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Rags to Riches CEOs: Ursula Burns

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

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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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