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Ursula Burns, the inspiring story of a women who rose from poverty to become the first black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company

Black Stories (National Times): In 2009, Xero made an extraordinary and tectonic announcement, the company was appointing its black President, Ursula Burns, its new CEO to  succeed to Anne Mulcahy.  Ursula’s story to the pinnacle of this giant international company and as the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company is extraordinary, it reflects the work of a phenomenal woman driven by strong work ethics, resilience, courage and mind blowing intelligence.

“I was raised by a wonderful mother in the rough and tumble public housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor” she told Lean In.

 

Young Ursula Burns

“Mom didn’t see it that way. She constantly reminded me ‘where I was didn’t define who I was.’ She knew that education was my way up and out. On a modest salary, Mom somehow managed to send me to good Catholic schools. Back then I was prepared for one of three career options: nun, teacher, or nurse” she added.

As an extraordinary black young woman, she soon chose to do something different. “None of those paths felt quite right for me and I began to dream of becoming an engineer. Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute offered me a spot in the freshman class and I panicked—a classic case of being careful what you wish for. I didn’t have the right preparation. The school was in a different borough of New York City that seemed foreign and distant. I feared the students would surely be smarter than me”.

Ursula’s Graduation Photo Credit (Success Story)

 

She went on to obtain a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now New York University Tandon School of Engineering) in 1980 and a master of science in mechanical engineering from Columbia University a year later. After graduation Ursula landed an internship at Xero. And in 1981, she became a full time employee for the company.

 

‘I first encountered her around 1991. She was serving as executive assistant to a senior Xerox executive, a developmental role for high-potential employees. I was running HR. Ursula stood out. In many meetings she was the most junior person present, and people in that role are expected to listen and be invisible. Not Ursula. She offered opinions. She challenged points of view. Among the senior team there was a sense of “Who is this person?” She was just so vocal. But I liked her authenticity and directness, even if she was a little rough around the edges’ Anne Mulcahy who  Burns succeeded told the Harvard Review.

Ursula Burns and Anne Mulcahy

Anne was chief of staff, while Ursula was one level below her in 1991. Ursula ran a product-development team. ‘During those years I never looked at her and thought, She could be CEO someday. That’s partly because she was young—still in her thirties. But I certainly knew she was smart and courageous, and that she’d do very well at Xerox if she stayed’ Anne recalls.

In 2009, IdeaXerox named Ursula Burns its CEO. From 2010 she served as Xerox CEO, managing to return a company once only known for paper copies to a viable and profitable business. Burns is the first African-American woman to lead an S&P 500 company. In 2015 she helped generate $18 billion in revenue, with adjusted earnings per share of 98 cents, all down slightly from a year earlier. After six years as Xerox CEO. She stepped down in 2017.

“Dreams do come true, but not without the help of others, a good education, a strong work ethic, and the courage to lean in. 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’ Ursula believes.

 

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