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How Ursula Burns Worked Her Way Up to CEO of a Fortune 500 Company

Ursula Burns was born in New York City, to a single mother. When she was about 8, the Burns family moved from tenement housing to the projects. Her mother prioritized her children, making sure they got a good education. Burns excelled at math, and graduated from Columbia University in 1981 with a master’s in mechanical engineering. After interning over the summer, she was hired by Xerox right out of school. But it wasn’t a clear path to the top. Burns approached her work with positivity and passion, and she took consequent steps to become the first African-American woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The philosophies that got her far:

“When I came to work at Xerox, I just chose to work.” Burns said yes to everything, and finally the company suggested she try business planning, which gave her the tools to eventually become an executive.

“I learned from my mother that if you have a chance to speak, you should speak. If you have an opinion, you should make it be known.” At a meeting  on work-life balance with Wayland Hicks, someone asked a question about “bringing in all these women and minorities, lowering the performance of the company.” After Wayland responded, Burns spoke up, expressing her shock that he even addressed such a question. Her outspokenness led to a back and forth with Wayland, which led to her job as an assistant to Wayland, then a senior Xerox executive.

“It does take experiences and time to become CEO.” When she became CEO, Burns had spent 30 years of her life at the company. In 2009, she was named President of Xerox Group Operations. 

And finally: “Find something to do that you love. If you don’t love it, just find something else to do.”