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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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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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