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How Ursula Burns became the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company

The trailblazing path of Ursula Burns: From New York projects to global corporate leadership

by Victor Adetimilehin
Ursula Burns Leadership

Ursula Burns, the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company was born on Sept 20 1958. She was also the first woman to succeed another woman as the head of a Fortune 500 company. She is most notable for her leadership as CEO of Xerox, from 2009 to 2016. 

Born to Panamanian immigrants, Burns was raised by a single mother in the Baruch Houses housing project in New York City. Burns earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now New York University Tandon School of Engineering) in 1980.

In the summer of her graduation, Burns started her professional career as a mechanical engineer intern at Xerox. This internship was part of Xerox’s graduate engineering initiative designed to promote inclusion and support underrepresented minorities. This opportunity not only provided her with valuable experience but also afforded her the financial support needed for her advanced academic pursuit.  By 1981, she had earned a Master of Science degree at Columbia University.

Burns officially joined the company following the completion of her master’s degree in 1981. She worked in various roles in product development and planning throughout the 1980s. In 1990, she became an executive assistant to a senior executive at Xerox, a role that marked a significant turning point in her career. By 1999, Burns had risen to the position of vice-president for global manufacturing, and in 2000, she was named senior vice president of corporate strategic services. Her ascent continued as she became president of business group operations, and in 2007, she was appointed president of Xerox. In 2009, Burns achieved a historic milestone by becoming the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company as she assumed the role of CEO of Xerox. During her tenure, she led significant initiatives, including the acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services. This move helped to expand Xerox’s offerings in the business process outsourcing market and the eventual split of Xerox into two independent companies, Xerox Corporation and Conduent Incorporated.

Burns became CEO of Xerox at the height of a global recession and faced the challenge of declining revenues as printing was gradually being replaced by emails and texting via mobile phones. She saw it as her mission to move the company away from what it knew best. Under her leadership, Xerox achieved revenues of $22.4 billion in 2012, as the company prospered, so did her earnings, which touched $13 million in the same year.

After stepping down as Xerox’s CEO in 2016, Burns served as the chairwoman of VEON, an Amsterdam-based telecommunications provider, from 2017. Burns serves on the board of directors of several large companies, including Exxon Mobil, Uber Technologies, Inc., and Endeavor Group Holdings, Inc. She also serves on the boards of American Express and Nestlé.

According to The World Economic Forum, Burns is the executive chairman of Plum Acquisition Corp, and serves as the Non-Executive Chairman of Teneo Holdings LLC,  and is also a founding partner of Integrum Holdings, a private equity firm.

Burns was entrusted by former President Barack Obama to lead the White House national program on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) from 2009 to 2016. Additionally, she served as chairwoman of the President’s Export Council, a group that advises the president on methods to promote the growth of American exports  from 2015 to 2016.

In 2014, Forbes rated her as the 22nd most powerful woman in the world. As of December 2020, Burns has an estimated net worth of at least $1.24 billion, according to Wikipedia. Burns earned a total of $18 million as the CEO of Xerox in 2014. In past years, such as 2012, 2011 and 2010, the typical pattern has been for Burns to receive her base salary, a cash bonus of anywhere from $900,000 to $1.7 million, and $7 million or so worth of Xerox stock according to Democratic and Chronicle.

In honor of her passion and the preservation of black excellence legacies, Burns donated $1 million to The HistoryMakers, a video oral history archive that curates the stories of extraordinary African Americans (Black Entreprise).

From 2009 to 2016, during the tenure of America’s first black president, President Barack Obama, Burns led the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Coalition. The body whose membership contains over 1,000 technological organizations focuses on improving student participation and performance in STEM through legislative advocacy.

In addition to her role as a business leader, Burns lends her leadership skills to civil and social enterprises.  She is the lead counsel to the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), National Academy Foundation, MIT, as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee among others.

Burns’ progressive journey from a housing project raised by a single mother to the lofty rank of CEO of a Fortune 500 company exemplifies her determination, resilience, exceptional leadership skills and the American Dream. Her success inspires women and minorities worldwide to aspire and make their mark on the corporate world.

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