Ursula grew up in a very poor New York City neighborhood. She was one of three siblings and the daughter of a single mother who emigrated from Panama. When Ursula was seven years old, her family moved from their tiny tenement apartment to a group of nearby housing projects. Most Americans hope that they never have to live in housing projects, but to Ursula’s family, the move was a dramatic improvement.
Ursula’s mother worked tirelessly to keep her children fed and clothed, and to provide them each a good education. She ran a daycare out of their home and took in laundry for washing and ironing, even trading services with a doctor in the neighborhood to keep the family healthy.
Thanks to her mother’s struggles, Ursula was able to attend a private school, where she discovered a talent for numbers and math. Her mother also imparted as much wisdom to her children as she could, drilling in the idea that, “where you are is not who you are.” This motto kept Ursula pushing forward in life despite her family’s poverty, helping her to excel in high school and as she began to apply to colleges. Ursula decided to attend the Brooklyn Polytechnic University. She wanted the best education she could get, and believed that going a different route than most people would be a positive asset for her future.
Ursula was awarded the Higher Education Opportunity Program scholarship at Brooklyn Polytechnic, and although she was behind some of the other students academically when school began, she caught up quickly. In no time, she was enjoying a successful college career, and was even asked by the head of the scholarship program to lead a tutoring group to help other students succeed.
Choosing a road less taken by many of her female peers, Ursula earned her Bachelor of Science degree in engineering. In defiance of being steered toward more traditional career paths in nursing or teaching, she entered a graduate program in mechanical engineering at Columbia University. The program was specifically created for minority students, and the tuition was partially paid by the Xerox Corporation. It also included a summer internship with Xerox.
Another important approach to life that Ursula learned from her mother was that if she had a strong opinion about something, she should speak up and make herself heard. After several years of working her way into the company, Ursula attended an informal employee gathering led by some of the top executives to discuss “the quality of work life” at the company. During the meeting, one employee raised a question about policies related to hiring standards, and whether they were lowered to accommodate greater diversity within the company… which is a nice way of asking if the company purposely made it easier for women or minorities to work there.
Xerox’s president of marketing and customer operations answered the question, explaining that no, the company did not lower its standards for anyone. Ursula knew that if she was advancing faster than others, it had nothing to do with race or gender, but simply with performance. Any question about the company lowering its hiring standards was undignified, and she said so. The president engaged her about the issue, and she suggested (in front of the entire meeting) that he should attack any such assertion about their company, rather than responding as if it had merit.
Although the president felt Ursula needed to appreciate the value of diplomacy, her guts and intelligence impressed him. Not long after, she was promoted to become his executive assistant, a job that served as an informal leadership-training program, and which signaled that she was on the executive track. Within a few more years, Ursula was the vice president of worldwide manufacturing, and there wasn't a part of the manufacturing process she hadn't touched or a product she didn't understand.
In 2009, almost thirty years after she first joined the company, Ursula Burns took the reins at Xerox, becoming the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She also points out that taking over the job from then-Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy made it the first female-to-female CEO transition in Fortune 500 history.
Forbes magazine named Ursula the 14th most powerful woman in the world and asked her to share advice for the next generation of leaders. She said, “Leave behind more than you take. Focus on making a difference for others more than your own selfish desires, and you will lead a fulfilling and rewarding life.”
Until next week...