Although the landscape is starting to change, finding women leading Fortune 500 companies is still fairly unusual. However, in 2010 when Ursula Burns assumed the role of Xerox’s CEO, she not only joined the ranks of top female executives, she became the first African American to helm a major corporation. How did she do it? Well, the road wasn’t easy.
Burns and her siblings were raised by their single mother in a housing project on the mean streets of New York City’s Lower East Side. It was the ‘60s, and the neighborhood was rife with drugs and violence. However, Burns’ mother set high standards for her children, and expected them to deliver. In the Burns family, failure was not an option, and Ursula’s mother stressed the importance of education.
Ursula discovered her passion for mathematics early, and she quickly distinguished herself as a real numbers whiz. With her mother’s encouragement, she started to dream about a college education, but was unsure of what path to take. It was the era when the top three career options for women were nursing, teaching and the convent, and as Burns says, “none of those fit my personality at all.”
Researching career paths that would incorporate her passion for mathematics led her to engineering, and the fact that engineers have high employment and salary rates was an added attraction. Burns enrolled in Polytechnic Institute of New York, earning a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering, and then was awarded a master’s degree from Columbia University. A 1980 summer internship at the Xerox Corporation lead to a job, and her career began.
Right from the start, Xerox and Burns proved to be a good match -- the corporate environment allowed her to thrive, and she quickly rose in the ranks to head an engineering team. Then a colleague’s challenge to learn more about Xerox’s corporate side, including its global reach, suddenly put Burns on a new career track. In 1991 she was appointed special assistant to Xerox’s then CEO, Paul Allair.
Thrust into a corporate culture that was male-dominated and white, Burns says race and gender occasionally came up, but they weren’t big issues. Instead, she cites her age as the biggest hurdle.
“I took roles earlier in my career than people expected,” Burns says. “And so a lot of what I got was, ‘Do you actually know enough to do this?’ I was always a little bit younger and I got a lot of pushback for that. I think that was a big issue for me.”
Now, as CEO, Burns oversees a huge corporation, with operations throughout the world that faces some major challenges. How does a company that was founded on producing paper product re-tool for a paperless world? Burns background in engineering is a major asset in helping to create a vision and a plan for the 116 year old company.
"The world is changing. We all know this,” Burns says. “And as that world changes, if you don't transform your company, you're stuck.”
Outside the corporate arena, Burns is also concerned that our failure to produce more graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) will impact on America’s ranking in an increasingly global marketplace. Citing the role of engineers and scientists in solving societal problems and generating wealth, she is a frequent and vocal advocate for STEM-based education.
“I became an engineer by accident,” she says. “Why don’t we prepare kids for this earlier?”
And as a recent White House conference on the importance of STEM-based education indicates, a growing group of educators and policy makers agree.