Xerox’s CEO, Ursula Burns: From Poverty to Becoming the First Black Woman CEO

Ursula Burns was declared by Forbes to be the one of the world’s most powerful woman back in 2009. She still is, and all for good reason.

Ursula M. Burns graduated from college nearly 30 years ago, when “women CEOs were non-existent” and “black women CEOs were unimaginable,” as she told this spring’s graduating class at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“I can assure you that at my commencement, no one was pointing at me and predicting that I would become CEO of anything,” she said.

Burns had been named CEO of not just any company, but Xerox (XRX), a $17 billion industry leader. She moved into the top spot taking over from Anne Mulcahy, who had led the firm for eight years.

With the change, Burns became the first black woman to be named CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The transition also marked the first time a woman CEO had stepped aside and named another woman as her successor.

But the distinguishing traits of Burns’s corporate rise didn’t end there. As the press prepared biographies of the new leader, they uncovered a success story remarkably different from that of her predecessor: Where Malachy, the daughter of a New York publishing house editor, had grown up in a middle-class Long Island, New York, home, Burns had spent her early years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a low-income housing project called The Baruch Houses.

Ursula Burns was born on the 20th of September, 1958. She was raised by a single mother in one of New York City’s low-income housing communities. She, and her 2 other siblings went to Catholic School.

Despite a not-so-good situation back in her childhood, Burns is known to talk about her early life with some fondness. In those days, the idea of high-density subsidized housing was still new, and the experiment held some promise.

Still, as writer Michael Wilson pointed out in a New York Times story last spring, “It was not all hopscotch-and-shaved-ice idylls.”

The Baruch Houses, he wrote, opened in 1953 “amid dirty alleys and half-demolished buildings. Born in 1958, Ursula M. Burns, was not yet 3 when a group of five teenagers shot and killed a 76-year-old man in the project for $2.60.”

Burns has also acknowledged that in her neighborhood, “the common denominator and great equalizer was poverty,” but if she grew up at a disadvantage to other kids in her school, she was hardly aware of it.

Perhaps, that is the reason why, looking back, she still reminisce childhood with fondness, despite difficulties and challenges.

Speaking to a YWCA Women Empowering Women lunch in Rochester, Burns said:

We were poor, for sure, but we didn’t know it. We just didn’t have a clue how much trouble my mom was having raising us three, which I thought was the miracle of this amazing woman. She gave us courage. She gave us will and love. I can still hear her telling me that where you are is not who you are. If you’re in a bad place, it’s only temporary and shouldn’t change the core value of what you can bring to the world.

By the time Burns was a student at Cathedral High School, a Catholic, all-girls school on East 56th Street in New York, she knew exactly what she could bring to the world, in terms of job skills, at least.

Good with numbers from the very beginning

According to official sources, like Forbes, Burns is a natural wizard when it comes to numbers. Burns, looking toward college, and the need to pick a major, she went to her school’s library one day to look up top-paying jobs for people with math or science degrees.

From there she plotted her course to a degree in mechanical engineering, and attended Polytechnic Institute of New York and graduate school at Columbia University, defying the teachers who had been steering her toward a more traditional career in nursing or teaching.

Atta girl!

Burns started at Xerox in 1980 as an intern at the company’s engineering department. She then used her brains and what insiders called a “no-nonsense New York” attitude to work her way to the C-suite, overseeing several areas of the company — engineering, manufacturing, product development, and marketing — along the way.

In 2009, Burns became CEO, with Mulcahy remaining chairwoman of the board. Burns reportedly felt fortunate that there was an economic crisis when she took over as that gave her leave to demand more-better-faster than she might have been able to do in softer times. In 2010, Burns became Chairwoman as well as remaining CEO.

She was the first black woman to be CEO of a fortune 500 company and the first to take over from another female CEO.


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