A Pioneer Woman on the MBA Frontier Looks Back
Lillian Lincoln cut a swath through Harvard B-school and male-dominated industries
These days, a master's degree from Harvard business school is the express
route to a prestigious, high-paying career, but for Lillian Lincoln, in
1969, it was just another fork in a long road she had to cut for herself.
"There were no companies beating down my door," says Lincoln, the first
African-American woman to graduate from Harvard's B-school. Lincoln went
back to Sterling Institute, the training-program company where she had
worked before attending Harvard.
It was neither the first nor last time that Lincoln, today president
and owner of Centennial One, a janitorial services corporation based in Landover,
Md., confronted discouraging circumstances.
Lincoln, now 58 years old, grew up on a farm in tiny Ballsville, Va.,
50 miles west of Richmond. Intent on making her mark in a big city, she
went straight to New York after high school but the only work she found was as a maid.
She eventually landed a clerk typist job at Macy's, but her three New York
years were disillusioning. "I thought everyone had money, that it was all
peaches and cream," she recalls. "I soon decided that if I were to do anything
with my life, I had to go to college."
After moving to Washington, D.C., Lincoln started teachers' college
part-time, while working in government typing pools. At age 22, with a scholarship
and loans, she transferred to Howard University. She still had no real
career direction until she took a class with the late H. Naylor Fitzhugh,
a professor of marketing who had been one of Harvard Business School's
first African-American graduates. He became Lincoln's mentor, convincing
her that business was the field black collegians should enter as a way
of "controlling our destiny."
FREEDOM AND FEAR. Business school was more unexplored territory. "I thought most people
who went to Harvard were geniuses," she says. Urged on by Fitzhugh and
another Howard professor, she applied mainly "so they would leave me alone."
The next thing she knew, she was standing outside a Radcliffe dorm, burdened
with "loans up to my neck," and thinking "this has got to be the dumbest
thing I ever did." Of the 800 students in her class, only 6 were
black and 18 female, she says.
And, once she collected her degree, Lincoln faced a white, male corporate
world stretching to the horizon.
After Sterling closed the Washington office where she worked, she held
various jobs, including stock broker, management trainee, college teacher,
and consultant. She knew virtually nothing about the building-services
industry, until she worked as a consultant to Unified Services, a company
that depended largely on government contracts. Eventually, the owner offered
her a full-time job as his second-in-command. "I ran this guy's company
for several years," she says.
In 1976, she decided to create her own building-services company, heeding
friends who recognized her managerial skills. Starting with 20 part-time
employees, $4,000 in savings, a $12,000 line of credit from a friendly
banker, and an office in her garage, she built Centennial One into a thriving
At first, the company ran on government contracts obtained through
the Small Business Administration's 8(a) "set-aside" program for minority-owned
companies. But in 1985, the SBA told her she had to graduate from the program,
which limits participation based on such criteria as revenue and number
OVERCOMING OBSTACLES. It was a hard transition. "I had been in business nine years, never
losing money, and suddenly I was losing big bucks," she says. Through stringent
cost controls (including freezing salaries) and a new emphasis on marketing,
she captured a core of commercial clients, among them Dulles Airport and
buildings owned by Computer Sciences, ABC News, Northrup-Grumman, Hewlett-Packard, and Arthur D. Little. This fiscal year, Centennial One, still owned 100% by Lincoln, employs 1,200 people and will have $18 million to $19 million in revenue.
Lincoln doesn't dwell on obstacles, nor does she sugarcoat them. When
clients cut costs, they pressure her to do it all for less. "The dirt is
still there, but it takes longer to clean it up," she says frankly.
Sexism and racism have never entirely disappeared. "Even in today's
environment," she notes, there are industries in which "the old-boy network
is alive and well, and I'm not a part of it," she says. But that doesn't
faze her. "I'd like to get someone's business because of my credentials,"
she says, "not because I'm the right color or right sex or right height."
Her next challenge is: "my exit strategy." Lincoln, who is divorced,
is about to remarry. She plans to work less and play more. She's starting
to groom her 24-year-old daughter, Tasha, to take the Centennial One reins eventually. And with her newfound time, Lillian Lincoln plans to indulge in two classic, old-boy leisure pursuits: golf and travel.
She may not have taken the express train to success, but what better
By Grace Lichtenstein in New York
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