Rags to Riches CEOs: Ursula Burns

By Lila MacLellan  NOV 18, 2009 8:25 AM

A gift for math added up to a ticket out of the projects.

 


Ursula M. Burns graduated from college nearly 30 years ago, when “women CEOs were non-existent” and “black women CEOs were unimaginable,” as she told this spring's graduating class at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“I can assure you that at my commencement, no one was pointing at me and predicting that I would become CEO of anything,” she said.

The audience had to laugh. Just a day before, Burns had been named CEO of not just any company, but Xerox (XRX), a $17 billion industry leader. She moved into the top spot in July, taking over from Anne Mulcahy, who had led the firm for eight years. With the change, Burns became the first black woman to be named CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The transition also marked the first time a woman CEO had stepped aside and named another woman as her successor.

But the distinguishing traits of Burns's corporate rise didn't end there. As the press prepared biographies of the new leader, they uncovered a success story remarkably different from that of her predecessor: Where Malachy, the daughter of a New York publishing house editor, had grown up in a middle-class Long Island, New York, home, Burns had spent her early years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a low-income housing project called The Baruch Houses.

Raised by a single mother, she was one of three children who shared two absentee fathers. To pay the bills and send her children to Catholic school, Burns’s mother, Olga, ran an at-home daycare center and took in ironing.

Surprisingly, Burns has been known to talk about her early life in the projects with some fondness. In those days, the idea of high-density subsidized housing was still new, and the experiment held some promise. Still, as writer Michael Wilson pointed out in a New York Times story last spring, “It was not all hopscotch-and-shaved-ice idylls.” The Baruch Houses, he wrote, opened in 1953 “amid dirty alleys and half-demolished buildings. Born in 1958, Ursula M. Burns, was not yet 3 when a group of five teenagers shot and killed a 76-year-old man in the project for $2.60.”

Burns has also acknowledged that in her neighborhood, "the common denominator and great equalizer was poverty," but if she grew up at a disadvantage to other kids in her school, she was hardly aware of it.
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Speaking to a YWCA Women Empowering Women lunch in Rochester last month, Burns said:
 

We were poor, for sure, but we didn’t know it. We just didn’t have a clue how much trouble my mom was having raising us three, which I thought was the miracle of this amazing woman.

She gave us courage. She gave us will and love. I can still hear her telling me that where you are is not who you are. If you’re in a bad place, it’s only temporary and shouldn’t change the core value of what you can bring to the world.


By the time Burns was a student at Cathedral High School, a Catholic, all-girls school on East 56th Street in New York, she knew exactly what she could bring to the world, in terms of job skills, at least.

According to a Forbes report, Burn was a wizard with numbers from a young age. Looking toward college, and the need to pick a major, she went to her school’s library one day to look up top-paying jobs for people with math or science degrees. From there she plotted her course to a degree in mechanical engineering, and attended Polytechnic Institute of New York and graduate school at Columbia University, defying the teachers who had been steering her toward a more traditional career in nursing or teaching.

Burns started at Xerox in 1980, when she took a summer intern position in the company’s engineering department. She then used her brains and what insiders called a “no-nonsense New York” attitude to work her way to the C-suite, overseeing several areas of the company -- engineering, manufacturing, product development, and marketing -- along the way.

Her first year as CEO will be a challenging one for Xerox, whose recently released third-quarter profit figure was down by 50% from a year ago. Burns explained the loss by citing reluctance among the company's customer base to buy new technology while economic conditions remain rocky. But Xerox shares advanced by 4%, following larger market trends, and the company upped its predicted share price -- to an anticipated $0.55 to $0.57 per share from estimated of $0.50 to $0.55 -- for the full year.

No positions in stocks mentioned.

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