Lillian Lincoln Lambert, MBA 1969
Founder, Former President & Chief Executive Officer
Centennial One, Inc.
Lillian Lincoln Lambert, the first African-American woman to graduate from HBS, grew her building services company from twenty employees to twelve hundred over a quarter century. As a cofounder of the HBS African-American Student Union, she was a pioneer in helping the School become more diversified. Later generations "told me they were grateful I had opened doors for them," she says.
In 2001, when Lillian Lincoln Lambert sold Centennial One, the building services company she started in her Maryland garage 25 years earlier had twelve hundred employees and annual revenues of $20 million. Although her family and friends had initially been surprised by her decision to work in the janitorial service industry, Lambert knew that owning the mops was a lot different from pushing them. Over the years, she built a roster of clients that included ABC News, Dulles Airport, Hewlett-Packard, NationsBank, and Northrop Grumman. The first African-American woman to earn an MBA at Harvard Business School, Lambert discovered that being an entrepreneur was empowering. "While discrimination and sexism are still realities, if you own your company, you can have an impact," she says.
After graduating from HBS, Lambert held a variety of positions, working as a job-training consultant, stockbroker, and business professor at Bowie State, a historically black college in Maryland. Then a former colleague recommended her for a job as executive vice president of her father's building maintenance business. As second-in-command, notes Lambert, "I basically ran the company for several years." Then in 1976 she went out on her own, investing $4,000 in savings and a $12,000 loan to found Centennial One. A supplier gave her ninety days of credit on vacuum cleaners, buffers, and chemicals.
With a secretary and twenty part-time employees, Lambert focused at first on getting government contracts through a Small Business Administration (SBA) program for minority-owned firms. But even as she marketed her company to the U.S. Navy, the Department of Agriculture, and other government agencies, Lambert also sought commercial clients. Still, when Centennial One "graduated" from the SBA program after nine years, it lost two-thirds of its contracts. "Suddenly, I was losing a lot of money," she says "It took us three years to be profitable again." Stringent cost controls and aggressive outreach to commercial clients made the difference.
As Centennial One grew through diversification, offering services ranging from carpet cleaning to landscaping, and through acquisitions in four states, Lambert became well known in the industry. In 1995, she was the first woman to serve as president of an international association of building service contractors.
Lambert grew up on a farm near Richmond, Virginia, where the family raised their own food and didn't have electricity until she was eight. Education was important-Lambert's mother was a teacher-but there was no money for college, so after high school she worked as a maid in Manhattan and as a typist at Macy's. Lambert then moved to Washington, D.C., where she found a job with the Veterans' Administration and lived with a family friend whose nephew was a student at Howard University. Determined to go to college, she enrolled at Howard at age 22 with the help of a scholarship, student loans, and part-time employment.
An introductory business course taught by the late H. Naylor Fitzhugh (MBA 1933), one of the first African-Americans to graduate from HBS, changed Lambert's life. He stressed that business was a way for blacks "to control our destiny," recalls Lambert. She became a student assistant to Fitzhugh and another professor with ties to Harvard Business School. Both convinced a dubious Lambert to apply to HBS.
When she arrived on campus in the fall of 1967, Lambert discovered that she was one of just nine African-American students at the School-and the others were males. She was also one of only three dozen women on campus. "I was tempted to get on a train and go home," she recalls.
One day during their first year, Lambert and four black classmates started talking about the need to increase the number of blacks at the School. They decided to start the HBS African-American Student Union (AASU) and discovered a supportive ally in Dean George P. Baker. "We went back to our alma maters at HBS's expense to recruit students, while Dean Baker approached corporations to raise additional scholarship money," says Lambert. Their combined efforts paid off. Not only did the number of African-American students increase sevenfold in two years, but the AASU began to realize its other goals-from increasing financial aid to providing career development opportunities.
More recently, Lambert helped HBS, the African-American Alumni Association, and others honor Naylor Fitzhugh's life and pioneering role at the School by participating in a successful effort to establish an endowed professorship in his name.
Relaxing in the sunroom of her home near Richmond, Lambert reflects on her "retirement" years. Among many other things, she is interested in helping other small business owners with succession planning. She speaks from experience. In 1999, Lambert decided she wanted to slow down and began looking-belatedly, she adds-for a buyer for her company. "Your business centers around you, but at some point you're not going to be there," she says. "Does your company die a slow death, or is there someone to take over who shares your vision? I'd like to help people grapple with those questions."
Lambert also continues to talk with African-American students at HBS. Pointing to an award she received from the AASU several years ago, she says with a smile: "The students told me they were grateful I had opened doors for them. That means a lot to me."