Ursula Burns: The rise and rise of America’s first Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company

BY Preta Peace Namasaba January 11, 2024 6:10 AM EDT

Ursula Burns’ appointment as the CEO of Xerox in 2009 made her the first Black woman to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Her journey from the projects in New York to becoming an engineer and corporate leader, is the quintessential barrier-breaking story.

The second of three children, Burns was raised by a single mother on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her mother ran a home daycare center and took extra work ironing and cleaning jobs so that Burns could attend Cathedral High School, a Roman Catholic preparatory school. Growing up, Burns was aware of the systemic problems that counted against her: she was black, a girl, and she was poor. And at the time, it seemed to her that her options were limited to being a nun, teacher or a nurse.

She told the Harvard Business Review:

I remember that when I was seven or eight, I asked a question of a visiting geography teacher. Afterward he told me that I was smart, that I had asked a good question. But he said I had three things going against me: I was Black, poor, and a girl. He meant to compliment me, but he was saying the doors were closed: “You’re smart, but you can’t do anything with it.” That stuck with me for a long time. I eventually came to realize that I really liked those things. Well, not being poor. But I really liked being Black. And I really liked being a girl.

None of the proposed career paths felt right to Burns. Excellent at mathematics, she began to dream of a career in engineering. When Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute offered Burns a position in the freshman class, she panicked, afraid she lacked adequate preparation and that the students would be smarter than her. The grit and confidence that Burns’ mother and the Catholic school had instilled in her shone through. Beleaguered by doubt in a predominantly white male environment, she began in chemical engineering and later switched to mechanical engineering, where her passion lay. Burns was a step closer to her destiny.

Consequently, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1980 and immediately began pursuing a postgraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University. She joined Xerox as a summer mechanical engineering intern through a minority education program initiated by the Xerox National Black Employee Association. The company paid a share of Burns’ college dues and she returned as a full-time employee after completing her master’s degree in 1981. Her first role was in product development.

In 1991, Burns progressed into management and became executive assistant to Wayland Hicks, the Xerox chairman at the time. She went on to serve as the Vice President and General Manager of the Workgroup Copier Business in London and later the Vice President and General Manager at Xerox Headquarters in Connecticut. Burns was appointed Senior Vice President of the document systems and solutions group and Senior Vice President of the business group operations, the first woman to ever be named in the position. In 2007, she was elected president of Xerox.

Two years later, Ursula Burns was named CEO of Xerox and Chairman of the board in 2010. Upon taking office, Burns set out to transform Xerox, turning around dwindling revenue. She widened the company’s scope to not only include products but also services. In 2010, she oversaw Xerox’s largest acquisition ever, the $6.4 billion purchase of Affiliated Computer Services-an outsourcing business service. Burns stepped down as Xerox CEO when the company split into two separate companies; Conduent, a $7 billion business process outsourcing company and the new Xerox, an $11 billion standalone company focused on document technology. She was named chairwoman of the latter. In 2016 Burns relinquished her position as CEO and resigned as chairman of the board.

On how Black people are often required to be exceptional before they are given opportunities, Burns acknowledged that there were times she felt some praise-singers thought she was more “spectacular” than usual.

“Even in the latter part of my career, people would say, ‘Oh my God, you’re so amazing.’ I finally realized that what they were saying, without knowing it, is that in order for me to lead a task force, or to be CEO, they would have to identify me as “spectacular” or else acknowledge that others who look like me, who act like me, who come from where I come from, can be at the table as well. I’m not amazing. I’m here because I’m as good as you,” she explained.

Following her departure from Xerox, Ursula Burns was named chairwoman of the Dutch telecommunication services company, VEON. In 2018, she became its chairwoman and CEO. Ranked as the world’s 11th largest telecom service provider by subscribers, VEON was expanding its services to compete as a global online company. In 2020, Burns vacated her position with the telecom company. These days, Burns is a founding partner of Integrum Holdings, a private equity firm that partners with technology-enabled service companies. She is the Non-Executive Chairman of Teneo Holdings LLC, and the Executive Chairman of Plum Acquisition Corp.

Apart from her feats in the corporate world, Burns was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 to lead the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Coalition, a national alliance of more than 1,000 technological organizations that aims to improve student participation and performance in STEM subjects through legislative advocacy. She was a member of the President’s Export Council, a group of labour, business, and government leaders who advised the president on methods to promote the growth of American exports, She later chaired the committee.

Burns has also served on the boards of Exxon Mobil, Uber, VEON, Rochester Business Alliance, the American Express Corporation, Exxon Mobil, and as chairwoman of Plum Acquisition Corporation. She is a member of Uber Technologies, Inc., Endeavor Group Holdings, Inc., and IHS Holdings Board of Directors.

Additionally, Burns is a founding member of Change the Equation, a CEO-led non-profit program promoting STEM education. She is a patron of community, educational and non-profit organizations such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Corporation, Cornell Tech Board of Overseers, the Ford Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Mayo Clinic amongst others. Burns also sits on the Board Diversity Action Alliance board, spearheading efforts to support diversity on corporate boards.

Described as ‘a veteran of corporate evolution‘, Ursula Burns has climbed every step of the corporate ladder. She is an engineer, CEO, and businesswoman. Burns’ memoir Where You Are Is Not Who You Are narrates what it takes to succeed.