By Guest Blogger Lillian Lincoln Lambert
Entrepreneur – A word I didn’t know as a child. Becoming one on the final leg of my career was paradoxical.
Having little interest in college after high school, at the age of 22, I enrolled in Howard University and obtained a bachelor of arts degree. There, a professor became my mentor and convinced me that I was Harvard material. In 1969, I earned my Master of Business Administration and achieved the historical milestone of becoming the first African American woman to receive a Harvard MBA.
With a Harvard MBA, one would think I could write my own ticket. Not so.
Recruiters were not aggressively pursuing me and I was not assertive with them. The four years after graduation, I had five different jobs. The last, as Executive Vice President with a small family-owned business, was challenging and rewarding.
Into my third year, friends started asking me had I ever considered starting my own business. The idea was intriguing. I finally took the leap and filed incorporation papers, but did not quit my job.
Respecting my boss, I decided to tell him my plan so he’d not hear it from someone else. Since I’d be a competitor, this was not welcome news to him. I assured him I would not solicit his clients and he would be a friendly competitor. He accepted my explanation and seemed supportive.
We agreed that I would remain with the company to help recruit and train my replacement. When we both felt things were running smoothly, I’d leave to focus on my venture. I was on cloud nine with the best of both worlds.
Three days later, the bottom fell out. My boss met with me and informed me that his board had convened and decided that I should leave at the end of the week. I was fired! This was devastating.
Married with two small children and accustomed to living on two incomes, a major decision had to be made quickly – find another job or get my newly-established company off the ground? Becoming an entrepreneur was my choice, and I decided to concentrate on government contracts – a market I knew well.
Timing was critical. This was May and the government fiscal year ended September 30, with most contracts issued prior to that date.
I persevered and landed my first contract about three weeks before the end of the fiscal year. With that launch, entrepreneurship was my career for the next 25 years – a period during which I grew my company to $20 million in sales and hired 1,200 employees.
Getting fired from that executive position all those years ago turned out to be the first of many obstacles. Yet, had I not been let go, building my company would have been a part-time effort with a lesser chance of success. What seemed like a disaster at the time was instead a blessing in disguise; and as I have faced other obstacles over the years they, too, have become steps leading me to higher levels of achievement.
“Success is a journey, not a destination.” – Lillian Lincoln Lambert
As the first African American woman to receive a Harvard Business School MBA during the tumultuous 1960s, then becoming a barrier-breaking entrepreneur in the mid 1970s, Lillian Lincoln Lambert is a role model for how to treat obstacles and barriers as opportunities to succeed. Her inspiring journey is detailed in her memoir, The Road to Someplace Better, and she occasionally speaks to corporate and civic audiences about her journey. Lillian is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Harvard Business School Alumni Achievement Award, the Dominion Resources Strong Men, Strong Women Excellence in Leadership Award and the Library of Virginia’s Women in History honor. She is also an inductee of The HistoryMakers, an organization dedicated to preserving African American history. Learn more about Lillian at LillianLincolnLambert.com and visit her on Facebook at facebook.com/lillian.lambert or LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/lillianlambert.