Opening Doors and Giving Back: Lillian Lincoln and AASU's Early Years

This article is the third of four pieces detailing the history of African-Americans at HBS for Black History Month, and is co-sponsored by the African American Student Union (AASU) and the Baker Library Historical Collection.

History was made when Lillian Lincoln registered for Harvard Business School in the fall of 1967. She was one of 30 women students, and the first African-American woman to attend HBS. Born in Virginia to a farmer and a teacher, she attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and studied business. It was there that she met H. Naylor Fitzhugh, one of the first blacks to attend HBS. Lincoln worked as his research assistant at Howard and he persuaded her to apply to HBS.

Lincoln didn’t realize until she arrived that she was the first and only black woman at HBS. In an interview last year, Lincoln recalls sitting on a park bench by the river doing some soul searching about whether she belonged here. She said, “I’ve never been afraid to go out and try something I think I can do.” Fortunately for those who followed in her footsteps, not only did she stay, but she thrived at HBS.

As one of six African-Americans in the class of 1969, she was one of the “Founding Five” students who founded the African-American Students Association (AASU). Though the existence of ethnicity-based student organizations seems commonplace now, in February 1968, these students – A. Leroy Willis, Clifford E. Darden, Theodore Lewis, Lillian Lincoln and George Robert Price – were accused of fomenting divisiveness by establishing a club that was not based on a professional theme. AASU’s founding precipitated the founding of the HBS Hispanic Club (1969), the Latin American Club (1970), the Women’s Club (1970), and other organizations that recognize diversity in the HBS community.
Before graduating in 1969, Lincoln was not interviewed or recruited by a single company, so she decided to return to her previous employer in D.C., a management consulting company. In 1976, after several years as executive vice president for finance and administration at a building maintenance services contractor, Lincoln launched her own building services company that now has over $60 million in revenues and 900 employees. She grew the company with the help of the Small Business Administration’s minority business program and was able to recover and prosper even when the subsidies ended.

As alumni, she and her AASU colleagues remained an active part of HBS, assisting with student recruitment and participating in the first annual Career/Alumni Conference held in 1972. This conference is one of the most enduring legacies of those early days. It evolved from an appreciation dinner for graduating HBS students in 1969 into an annual three-day event that today attracts current and prospective students, and returning alumni. This year’s conference begins Friday, February 22, and is entitled “Excelling in the New Competitive Landscape: A 30-Year Legacy to Embrace.”

Lillian Lincoln remains involved at HBS as a director of the HBS African-American Alumni Association and serves on a committee to raise funds to honor her mentor, H. Naylor Fitzhugh, by creating an HBS professorship in his name.

Lillian Lincoln continues her active involvement by sharing her experiences with students at HBS on Friday, February 22, at 3:00pm in Spangler Auditorium.