Ursula Burns was raised by a single mother in the Baruch Houses, a New York city housing project. Burns recounts that they grow up very poor and that her mother “was struggling to feed us properly and make sure that we got a good education,”
In 1980, Burns first joined Xerox as a summer intern, permanently joining a year later after completing her master’s degree in mechanical engineering, at Columbia University. She worked in various roles in product development and planning throughout the remainder of the 1980s.
A few years later, Burns caught the attention of Xerox senior executive Wayland Hicks when she challenged him over the role of women and minorities at the company. By 1990, she was Hicks’s top assistant, beginning her climb up the corporate ladder where, at the age of 51, she was named CEO.
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. Burns succeeded Anne Mulcahy as CEO of Xerox in 2009.
Both Forbes and Fortune magazine have consistently named Burns one of the most powerful women in business. But she remains down-to-earth. The day she got the top job, she says, she called home and her daughter answered. “I was made CEO today,” she said. “Yeah,” her daughter replied. “Wanna talk to Dad?”
“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 Burns