terrible blow. She didn’t leave her room that evening, as she could think of no one with whom she could discuss the terrible news.

The following year, she and colleagues formed an African-American student’s union for mutual support. And she has learned to take opportunities to talk about civil and human rights throughout the years. “We’re all called upon to the keep the dream alive everyday,” she said, referring to Dr. King’s famous speech, “I Have a Dream.”

Staying resilient is also important in pursuit of one’s personal goals, she emphasized. Her career trajectory provided an example. Even after she graduated from Harvard Business School, equipped with the confidence that education instilled in her, Ms. Lambert said she didn’t find the optimal career path for six more years, when she became an entrepreneur. She started a building maintenance company in her garage, and the company eventually grew to employ 1,200 people. She also wrote a memoir, The Road to Someplace Better: From the Segregated South to Harvard Business School and Beyond.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Day at University Campus also featured a late-afternoon gathering of students for readings of poetry and prose fitting for the remembrance holiday. Participating students gathered around the outdoor sculpture A Spirit of Belonging, which was dedicated on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, 2013, and which commemorates racial integration at Saint Leo in 1898.

Earlier in the day, children from the neighboring community were invited to a free outdoor fair with play areas, food, and table displays with arts, crafts, science demonstrations, and other attractions.