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Entrepreneur Receives HBS' Highest Honor

Each year since 1968 the Harvard Business School has bestowed its highest honor-The Alumni Achievement Award-on a few extraordinary graduates. The Award recognizes outstanding leaders who have made an impact on both business and society, and whose accomplishments serve as an inspiration to those who aspire to do the same.

Recipients of the Award are first nominated by members of the HBS community-alumni, students, faculty and friends. The Administration reviews all nominations before the Dean of the School makes a final selection.

The 2003 recipients of the Alumni Achievement Award are no exception to the Award’s distinguished history. Dean Clark acknowledged that the honorees “have contributed significantly to their companies and communities, while upholding the highest standards and values in everything they do. As such, they represent the best in our alumni body.”

The 2003 Alumni Achievement recipients include:

o James E. Burke (MBA 1949) – Chairman & Chief Executive Officer Emeritus, Johnson & Johnson

o Lillian Lincoln Lambert (MBA 1969) – Founder, Former President & Chief Executive Officer, Centennial One Inc.

o Charles O. Rossotti (MBA 1964) – Cofounder, Former Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, American Management Systems Inc.

o Daniel L. Vasella, M.D. (57th Program for Management Development 1989) – Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, Novartis AG

o Howard E. Cox Jr. (MBA 1969), William Elfers (MBA 1943), Daniel S. Gregory (MBA 1957), Henry F. McCance (MBA 1966), Charles P. Waite (MBA 1959) – Partners of Greylock

Following the formal presentation of the Awards last week, the Harbus spoke with several of the recipients about their careers and contributions.

In the first article of this series, Lillian Lincoln Lambert shares insights gained over the 25 years in which she founded and ran her own business, Centennial One Inc., a janitorial services firm that grew to $20 million in annual revenue and employed over 1,200 employees under her leadership. Ms. Lambert was also the first African-American woman to graduate from HBS, and as a cofounder of the African-American Student Union (AASU), she pioneered efforts to improve diversity at the School.

Her legacy at HBS is perhaps best articulated by the many students who have benefited from the doors Lillian opened. AASU Co-President Torarie Durden (OI) reflected, “AASU touches every aspect of my HBS experience, from social to career to alumni contact, and my time here is better for that. But what I like most is that AASU is constantly getting better, mostly because current students are continually encouraged by the tradition and the constant motivation from people like Lillian.”

T. Kenneth Escoe (OE), both Co-President of the AASU and the HBS Entrepreneurship Club added, “much of the confidence that’s been placed in me, by my fellow club members, is a direct result of having tangible examples of capable black entrepreneurs that have blazed the trail long before I arrived. My entrepreneurial aspirations are in effect, one step closer to reality, by having people like Lillian Lincoln to look up to.” Tarik Brooks (OG) also acknowledged, “Lillian Lincoln has proved that successful entrepreneurship does not require the ‘latest and greatest’ idea or a glamorous industry. She has shown the power of the basics: identifying executable opportunities, building and leveraging networks and consistently delivering value to customers. These principles, coupled with her persistence and resiliency, provided the foundation that enabled her to overcome the significant social barriers that existed for a minority, female entrepreneur.”

In Lillian’s words, here is how she translated her education, values and leadership into a successful entrepreneurial career.

Harbus: You worked full time for several years before pursuing your undergraduate degree at Howard University. What did you learn from that experience?

Lambert: I think the experience of working made me more aware of the importance of getting an education. When I left home right out of high school, college was not in the forefront of my mind. I thought I could get a decent job and make a decent living without a college degree. But the more I stayed in the workforce, the more I realized that that wasn’t going to happen.

Harbus: HBS can be an overwhelming place. When you arrived in the fall of 1967, you were one of nine African-American students (in both classes) and the only woman. What did you think?

Lambert: The interesting thing is that when I got here, I had no idea that that was the situation, and it didn’t really phase me until maybe a few weeks later. I remember thinking, “Why am I here? Why do I want to do this?” I was tempted to get on the train and just go back home, but then I started thinking about all the people that I had told I was coming here, and all the people who had great expectations for me, and I knew that I would stay. I had good relationships at HBS, but social life was certainly not ideal. Starting the AASU was a response to thinking that ‘there must be something that we can do to change this situation.’

Harbus: As a founding member of the AASU, what do you see as the group’s greatest impact?

Lambert: Recruiting, for one. There were three of us involved in starting the AASU. We decided to go and talk to the Dean [George P. Baker], and the Dean was very receptive. That’s when we offered to go back to our alma maters and other historically black colleges to recruit. I recruited two students from Howard, both of whom finished, and one whose daughter graduated from HBS a few years ago. I am still involved with the Alumni Association which plays an active role in the recruiting process as well.

Secondly, the AASU is a very supportive group. It really does help coming into this kind of environment to have someone who can answer questions and walk you through the quagmire. As a support and social network, the AASU has helped a lot.

Harbus: Your entrepreneurial success is particularly compelling because you were successful in other arenas before starting Centennial One. How did you decide to start your own company and why janitorial services?

Lambert: I had worked for a janitorial firm for three years at the time, but I wasn’t thinking about going out on my own until some friends of mine started talking to me about it. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that I would like to start my own company. The reason I went into janitorial services was that that’s the business I knew. In the three years in that industry I saw the opportunity in the market. It’s a huge market, and there were not many women or African-American owners, even though at that time, a majority of the workers in the industry were African-American. I had the industry knowledge and a strong starting base of contacts.

Harbus: In the early years of the company, you faced difficult times. Specifically, after “graduating” from a Small Business Administration program for minority-owned firms, your firm, Centennial One, lost two-thirds of its contracts. What business skills allowed you to return the company to profitability?

Lambert: Primarily, planning, but also the ability to control and manage costs. When I went into the SBA program, I knew it wasn’t a program that I could be in forever. About two years before we exited the program, I hired a marketing director to develop contacts in the commercial market. I ended up losing a lot less because I had planned and because many of those commercial contracts came to fruition.

The reason it took longer to return to a profitable position was because the commercial contracts produced smaller profit margins than the government contracts did, so we had to increase our sales twice as fast.

At the time, I implemented cost controls until we could turn the corner.

Harbus: Centennial One employed a workforce of over 1,200 employees. How did you estab
lish a culture and distill your values throughout the organization?

Lambert: Culture is a very important thing, but also a very difficult thing to establish. It’s important to set the stage early in a company as to what values you hold. As an owner, you can’t have a set of values for the company and a different set for yourself personally. You just can’t have that conflict. I try to distill in my employees the importance of first, treating each other fairly, and secondly, not acting just for the sake of making a profit.

To set an example, I tried to provide my employees with decent benefits, which was not typical of this industry. I also provided other rewards. Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot to make the employee feel worthy-it’s also recognition. Most of our employees were unskilled labor; they were not generally appreciated, so I tried to make them feel important. We did not call them janitors, for instance, we called them cleaning specialists, and I did anything I could to make them feel important and to show my appreciation to them.

Harbus: Who have been the greatest influencers on your life and career?

Lambert: My mother has been very influential in my life, particularly on my values. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but my mother always encouraged me to strive for better things. She told me that I could do anything I wanted to do, if I was willing to work hard and make the sacrifices to do it. While I was in school she couldn’t send me things, but she always wrote me letters that said “stay in there” and “keep going.”

Naylor Fitzhugh (MBA 1933) was the person in my education and career development who had the greatest influence on me. He encouraged me to apply to and attend HBS and has also served as an incredible business mentor.

Harbus: How have your values been tested in your business career?

Lambert: Early in my career, a friend of a friend offered to secure a government contract for me, but made it clear what it was going to cost to get it. Fortunately, because that was reasonably early in my career, and because of the way I handled the situation, I don’t remember being approached in that way again. If you cross certain lines, the word gets out that you’re receptive to that kind of approach. But if you make it clear from the beginning that that’s not something you will tolerate or want to be involved in then you’re much less likely to be approached in the future.

The way you carry yourself as a business person is important.

Harbus: What has been the most rewarding aspect of owning your own business?

Lambert: Having more control over my destiny along with being influential in other people’s lives. I gave opportunities to people that they may not have had with other companies, and I think they appreciated that. I also never had to ask for a raise-of course, if we didn’t have the money, I didn’t get one anyways, but I never had to ask anyone else for that.

Harbus: What has been the most challenging aspect of owning your own business?

Lambert: Managing employees. That’s very difficult. 1,200 employees are 1,200 different people with different motivations for being at work. As they say, the whole person comes to work, so when people have problems at home, the problems come with them. Managing people and trying to keep a good workforce are very difficult, particularly at the unskilled labor level.

Harbus: What do you see as the biggest issues facing small businesses and small business owners today?

Lambert: Capitalization is always an issue for small businesses. There’s not always a source of funding for entrepreneurs. Many people go into business or think that they can be successful without the adequate capital and that’s an issue. Additionally, it’s easier to get into business than it is to stay in, and the technology that’s available today can often be the difference. Those that utilize it and invest in it are often successful, but that’s a real challenge for small businesses today.

Harbus: Would you recommend entrepreneurship to HBS students?

Lambert: I definitely would. For some people it may be the route to go
out of graduate school, and for others I think it may be beneficial to gain some work experience first. A person really needs to do an honest self-analysis. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. It takes certain characteristics and a certain kind of drive for someone to become an entrepreneur. Some try and find it’s not for them; others will be very successful.

Harbus: How do you view the role of business within a community?

Lambert: Being a good corporate citizen is very important. Many people in the community look to business people to serve as role models. If a business leader doesn’t have the right values, it sends a strong message to the community. Involvement within your community is very important, and business owners have a lot that they can give back to make the community a better place for everybody.

As a company, we [Centennial One] adopted middle schools and worked with the kids to expose them to what it’s like to run a business. I have also just become involved with a program where retired executives serve as advisors to entrepreneurs who are just starting a business or growing their business and who need general advice. And I serve on a number of Boards and am very active with my church. There are so many ways to get involved-and it’s so important to give back.

Harbus: Lastly, what advice would you give to current HBS students?

Lambert: Setting high goals and working to meet those goals is very important, but it’s also important to take time along the way to ‘smell the roses’. Sometimes graduates from top schools can be too aggressive-they want to get of school and conquer the world, which is fine, but along the way you lose something if you don’t take the time to enjoy your family or enjoy what’s around you. Don’t lose the sight of the important things in life or you will reach the age of retirement and not have anything to retire to or for.

Also, I would advise students to stay connected with the school and their classmates. It’s a great group for networking, and I didn’t take advantage of that enough when I first left school. The longer I have been away the more I realize what incredible contacts and resources HBS offers.

October 14, 2003
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