Harvard Business School, 2022 Graduation Ceremony
The Story of the First Black Woman to Earn a Harvard MBA
In 1969, Lillian Lincoln Lambert made history as the first Black woman to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School. In those days, Lambert didn’t even know she was making history. She applied to HBS seemingly as an afterthought—from the recommendation of her Howard University undergraduate professor, H. Naylor Fitzhugh, who was one of the first Black men to graduate from Harvard Business School.
In her interview with Forbes, Lambert illustrates her life and how she’s since paved the way for future generations of underrepresented communities.
“I had no idea what to expect when I got there [Harvard],” Lambert tells Forbes. “That first day, I was the first person to get to the dorm. I got there early and was greeted by this older lady who told me, ‘The dorm isn’t ready. Won’t be ready for a couple of hours. You can put your bags here and go sit in the park.’ So that’s what I did. While sitting there, I was thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ I just wanted to go back, get my suitcase and go back home. I didn’t want to be there. But then I started thinking about all the people that supported me to get there. I had been excited about being there. They were excited about me being there. Something said. ‘You’ve got a responsibility to stay here and see this through.’ So I went back to the dorm and checked in.”
ONE OF ONLY NINE BLACK STUDENTS
When Lambert arrived at Harvard in 1967, she was one of only nine Black students.
“At the time, Harvard broke the 800 students into sections, with no more than two women in each section,” Lambert says in an interview with Sarasota.” And there were no Black students together. It took a while before I met the others. One was Roy Willis, a graduate of the University of Virginia where he experienced racism and a lack of Black students, as well. He thought that Harvard would be different, but he noted that there really was no difference.”
Willis and Lambert would go on to start Harvard’s African American Student Union, a space where Black students could meet and share resources—a school-sanctioned club that still exists today.
“We met with the business school’s dean, George Baker,” Lambert says. “We didn’t know if he would be receptive or kick us out, but we thought that it was worth a chance. Dean Baker was a big, overpowering guy who stood more than six feet tall. In his office, he had a big oval table instead of desk, where we sat. He was attentive and listened to everything we said. By the time we left, the school agreed to send us to each of our former universities to recruit Black students. And he promised to go to corporations for scholarship money. He delivered on his end, and we delivered on ours.”
In the year after Lambert and her fellow Black students met with Dean Baker, Harvard’s Black student enrollment increased to 27 students. And while Lambert had laid the foundation for future generations, she also felt very drained after her two years on campus.
“What’s interesting is that when I left the campus in 1969, I promised myself that I’d never set foot on the university grounds again,” she says. “Those two years were difficult and lonely; I did not enjoy my time there. Yet, again, Prof. Fitzhugh intervened. He reminded me that it was my responsibility to support the Black students who came behind me. I knew he was right, and I did. I got so much out of it the more I became involved.”
After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1969, Lambert transitioned through six different jobs before, ultimately, working in the building maintenance industry.
“Over time, I found that there were very few women in the industry,” Lambert says. “It was mostly white men. The women did the cleaning, the men ran the companies.”
After working for a couple years, Lambert went on to start her own building maintenance company, Centennial One, a $20 million enterprise that operated across six states with more than 1,200 employees with services such as cleaning and landscaping. Lambert successfully sold the company after 25 years.
Nowadays, Lambert is retired and takes speaking engagements telling her story—one that she hopes will inspire women, like her, to write their own history.
“Women need to not be afraid to step out and allow themselves to make mistakes,” Lambert says. “Don’t be intimidated by men or people that think they’re smarter than you. Most of the time, they’re not as smart as they think they are.”
Struggling to Write Your Essays? Use the STAR Method
Business school applications are typically assessed holistically. But there’s one component that can truly give admissions officers a peak into who you are and why they should offer you an acceptance letter—the essay.
“Your MBA essays are the only component within the MBA application that allow the adcoms to gain a more intimate understanding of who you are, before they invite you for a 1-on-1 interview,” according to Swati, of MBA Crystal Ball. “The MBA essays form the crux of your application, offering you a canvas to paint your story in vivid colors. A good storyline is the essence of your essays. With the right content and packaging you can use your essays to bring your story to life.”
If you’re intent on writing an effective essay, you’ll want to consider using the STAR method. Stacy Blackman, founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, recently explained what the STAR method is and how it can help applicants tell their story in the most effective way possible.
The first step of the STAR method is “situation,” or setting the scene for what you want to talk about.
“You’ll want to set up the Situation for your reader as succinctly and clearly as possible,” Blackman says. “Leave out industry jargon, acronyms, and ‘inside baseball’ details that will bore the adcom. Remember, they want to learn about what YOU did — not the intricate complexities of your company or client’s issue.”
The second step is highlighting the “task” that you were responsible for.
“Sure, business schools are looking for team players,” Blackman says. “But if they’ve asked you to describe your most impressive accomplishment, they want to understand what your marching orders were.”
Experts say the “task” should allow the reader to clearly understand where you fit in terms of your involvement.
“This can easily get confused with the ‘action’ portion of the response,” according to The Muse.
“However, this piece is dedicated to giving the specifics of what your responsibilities were in that particular scenario, as well as any objective that was set for you, before you dive into what you actually did.”
“Action” is all about explaining what steps you took in order to achieve a goal or task.
“Explain what you did specifically, and ideally, show how you went above and beyond in your role,” Blackman says. “Then, you can wrap up by revealing what Results you achieved. Keep in mind that both qualitative and quantitative outcomes are important to include, if possible.”
The last step of the STAR method is results, where you’ll explain why results you achieved based on the actions you took.
“We know it’s hard to condense what may sometimes be a years-long project into only a few sentences at the beginning,” Blackman says. “But it’s better to keep the focus on why YOU will be a welcome addition to any MBA program.”
The Art of Asking for What You Want at Work
Work relationships are hard. Many times, we avoid speaking out of place or demanding what we want, in fear of the repercussions. However, some experts say that may actually be the approach that we all should be taking.
“As important and valuable as it is to build our internal and external networks, create goodwill with colleagues and managers, and be seen as credible, reliable, and a team-player, we need to start making requests in our careers earlier than we think,” Deborah Grayson Riegel, a professional speaker and facilitator who teaches leadership communication at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, says. “That means you might want to ask for a professional development budget while negotiating a new position, or ask someone to be your mentor whom you’ve only met a few times.”
In her recent piece for the Harvard Business Review, Riegel explains why asking for what you need at work early on may actually be a more effective way of getting what we need without seeming needy, and how we can all apply this practice in our own working lives.
THE MAGIC RATIO
One helpful tactic for asking for what you need is to think about the 5:1 magic ratio.
“This means that for every negative feeling or interaction between people in a relationship, there must be five positive feelings or interactions,” Reigel says. “Rather than spending time ruminating over whether you should ask someone to do something for you when you don’t know them well enough, use that time to increase your positive interactions with them.”
Riegel provides the following example of simple actions you could take to build the 5:1 ratio:
1. Send them an article you think they might be interested in.
2. On a Friday, ask them what they have planned for the weekend (and share your plans, too).
3. Set their name and/or company name in a Google Alert, and let them know when they’re in the news.
4. Invite them to an event you’re hosting or attending (live or virtual).
5. Thank them for something they’ve done that you appreciated, and share the impact it had. Then, make your ask! It will come in the context of positive interactions, and feel less like a withdrawal in your relationship bank account.
REQUESTS > DEMANDS
When a demand is made, the receiving party typically feels obligated to say yes. Rather than making demands at work, Reigel recommends trying to rephrase what you want into a request.
“It allows for dialogue, flexibility, and compromise,” she says. “It also shows consideration for the other person’s needs, values, and interests, and gives them an out. This might sound like saying to your boss, ‘I would like to be able to take a four-day weekend next month. I have the vacation time, but I want to make sure that it works with the rest of the team’s schedule. What do you think?’ Or it could sound like asking someone in your network, ‘I know that you have a knack for making connections, and I would love to be introduced to someone in your LinkedIn network. Is that something you’d be comfortable doing? And if not, I understand.’ Be direct, be willing to ask more than once — and be able to move on if the answer is no.”
UNDERSTAND WHAT ‘NO’ REALLY MEANS
Requests won’t always be met. And if you do happen to get a “no” from your manger, Reigel suggests exploring what that “no” really means.
“If you’re in a new professional relationship, you may take a ‘no’ to your requests personally,” she says. “You could imagine that it means your boss thinks you’re undeserving of an overseas client meeting, or that your colleague doesn’t think you could actually get the job for which you’ve asked them to review your cover letter. But those are all a story you’re making up unless you’re willing to ask what “no” means. Get curious about why your boss decided to send your coworker on the trip, or what types of materials your colleague is willing to review for you. And then make a better ask next time.”
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