Power woman Ursula Burns began her lifelong career with Xerox in 1980 as a summer intern. Thirty years later, Xerox announced her as CEO, making Burns the first African-American female Chief Executive of a Fortune 500 company.
Raised in a housing project located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Burns was reminded on a daily basis she had three strikes against her: she was Black, a girl and poor. Although the neighborhood reflected their financial status, Burns’ mother had a different outlook on their struggle, constantly reminding her daughter, “where you are doesn’t define who you are.” Adopting her mother’s mentality and taking heed to her life changing advice, Burns was offered a permanent position with Xerox after completing her Bachelor’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering from NYU Polytechnic School and a Masters of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University in 1981.
In June 1991, Burns became executive assistant to then chairman and chief executive Paul Allaire and in 1999, she was named Vice President for global manufacturing.
In 2000, Xerox found their company on the brink of bankruptcy. Along with 98 out 100 executives, Burns was offered a severance package but decided to stay after holding a meaningful conversation with a colleague which would alter her role at Xerox. At the end of their exchange, Burns’ colleague simply asked: “You can choose to leave, but would you be proud of that choice ”
Later that year, Burns was named a senior vice president and began working closely with soon to be CEO Anne Mulcahy, in what both women have described as a “true partnership.” Nine years later, during the summer of 2009, Burns was named CEO, succeeding Mulcahy, who remained as chairwoman until May 2010. She confesses that her decision to tackle a challenge to an organization that had become part of her identity was the best of her career.
“Dreams do come true, but not without the help of others, a good education, a strong work ethic, and the courage to lean in,” Burns has said. “That’s why I spend so much time with organizations that help minorities and women gain the education and self-respect they need to take risks, to dream big, and, I hope, to someday pay it forward.”
In addition to the Xerox board, Burns is a board director of the American Express Corporation Exxon Mobil Corporation and Datto Inc. She also provides leadership counsel to community, educational and non-profit organizations including FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), National Academy Foundation, MIT, and the U.S. Olympic Committee. She is a founding board director of Change the Equation, which focuses on improving the U.S.’s education system in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In March 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Burns vice chair of the President’s Export Council.
In 2014 and 2015, Burns was named one of Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women in the world. HERSource celebrates Ursula Burns during Women’s History Month for breaking barriers and becoming the first African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company and a role model for women of color all over the world.