Today, we shine a spotlight on American business executive Ursula Burns. She was the first African-America female Chief Executive Officer of a fortune 500 company.
“Dreams do come true, but not without the help of others, a good education, a strong work ethic, and the courage to lean in.” “Believe that there are no limitations, no barriers to your success – you will be empowered and you will achieve.” Where you are is not who you are.” -Ursula Burns
Burns’ early years
Ursula Burns was born on Sept 20, 1958, in New York, New York. Raised in a housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she came from a humble background. Reared by a single mother who ran a daycare center and took side jobs in cleaning and exercising to support her and her two siblings, including to pay for Burn’s education.
She excelled at school in math and later earned her Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Brooklyn. While pursuing her Master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University, she began an internship program at Xerox.
Her rise to the top
After graduating from Columbia, Burns accepted a position at Xerox and moved up through the ranks, being appointed several executive positions, and eventually the role of president, then Chief Executive Officer, and then chairman of the board. Her appointment to these positions wasn’t from sheer luck. Rather, Burns exemplified outstanding work ethic, vision, and leadership skills. With each new role, she learned and grew as an individual and a leader.
During her time with Xerox, it’s also notable that President Barack Obama selected her to help lead the national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) program.
In 2016, Burns stepped down as chairman from Xerox. She has since held several other appointments.
Impact and influence at Xerox and beyond
Burns’ success story is layered with lessons and inspiration for the black community. When large corporations like Xerox appoint a black executive, it gives opportunity for black voices to be heard. Impact can be made from a position of a chief decision-maker. She was in an optimal position to influence company focus, operations, and vision.
The same is true with her leadership role with the national STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program. STEM programs typically lack diversity. In particular, most are in desperate need of black presence. Thus Burns heading the national program was a chance for her to have massive impact and for the programs to seem more relatable to young people who ordinarily do not see many black people involved in science, technology, math, and engineering.
Additionally, her leadership in these high-ranking positions allowed for inclusion and authentic customer engagement with ethnic and marginalized groups.
Here’s a phenomenal interview with Burns sharing how she was typically the only black woman in the room in her engineering classes, her work departments, etc. She talks about being constantly aware of her identity and how she used this awareness as a tool for empowerment rather than hindrance.
Burns is a role model, leader, and an inspiration to us in deeds and in words.