Leading the way: Ursula Burns

Ursula Burns used education to forge a successful career as an engineer before becoming CEO of Xerox

The ability to persevere in the face of what may seem impossible odds is the story of Ursula Burns, who began her career as an engineering intern at Xerox and rose to become CEO of the company in 2009. Burns talked with Pearl Doherty about her career at Xerox.



Looking back, how do you view your journey from a poor New York City neighbourhood to becoming one of the most powerful businesswomen in the world?

If you just look at the demographics — I was a poor black woman in a poor black family — you would think there was no way in the world that there would be options available to me. The reality is that, despite that, I had very few limitations when I was growing up. I was raised by my mother, who was extremely poor, in a very poor neighbourhood, basically a ghetto. My mother told me very early in life — and my brother and sister as well —that where we were was not who we were. Where you live, she pointed out, has nothing to do with who you are. Who you are is about your character, it’s about the amount of energy you put into things, it’s about how much control you take of your whole life. She really believed that you control your destiny, your future. So, when I was a kid, she couldn’t change where we lived; but she could invest a disproportionate amount of her energy and her resources towards our education.

Schooling, then, was key to your success.

My mother’s highest pay, ever, was $4,400 a year; yet, somehow she managed to send me to a high school that cost $65 a month. Multiply that by three and you realise that half of her salary went to our education. Early on, I realised that this was a big deal. She paid the money and I had to learn; I knew my job was to get great grades. My school didn’t offer advanced mathematics or physics labs. What we did was read and write — and then write some more; it was a basic education. We knew basic mathematics and we knew how to study and learn.

The road out

Given how little in the way of advanced studies were available to you, what brought you to even think about going into engineering?

In high school, one of the most important things that you do is take the SAT exam for college admittance. Before that, you take a preliminary SAT called the PSAT. When I took the PSAT, the highest score I got was in maths.  As a result, I decided (along with my guidance counsellor) that I would focus on maths.  At that time, in the late sixties and early seventies, if you were a woman, there were three things that a Catholic school thought you could do. The first was to be a nurse, the second was to be a teacher and the third was to be a nun. Of these three things, none fit my personality. So I began to explore. I discovered a book in the library that laid out colleges by competitiveness, but it also had a section on careers. I remember looking through that section of the book exploring what kind of career you can get after four years of college.

Did you want to go to college?

Keep in mind, that in my family, you had to go to college. There was no other option. Although my mother had no money to pay for college, her assumption was that, if we got into college, we would figure it out. For me, the question was what career could I choose that paid the most money if I had that college degree. It seemed that the best choice for me was to become a chemical engineer. So, I said, “Okay, that’s what I’ll do.”

Even though I had taken only what amounts to an elementary chemistry class as well as a pre-calculus class, I applied to several colleges stating that I sought to become an engineer. Surprisingly, I was accepted at every school I applied to. I got in via what they call a ‘higher education opportunity programme’, which was for kids who have the potential to do college-level work but hadn’t completed any of the precursor courses. The idea behind the programme was that, when you entered college, you would take all these remedial courses and then go on.

I take it you were successful in your studies.

I enjoyed college and did well. When I was almost finished with my degree, a lot of different companies came on campus to talk with us. One was the Xerox Corporation, and it wanted me to continue in school, get my master’s degree and then come work for them. I liked what I heard, so I spent a summer as an intern at Xerox. Those whom I worked for liked me, and Xerox put me in a programme that paid for me to go to graduate school at Columbia. The rest, as they say, is history.

The road up

You entered Xerox as an engineer. How did you segue into management?

I wasn’t inspired to go into business. My intention was never to go into business per se, to be a business leader. It was to be an engineer. However, the further I got into engineering, the more I found that I had to connect with customers and understand more and more business models. I had to learn how this great set of solutions that I was developing would be priced, who would buy it and how it would be used. As a result, I became more and more familiar with business elements. So, to grow as an engineer, I had to grow and to broaden myself out of engineering and into business. As I did that, I got paid more money; and the world of business became more and more interesting. It was kind of a natural progression. There was no way to really stay solely in engineering. In order for me to practice my engineering to its fullest, I had to grow. Now, managing a business is what I love most; now, it’s natural to be in that world every day.

What events or personal traits made it possible for you to work your way up from intern to CEO?

First, Xerox is all about opportunities; and the company was focussed on diversity long before other companies were. When you come to work at Xerox, there’s time devoted to training. Obviously, a lot of it is technical training about xerography. There’s also training about how to work in a team. But what they’re most interested in is your raw talent and in your individuality. Xerox was not interested in bringing you in and changing you into something else. They didn’t want me to be like all the other engineers in the company.

When Xerox interviewed me, I was urban, black and a woman. As such, I had a certain approach to things and a certain way of speaking; and Xerox was very interested in that. At Xerox, the question is whether (given the opportunity) you can actually make good. Can you put in the hard work needed to become a success story? For Xerox, a success story is not about money; it’s about accomplishing a lot. It’s leaving behind — in the workplace, the communities you work in and the clients that you work for — more than you take away. When we engage with a client, we try to understand what their problems are and to solve them in a way so that they say that working with Xerox was a great experience. That approach to business resonated with me, and it made me happy with what I was doing.

And you moved from engineering to management when …

After I worked in an engineering lab for five years, someone stopped me in the hall and said, you know, you’ve been here for a long time. Don’t you think you would be interested in understanding what we really do as a company? I said that I thought I knew what we did. We do experiments. He said, “No. There are customers and businesses and pricing, and there’re a whole bunch of people all over the United States and all over the world who work for this company.” That person was Dick Shell, and he got me involved in work-life issues at the company. It was during the touchy-feely time of American corporations, and we all were involved in things that would make employees feel better and get more engaged in the company.

From that, I gained broader experience in the company. Although I stayed in engineering, I began to run some small engineering teams. Then, I was asked to work on a team doing pricing on one of the solutions that I was developing. I knew nothing about pricing, but I was assigned to work at pricing an accessory for one of the machines. I had to start thinking about new questions, such as “How do you place a value on this particular part of a customer solution and how do you price it so people could and would buy it?” Going through that exercise was the first major opening I had to the business side, and it was really intriguing.

And you must have been good at it.

I obviously did that reasonably well because, from then on, I was asked to do more and more business-type things. I spent a couple of years doing pricing and forecasting and trying to tie that back to how we set up the manufacturing line to be the most efficient. Then, I was pulled back into engineering to run an even bigger challenge, a very large programme; and I spent quite a bit of time going back and forth to Japan and other countries. By the time I was in my seventh or eighth year at Xerox, I had travelled to just about every continent in the world.

What was the next step in your evolution as a manager?

I was asked to be the executive assistant for Wayland Hicks, who ran almost all of the sales, service and admin functions for the company worldwide. I worked for him for about nine months. But this was at a time when I was ready to go back home because I was about to get married — to Lloyd Bean, a fellow Xeroxer.

At that point, Paul Allaire, who was then chairman and CEO, called me into his office and asked me to be his executive assistant. I felt I was beyond that kind of role. I asked why I should do it. He paused a little while, then said, “Because I’m the CEO, and I asked you to do it.” It was one of my first lessons in not getting too big for your britches, not assuming that you know all the answers. When the CEO of a company asks you to do something, you should be honoured. So, I ended up taking the job and staying in it for two years.

How did you find that role?

It was a phenomenal job, an amazing experience! Basically, what I did was travel with the CEO and learn what was required to operate a huge corporate enterprise. Some of the work was being the person who is the most accessible for him when nobody else was around. For example, when you’re in the car or you’re stuck at the airport or trying to go through a speech, it’s just this intimacy with someone who would normally be speaking to the CFO or whoever, but they are not there, and you are. The assignment taught me that there was a lot more to business than just engineering or just pricing and forecasting. There was all this political stuff that CEOs and business leaders are involved in. I also discovered that the level of stress involved in leading was significantly higher than I thought it was and that the level of control was significantly lower.

Anyway, it was a great job and it taught me a lot because of Paul’s personality. The other men I had worked for had a more hard-driving, aggressive approach to business, a more ‘military’ approach. Paul was exactly the opposite. He liked the ballet, and he would leave work early sometimes and go to the ballet with his wife. It taught me that you could actually have a life and be a business success. It gave me hope. Paul showed me that you could actually fit into a company and still do things outside the company that you like.

New firsts

What was the next major step in your rise to the top?

After I’d been working with Paul for a couple of years, Xerox went through a big organisational redesign. Paul placed me on the team in charge of that, a team composed of the top 20 people in the company — and me — primarily so I could give him direct feedback on what was happening. The team suggested that we divide the company into some 20 business units, one of which was a really small, unprofitable, unpopular one that was called Facsimile. I was honoured for my service on this team by being given this business unit to run. Literally from engineer to learning a little bit about business to becoming executive assistant to now being the vice president and general manager of office colour — which had no products — and fax. I remember that I felt like I had arrived in the world. Paul gave me the position and then added, “Break even or close it down.”

It was the best possible job for me at the time because I had never run an integrated business in my life. I had never had the responsibility to deliver a P&L or to work directly with a sales team or to work directly with manufacturing and connect all the things in the rest of the supply chain. Now, I had to generate revenue and not lose a dollar in the business. It was great. I had 100 people on the team in Dallas and was able call them all together and have a communications meeting in five minutes. I had a great time. After that, I moved on to manage bigger and bigger businesses.

Wasn’t it around that time that Xerox began to have big problems? What role did you have during those difficult days?

Indeed, we did get into severe trouble in 2000. At the time, I was basically running the manufacturing portion of our business. We had brought in a CEO from IBM and that leadership change didn’t go very well. We ended up replacing him with Anne Mulcahy, the most unlikely CEO in the world. At the time, she was running our Small Business division. Soon after the decision to choose her was made, Paul Allaire called me and said, “We’re going to make Anne CEO. Would you work for Anne?” I said, “Sure”. At this point, I was thinking of leaving the company primarily because of the old CEO. It’s not because I didn’t like him personally. I just didn’t think we were on the right track.

What was it like to work for a just-appointed CEO?

Well, Anne and I met and she told me that what she wanted me to do was find a way to save a couple of billion dollars in my portion of the business. She wanted me to stay and to run manufacturing and take on more of the supply chain and the internal workings of the company. It was another great experience, even though under very bad circumstances.

You and Mulcahy formed a remarkable team, one that led to the first time a woman CEO was replaced by another woman. Can you describe that relationship?

Anne was great. Her strength was in aligning people, bringing them together to work toward a common goal. Her emotional intelligence is off the charts. Basically, all I had to do was tell her when I was stuck with a problem or I had a dilemma. Otherwise, I could go off and do my thing. It was a great way for me to take the next step in my development, which was to learn how to integrate things such as the near term and the long term. How to keep superiors informed about really important things that they wouldn’t even know to ask you about.

After Anne was CEO for several years, she and the board began to think about succession planning. They felt they should look inside, especially given our history of trouble when we brought someone in from outside. I understood that Anne and some board members were speaking about me. I was known inside the company because I ran a number of operations; and I was known outside the company because I was a black, female engineer running a big portion of a major company.

This was before Xerox needed a new CEO, wasn’t it?

Yes. At that time, Anne was not ready to leave. She was doing a great job; but there was the question of timing, of how much commitment you can get from the individual who is sitting there, waiting. So, the board spoke to me about commitment and about my responsibility to a place that had given me a whole bunch of opportunities. Anne spoke to me also and explained that I would get the position but that I had a couple of years of learning to do and that she was not leaving for a while. It was perfect. Under her guidance, I learned an enormous amount of what it would take and, in 2009, the role of CEO became mine.

Barriers for women


One of the most frequent observations about Ursula Burns’ success is the fact that she is the first African-American woman to lead a major US corporation and the first female CEO to take the reins from another woman. Given the rise in women graduating from college (in 2010, 55 per cent of American women but only 45 per cent of American men between 25 and 29 graduated) and the percentage of women now in the workforce, this represents a failure on the part of business to utilise a key resource.

The discrepancy between women and men in earnings and promotions grows greater the higher you look up the corporate ladder. A 2011 report by Catalyst Research found that women made up 46.3 per cent of the US labour force and that 50.6 per cent of women were in management, professional and related occupations. However, only 15.4 per cent of female Fortune 500 corporate officers were women and only 14.8 per cent of Fortune 500 board seats were held by women. Catalyst also found that there were only 12 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and only 22 female CEOS in Fortune 1000 companies.

In 2010, BusinessWeek reported on a Catalyst survey that found that “even after correcting for years of experience, industry and global region … women were more likely than men to start their first post-MBA job at a lower level. That basic finding held even when considering only men and women who aspired to senior executive level positions and even among survey respondents who did not have children. Overall, 60 per cent of women started on the post-MBA career ladder at the lowest of rungs, entry-level positions. For men, that number was 46 per cent.” The survey also noted that men “had higher starting salaries than women — even after taking all the same factors into account. Overall, men had a pay premium in their first post-MBA jobs of $4,600.”

When the issue of race is added to the equation, a study by the Alliance for Board Diversity has found that not much has changed over the last 100 years when it comes to the number of women and minorities on corporate boards. The study noted that “white males hold 72.9 per cent of the total number of seats on Fortune 100 corporate boards and white women hold another 14.5 per cent. Therefore, only 12.6 per cent of the seats are held by members of underrepresented minority groups. African-Americans hold a total of 6.3 per cent of the seats, although they represent 13 per cent of the population. Hispanics and Native American citizens are also shut out almost completely.”

Catalyst pointed out in a study reported on in BusinessWeek, that “Avon CEO Andrea Jung became the first non-white woman to lead a major company in 1999. Frank D. Raines, former chief of Fannie Mae, became the first African American CEO of a top company the same year …. By 2007, there were seven black men running major corporations. Since then, three have left. While other black women have run major divisions, Burns is the first to lead a large public company.” 

Ursula Burns

Born September 20, 1958, in New York City, Burns grew up in the Baruch Houses, a New York City housing project. The daughter of Panamanian immigrants, she attended Cathedral High School, an all-girl Catholic school in New York City. She then earned a bachelor of science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Polytechnic Institute of NYU in 1980 and a master of science in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University a year later.

Burns began her career with Xerox in 1980 as a summer intern, joining the company a year later, after earning her master’s degree. She worked in various roles in product development and planning. Her career took an unexpected turn in January 1990, when Wayland Hicks, then a senior executive at Xerox, offered her a job as his executive assistant. The following year, she became executive assistant to then chairman and chief executive, Paul Allaire. From 1992 through 2000, she led several business teams including the office colour and fax business and the office network printing business.

In 2000, she was named senior vice president of Corporate Strategic Services and put in charge of manufacturing and supply chain operations. Following that, she took on the broader role of leading Xerox’s global research as well as product development, marketing and delivery. At that time, she began working closely with soon-to-be CEO Anne Mulcahy in what both women describe as a true partnership. She was named CEO in July 2009, succeeding Mulcahy, who remained as chairwoman until May 2010.

A mother of two, Burns, who is married to now-retired fellow Xeroxer Lloyd Bean, is chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corporation.
In addition to the Xerox board, Burns is a board director of the American Express Corporation. She also provides leadership counsel to community, educational and non-profit organisations including FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), National Academy Foundation, MIT and the US Olympic Committee, among others. President Barack Obama chose her to help lead the White House national programme on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in November 2009, and she was appointed vice chair of the President’s Export Council in March 2010. 


Adam Bryant, ‘Xerox’s new chief tries to redefine its culture’, The New York Times, (February 20, 2010)., ‘Women at the top’ [In its 2011 list of 50 women, Burns was named #4.],

Ellen McGirt, ‘Fresh copy: How Ursula Burns reinvented Xerox’, Fast Company, (November 19, 2011).

I was raised by my mother, who was extremely poor, in a very poor neighbourhood, basically a ghetto. My mother told me very early in life — and my brother and sister as well —that where we were was not who we were.

I wasn’t inspired to go into business. My intention was never to go into business per se, to be a business leader. It was to be an engineer.

The assignment taught me that there was a lot more to business than just engineering or just pricing and forecasting. There was all this political stuff that CEOs and business leaders are involved in. I also discovered that the level of stress involved in leading was significantly higher than I thought it was and that the level of control was significantly lower.

It was a great way for me to take the next step in my development, which was to learn how to integrate things such as the near term and the long term. How to keep superiors informed about really important things that they wouldn’t even know to ask you about.

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