TheGrio's 100: Ursula Burns, Xerox CEO, an example to be copied

TheGrio's 100 - Burns joined Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern and worked her way to CEO...

Even though many of Ursula Burns’ business contemporaries knew of her 30-year affiliation with the 103-year-old office copier and printing conglomerate, her rise to the CEO position at Xerox Corporation last summer turned heads in global business and financial markets.

Perhaps unknown to Xerox customers: Burns, 51, is the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, and the first female CEO to take over for another woman. In 2009, she ranked 9th on Fortune magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business, the second-highest placed African-American woman behind Oprah Winfrey, ranked sixth.

Obviously, neither race nor gender proved insurmountable for Burns’ ascension to Xerox’s highest office. Neither did social or economic class. Raised by a single mother who made a living ironing clothes and in childcare, Burns grew up in a Lower East Side Manhattan housing project. She attended Cathedral High School and later earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic Institute of NYU and a master’s in mechanical engineering from Columbia University.

Burns joined the Norwalk, Connecticut-based Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern and later started working on product development and planning, according to Xerox’s Web site. Her career path between 1992 and 2000 was swift, with Burns leading several business teams, including the office network printing business.

In 2000, she was named senior vice president of Corporate Strategic Services, heading up manufacturing and supply chain operations. She next assumed leadership of Xerox’s product development, marketing and delivery as well as global research. Xerox named Burns president and board member in April 2007; she was named chief executive officer in July 2009.

Ms. Burns was featured in a February 2010, Sunday New York Times cover article, where she discusses her career, her views on corporate diversity and education, and her role in shaping the future of Xerox.

Xerox employs 54,000 people; it is the world’s leading document management, technology and services enterprise, along with consulting and outsourcing services. In October 2009, the company reported third-quarter total revenue down 16 percent from the previous year, but “the company is on track to reduce total debt by more than $1 billion this year,” states a company report.

This year, Xerox plans to acquire Dallas-based Affiliated Consumer Services (ACS), a $6.5-billion company that employs 76,000 people and supports multinational corporations and government agencies in 100 countries. Xerox shareholders will vote this month on the merger.

Burns sat down with CNBC’s Squawk Box in September 2009 to announce and discuss the proposed acquisition:

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Burns’ bold quest for ACS is characteristic for Xerox, a company that has a long history of being bold in several areas, suggests George C. Fraser, author of Success Runs In Our Race: The Complete Guide to Effective Networking in the African-American Community. Although he firmly states that there is no such thing as an “affirmative action CEO,” Fraser credits Xerox for having long nurtured some of the best black executive talent in America.

“Ursula is brilliant,” he says. “If Xerox decides to swallow up a slightly bigger fish (ACS) after having evaluated and done its analysis, then I put my money on Ursula,” says Fraser.

Burns serves on professional and community boards, including American Express, Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), MIT, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the University of Rochester. Burns was also named in November by President Barack Obama to help lead the White House’s STEM program on science, technology, engineering and math.

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