Opinion

Black History Month: Ursula Burns (1958-)

  • Frank: Ursula Burns earned a reputation for speaking her mind

February is Black History Month. Throughout this month The Royal Gazette will feature people, events, places and institutions that have contributed to the shaping of African history.

Ursula Burns, the chairwoman and former chief executive officer of Xerox, began life in a Lower East Side housing project in New York City. Burns was born on September 20, 1958 to a single mother. She was sent to Catholic school as a child to get the best education available.

In 1980, Burns obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from New York University’s Polytechnic Institute. That summer she began her journey at Xerox as a mechanical engineering summer intern.

This internship was included as part of Xerox’s graduate engineering programme for minorities, which helped to pay for her to complete her Master of Science from Columbia University in 1981. After graduation she went to work full-time at Xerox.

Burns soon gained a reputation for being frank and unafraid to speak her mind. Her willingness to tell the truth facilitated her rise to the top executive post at Xerox. On one occasion in 1991, she spoke out at a meeting led by Paul Allaire, then the head of Xerox. She was at the meeting as an assistant, not as a manager, but despite that she still addressed Allaire’s hiring contradictions outright — asking him why he continued to hire despite calls for cutbacks. Her question was met with silence, but later she was called into his office and asked to be his executive assistant.

In 2007, Burns became the president of Xerox and in 2009 she became the chief executive officer. In becoming CEO, Burns was the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company and as she took over the position of CEO from Anne Mulcahy, she was also the first female CEO to follow another woman. At the time of her ascension to CEO, fewer than 16 per cent of top corporate officers were female. That same year she was named the ninth most powerful woman by Fortune magazine, and in 2010 she became chairman of the company.

In May 2016, Burns stepped down from her position as CEO for the Xerox Corporation. Xerox decided to split into two publicly traded companies: Business Processing Outsourcing and the Document Technology Company. Burns will serve as chairman of the board for the $11 billion Document Technology Company, remaining personally and professionally committed to the company.

Burns is also on the board of directors of the American Express Corporation. She is involved in many community uplift organisations, including For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, the National Academy Foundation, and the US Olympic Committee. In November 2009, Burns was named by President Barack Obama to help to lead the White House programme on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Burns is also a mother of two.

Sources: News.xerox.com; Nanette Byrnes and Roger Crockett, Ursula Burns: An Historic Succession at Xerox, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, May 28, 2009.; Adam Bryant, Xerox’s New Chief Tries to Redefine Its Culture, The New York Times, February 20, 2010; Frederick H. Lowe, Ursula Burns Will Take New Job After Xerox Split, NorthStar News Today, May 22, 2016, http://www.northstarnewstoday.com/business/ursula-burns-will-take-a-new-job-after-xerox-split/