Ursula Burns was brought up by her mother in the Baruch Houses on the Lower East Side of New York City – an area filled filled with gangs and drug addicts.

Despite her tough upbringing, she rose to the top and became the first black woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 organization – Xerox.

She went from rags to riches due to her mom’s hard work, values, and trust in herself.


In 2010, her salary as chairwoman and CEO of Xerox was more than $13 million.

She was also asked by then President of the United States Barack Obama to help with a national program on STEM and to run as co-chair of the President’s Export Council.

Despite the fortune, fame and money haven’t made her forget the core values she learned from her mom.

In 2014, Forbes named her the 22nd most powerful woman in the world.

Now 63-years-old, she left her role at Xerox in 2017.

Her childhood

Olga (her mother) was a single mom with three kids and a black and white outlook on life that allowed her to provide for and raise her children.

She cleaned for a doctor down the street as well as taking care of other people’s children to support her own.

She had very high expectations of her children and made sure she made it clear to them.

According to Burns, some of her favorite sayings were:

  • “Don’t act like you’re from the gutter because you live in a place that’s close to the gutter.”
  • “Be good people.”
  • “You have to learn, and you have to be curious.”
  • “You have to perform at your best.”
  • “Don’t become a victim.”
  • “Be successful- You have to give more than you take away from the world.”
  • “Where you are is not who you are.”
  • “You have to worry about the things you can control.”

Ursula took these to heart and showed extraordinary talent working as a pupil at the Catholic girl’s school – Cathedral High.

When the time came to decide on colleges, the sisters encouraged Burns to go towards education.

But Ursula felt she needed more financially from life than teaching could supply; it wasn’t because she and her brothers felt poor growing up due to her Mom’s outlook on life.

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Burns would go to the library and research jobs that involved math and science and paid well.

She discovered that Chemical Engineering paid the highest and began going down that path in college, but quickly changed to the second highest paying maths/Science degree – Mechanical Engineering.

She achieved a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering but then attained a Master’s degree.

She got an internship with Xerox during college and was hired permanently after graduation.


Ursula learned the basics of planning and product development for roughly ten years, giving way to leadership roles back in the 90s.

Due to this knowledge, she was asked to attend a work-life session run by a senior executive of the business.

This was the beginning of a series of events leading to he eventually becoming the CEO.

In that meeting, it was asked if hiring for diversity was driving work standards to be lowered.

Burns was stunned the executive gave the question the time of day, and took him to task afterwards.

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One week later, she was told to go into his office. He wanted to meet with her frequently.

He noticed that she was interested in why the business was doing things in a certain way and was continuously prepared.

He gave her a job as his executive assistant, and in that role, she was mentored by the senior executive and allowed to attend executive-level conferences.

The President chose to make Burns his executive – taking her from the vice president.

She was still receiving mentoring, now not only from the company’s President but also from more executives at Xerox.

During the 90s, she guided teams in office network printing and fax areas of the business, then in 1999 was appointed the role of Vice President of global manufacturing.

In 2000, seeing the company’s problems, she chose to leave but was talked out of it by the board of directors.

At that point, she started to think that perhaps someday she would be CEO.

During the next few years, Burns became a senior vice president over two groups and then began working with Ms. Mulcahy as she began work to shift the company around.

Burns became CEO in 2009, with Mulcahy staying chairwoman of the board.

In 2010, she became chairwoman as well as staying on as CEO.

She was the first-ever black woman to be CEO of a Fortune 500 organization and the first to ever take over from another female CEO.

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