When Lillian arrived at the Harvard Business School in September 1967 (actually she arrived at Radcliffe College graduate dormitory because women were not allowed to live in the accommodations at the Business School), her first thought was “Why am I here!” Harvard was the top business school in the world for training managers and she was encouraged to go there. The first class of women was admitted to HBS in 1963. African American women had never attended. Even upon her arrival, the school was not totally ready to embrace the presence of women. Dormitories were still designed to house men only. Hence, the need for female students to live at Radcliffe, requiring them to walk a half mile to classes. This was the beginning of another interesting journey in her life.
Born on a farm in the segregated South, at the age of 18 and fresh out of high school, she journeyed to New York City and Washington, DC to seek her fortune. After four years of floundering and enduring jobs as a maid and typist, she realized her mother was right. She needed more education. First she ventured to Howard University for her BA degree; then she applied to Harvard Business School for her MBA - encouraged by her mentor at Howard who assured her she was “Harvard material”. Here she ran into a brick wall! Her application was rejected. She had taken her mentor at his word about being “Harvard material” and did not properly prepare for the admission process. She had taken admission for granted. The rejection letter was an eye opener. Instead of accepting this as defeat, she took it on as a challenge; found out why she was not admitted and took the necessary steps to assure admission. Her persistence caused her to achieve a historical milestone as the first African American Woman to receive a Harvard MBA.
In 2003, Harvard Business School awarded her the Alumni Achievement Award, the highest award bestowed on its alumni. The award recognizes recipients for "their contributions made to their companies and communities, while upholding the highest standards and values in everything they do."
Four jobs and six years after getting her MBA, she became a barrier-breaking entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry. The company, operating in six states, grew to a $20 million enterprise with more than 1,200 employees. It was sold after 25 years and she started two other ventures before beginning her career as speaker and author.
A captivating speaker she speaks about the power of persistence, resilience, courage and morality in surmounting hurdles that prevent people from reaching their full potential. As the first African American woman to receive a Harvard Business School MBA, during the tumultuous 1960’s, then becoming a barrier-breaking entrepreneur in the mid 1970’s, she draws on her life experiences from the farm to Harvard, to show how to use obstacles and barriers as stepping stones to higher levels of achievement. Her background, education and experiences have given her insights into what it takes to come from incredibly challenging circumstances and achieve a successful personal and professional life. Using the power of storytelling, she inspires audiences to dream big, act bold and pave their own paths. Her message speaks volumes, offering guidance, hope and inspiration for anyone who is striving to achieve a better life. Her mission now is to serve as an inspiration to others just as so many inspired her as they pushed her further than she thought she could go.
Lillian was recently featured in a 4 part interview with Black Enterprise: