Success Tips From Harvard’s First African-American Female MBA

By Lillian Lambert

A few years ago, I spoke at a conference of the African American Student Union, Harvard University. During the question and answer session a young man asked: “Why would someone with a Harvard MBA choose to go into the janitorial business instead of a more sophisticated profession?”

After taking a deep breath I responded. “I admit there is nothing glamorous about my industry. You’re right, it is not an industry where you will find many MBAs, much less a Harvard MBA. But I’ll let you in on a secret: It’s better to own the mop than to push the mop.”

As youngsters, many future entrepreneurs have vivid dreams of being business owners. They envision their product or service and sometimes try their hands as entrepreneurs by creating childish items to sell.

Such was not the case for me. Growing up in a sleepy farming village in Virginia, I never dreamed of being an entrepreneur. Everyone I knew worked for someone else. My unexpected entry into the world of entrepreneurship happened years later, after graduate school.

Getting my MBA from Harvard Business School, I anticipated becoming a corporate executive. Little did I know that corporate America was not breathlessly awaiting the arrival of a young black woman with a Harvard MBA, even if she was the first black woman to get such a degree. Not one corporation recruited me, and I did not rush to seek them out. During the six years after graduation, I held four jobs. From time to time I wondered, “When will I get to use this MBA?”

We never know who is watching our performance. An associate who worked under my supervision on my first job at a small consulting firm was the person who initiated my entry into the world of entrepreneurship. Though we had not maintained regular contact, she remembered my performance and one day she called me. I clearly remember her words. “Lillian, my dad has a janitorial firm and he has lots of problems. I told him he needed to hire you as a consultant because you could help him.”

I knew nothing about the janitorial industry and wasn’t sure I was interested in learning. However, I agreed to a meeting.

That initial meeting sparked a genuine interest in this industry. The owner, a confident, cigar-smoking retired lieutenant colonel had built a $3 million dollar business and had only a high school education. He was one of the greatest marketing persons I have ever known, but it was clear that he was at a disadvantage when handling the day-to-day operations. That’s where I came in.

After a couple months of consulting, he offered me the position of executive vice president, a position I held for three years before starting my own company.

I had many hurdles to overcome as a startup. My MBA prepared me for many of the “how to’s” of running a business. The most valuable lessons, however, were things I have identified as my “Guiding Principles”. These are just a few.

1. A moral compass is essential. Clearly define your values and commit to live by them. Never compromise yourself or your values but maintain the highest standards of excellence and integrity. We all face temptations. I was once offered a sizable contract but turned it down when told I had to pay a kickback.

2. You can’t have it all. Life is about setting priorities and making choices. The choices you make will be based on your value system. For years women have faced this challenge. Those who successfully deal with it make their decisions based on what works for them, and those affected by the decision, instead of listening to outside forces.

3. It does not matter whether you bloom early or bloom late as long as you bloom. It is never too late to do something if you really want to do it. I was a late bloomer — started college at 22, graduate school at 27, started my business at 36, and learned to play golf at 46. So eliminate excuses and follow your dream.

4. Defeat is not an option. Just by living, you will be knocked down, and that’s no disgrace. The question is: Will you stay down or rise up with even greater determination and resolve? With persistence you will push toward your goal, even if you experience a setback or your goal is more challenging than you thought it would be. Resolve to look at setbacks as: “defeat is not an option.”

5. Know when to let go. No one likes changes. People become complacent in positions or fail to make changes in their lives because of fear of the unknown. I knew it was time to let go of my business when I no longer enjoyed going to work. Business owners need to know when it is time to leave the business whether ownership is retained in the family, or sold to an outside entity.

So why did I decide on the janitorial business? First, over the three years of working in the industry, I became aware that it was a lucrative business. Second, I gained priceless experience and knowledge during those three years in the industry and felt it gave me a head start. Experience in a given industry is invaluable when starting a business. It’s best to learn at someone else’s expense.

Lillian Lambert is first African American woman to receive an MBA from Harvard Business School and a successful entrepreneur. In her book, “The Road to Someplace Better: From the Segregated South to Harvard Business School and Beyond,” Lambert draws upon her experiences, using her personal story to show how to use obstacles and barriers as stepping stones to higher levels of achievement. Visit Lillian onRed Room, where you can buy her book and read her blog.


2 thoughts on “Success Tips From Harvard’s First African-American Female MBA

  1. Hey! Im just going to be myself in this response back to your post/blog. My name is Layair and I am currently a sophomore of this upcoming fall at Norfolk state university in Norfolk, VA. I used to live here in Virginia as well in Hampton and Newport news during my elementary days. We have similar things in common. I also started a little late attending college as well not knowing what I want to do to help improve our world we live in today. I dont really know what I want to do except to make a significant change in the African American community and other ethnic communities. You’ve inspired me. I want to open my own business as well I just dont know in what field. Thank you for sharing your story and your advice, its greatly appreciated. I like to say “it’s not how you start, but how you finish” which is somewhat similar to your saying. Thank you! I would be honored to hear from you personally. God bless.

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