Home » Meet Ursula Burns: The first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company

Meet Ursula Burns: The first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company

by Omokolade Ajayi
Ursula Burns

Ursula Burns, a visionary businesswoman with an extraordinary journey, has solidified her place in history as the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.

As the former CEO of Xerox Corporation from 2009 to 2016, she achieved groundbreaking success and transformed a technology giant in the face of fierce challenges and competition.

Born and raised in a Manhattan tenement, Burns’s path to the C-suite was paved with resilience, determination, and unwavering ambition.

After graduating from the prestigious Polytechnic Institute of New York with a degree in mechanical engineering, she embarked on a transformative career at Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering intern.

At Xerox, her unparalleled potential flourished under the mentorship of Wayland Hicks, then chairman of the corporation.

Ursula Burns’ journey of resilience and transformation

Burns’s ascent within the ranks of Xerox was meteoric. Her talent and strategic acumen propelled her to executive assistant and eventually vice president and general manager of the Workgroup Copier Business in London.

In a historic breakthrough, she became the first woman to hold the prestigious position of senior vice president of business group operations in 2001.

Her unwavering commitment and ability to navigate complex corporate landscapes earned her the admiration of colleagues and the attention of industry leaders.

In 2009, Burns reached the pinnacle of her career when she became the CEO of Xerox, breaking barriers as the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.

Her appointment signaled a shift in the corporate world, underscoring the rising importance of diversity and inclusion.

As the CEO, she faced the Herculean task of transforming Xerox, a company synonymous with paper copies, into a forward-thinking, technology-driven enterprise. And she delivered.

During her tenure, Burns executed an innovative strategy that not only ensured Xerox’s survival but also propelled it into new frontiers.

Under her leadership, Xerox diversified its portfolio, embraced digital innovation, and emerged as a global leader in document technology.

Burns’s strategic vision breathed new life into the company, driving impressive revenue growth and restoring investor confidence.

However, her transformative journey was not without challenges.

In 2016, she found herself in the midst of a high-profile battle with activist investor Carl Icahn, which ultimately led to the split of Xerox into two public companies — Conduent and the new Xerox.

Yet, Burns remained undeterred, assuming the role of chairwoman for the new Xerox and demonstrating her unwavering commitment to the company’s continued success.

From corporate boardrooms to social change

Beyond her remarkable achievements at Xerox, Ursula Burns’ influence extends far beyond corporate boardrooms.

As of December 2020, she has a net worth of at least $1.24 billion, and today she is a fervent advocate for inclusive capitalism and racial equity, using her voice to address fundamental inequities within society.

Burns is also a founding partner of Integrum Holdings, an innovative investment firm focused on partnering with technology-enabled service companies.

She presently serves as a member of the boards of Endeavor Group Holdings Inc., ExxonMobil Corporation, Uber Technologies Inc., Plum Acquisition Corp I, and Teneo Holdings LLC.

Embracing her role as a change-maker, Burns has extended her impact beyond the business world. She provides leadership counsel to several communities, educational, and non-profit organizations.

U.S. President Barack Obama appointed her to lead the White House national program on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math from 2009 to 2016, underscoring her dedication to fostering educational opportunities for underrepresented communities.

In her memoir, “Where You Are Is Not Who You Are,” published on June 15, 2021, Burns delves into her personal and professional journey, offering insights into her unwavering pursuit of excellence, social responsibility, and the transformative power of diversity.

Redefining leadership in the 21st Century through financial success and societal impact

Today, Burns continues to inspire and lead by example. She recognizes the evolving expectations placed on modern CEOs and emphasizes the importance of balancing financial success with positive societal impact.

Burns believes that the corporate world must address income inequality and proactively fight pressing social issues.

She advocates for coalition-building efforts, calling for a collaborative approach between corporations, governments, and stakeholders to effect meaningful change.

As we venture into an era where diversity and inclusion are essential components of corporate success, Burns’s remarkable journey inspires aspiring leaders worldwide.

Her legacy as the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company stands as a testament to the power of perseverance, vision, and unwavering commitment to breaking barriers.

Ursula Burns has left an indelible mark on the corporate landscape and has redefined what it means to be a leader in the 21st century.

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