“I can assure you that at my commencement, no one was predicting that I would be CEO of anything.”
— Ursula Burns at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2009.
In 2008, the world waited with bated breath to see if Americans would choose their first woman President or their first black President, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama being the prime contenders. This neck-to-neck race was probably indicative of positive tidings to come. Just one year later, Ursula Burns became the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company, when she assumed the role of CEO for Xerox.
Ursula Burns’ journey to the top sprang from humble beginnings. Born in 1958, Burns was raised by a single mother with four children, who lived in Baruch Houses, a newly introduced low income housing project in New York. Her mother ran a day care center to raise funds for her children’s education in good private schools. And the hard work paid off. Known as a math whiz, Burns attended a Catholic high school in the city, and went on to the Polytechnic Institute of New York to complete her undergraduate studies. Later, Burns received her Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.
After a summer internship at Xerox, Burns joined the company full time in 1981, spending her initial years earning gold stars in the Product Development and Planning department. By 1991, she had become Executive Assistant to the then CEO and Chairman, Paul Allaire. Burns continued her upward career graph at Xerox when she became Vice President for Global Manufacturing in 1999. One year later, she was Senior Vice President and started working closely with the CEO, Anne Mulcahy.
But in the early 2000s, Xerox faced a financial downturn and the company’s future seemed to be in jeopardy. More and more customers were switching to low-cost desktop printers, by rivals Canon and Hewlett-Packard, to copy documents. As Senior Vice President, heading Global Operations, Ursula Burns helped rescue the copier giant from the brink of bankruptcy by streamlining internal processes and improving efficiency. She downsized the workforce by almost 40%, and with outside help from Flextronics International, was able to manufacture many Xerox products more cost-effectively. She also successfully negotiated a contract with the trade union members.
In 2009, she succeeded Anne Mulcahy as CEO and assumed the role of Chairwoman in May 2010. Within a few days of donning the CEO hat, Burns chose to hit the pavement running, travelling to Europe for a month long tour to meet with staff and discuss plans to rescue Xerox from a 50% plunge in sales.
Burns decided to add new products to the Xerox line-up, making the current product portfolio the largest in the company’s history and attracting sales from the small and midsize business segments. According to Burns, turning around a struggling company has been all about the quality of people and the amount of innovation, adding that “great people focused on a common goal” can guide a company back to profitability.
Ursula Burns is admired for her in-depth industry knowledge and technical expertise, as well as her astute humor and willingness to take risks, all of which have contributed to her ably leading Xerox during tough recession times. Many working mothers find it inspiring to see a woman who has two children, and who was herself raised by a single mother in a New York City housing project, now heading an $18 billion company.
This is a bases-loaded home run. We now have something to share with our MBA females that we’ve never had.” says Noel M. Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School Of Business, while talking about Ursula Burns’ achievements.
Although Burns’ ascent at Xerox can be described as a ‘rags to riches’ story, she has gone on record saying that growing up she was not aware of any disadvantage of her poor economic background and has fond memories of her childhood days. But her background has probably strengthened her resolve to stand by Xerox’s commitment to diversity. Today one-third of Xerox’s executives are women and around 20% are minorities.
Still, there’s no doubt Burns’ career is an old fashioned corporate fairy tale. On the basis of her hard work and confidence, coupled with her capabilities, a summer intern went on to become the CEO and Chairwoman of the same firm over the span of three decades. As Ursula Burns told the graduating class of Rochester Institute of Technology last year, she graduated 30 years back, at a time when “woman CEOs were non-existent” and “black woman CEOs were beyond imagination”. Fighting all odds, Ursula Burns has crafted her own success story. And now she must set her sights on forging the future strength of Xerox as well.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019