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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 business.

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 of employees.

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 vindication.

By Grace Lichtenstein in New York

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