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Business Insights for Women
PNC INSIGHTS Magazine Spring/Summer 2014 Issue
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Lillian Lincoln Lambert, the first black woman to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School, describes her rise from rural poverty to the upper echelon of American business.

Twenty-four years ago, Lillian Lincoln Lambert, the founder, president and CEO of a successful building maintenance company, was invited to join an invitation-only organization of the world's most successful women entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. But when she arrived at a reception held at the Manhattan apartment of another member, she was unceremoniously ushered into the kitchen: even her so-called peers mistook her for the help.

This story opens Lambert's autobiography, The Road to Someplace Better: From the Segregated South to Harvard Business School and Beyond, which underscores the distance she traveled to stake her claim in the business world. It is also an indication of the obstacles black women face as they work their way up the corporate ladder.

Although Lambert sensed from an early age that she was destined for a world beyond her poor rural upbringing, she is not the only hero in her remarkable story. Her mother urged her to go to college and inspired her to enroll at Howard University. There, she met another mentor, marketing professor H. Naylor Fitzhugh, one of the few black graduates of Harvard's business school years earlier. He urged her to apply to his prestigious alma mater, and in 1969, Lambert earned her Harvard MBA and made her own mark in history.

Professors didn't know quite what to do with her, though, Lambert writes, and she graduated with no job offers. Eventually, the one-time maid used her experience and a few thousand dollars of her savings to start a building maintenance company, Centennial One, Inc., in her garage. She grew it into a $20 million enterprise, and two years after selling it in 2001, she returned to Harvard to accept the business school's Alumni Achievement Award.

By sharing her inspiring life story, told with a compelling mixture of pride, humility and self-deprecating humor, Lambert helps others see that they, too, have the power to dream big, act bold and achieve their goals. "When you believe in yourself," she writes, "you can chart your own course with confidence."


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