Rags to Riches – the Millionaire Story of Ursula M. Burns

Raised by a single mom in a housing project in New York City, Ursula Burns rose from rags to riches via respect for her Mother’s values, hard work, a bent for science and math and trust in herself.

In 2010, her compensation package, as chairwoman and CEO of Xerox, was more than thirteen million dollars. She has been tapped by the President of the United States to serve on a national program on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and as a co-chair of the President’s Export Council. But the money and notoriety haven’t turned her from her core values, learned from Mom in the Baruch Houses on the Lower East Side, during the years when the project was filled with drug addicts and gangs.


Olga (Ms. Burn’s mother) was a single parent with three children and a black and white pragmatic outlook on life that helped her provide for and raise her children. She did laundry and cleaned for a doctor down the street as well as taking care of other people’s children in order to support her clan.

She had high expectations of her kids and didn’t hesitate to let them know about them. Some of her favorite sayings, according to Burns were:

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

Little Ursula took them to heart. She displayed remarkable talent at the all Catholic girls school – Cathedral High – on East 56th Street. When it came time to decide on colleges, the sisters urged Burns to turn towards education. Ursula wanted more financially from life than teaching could provide, even though she and her brothers never felt poor growing up – because of her Mom’s outlook on life.


Burns went to the library and researched jobs that used science and math and paid well. Discovering that Chemical Engineering paid the most, she started down that path in college, but soon diverted to the second highest paying science/math degree – Mechanical Engineering.

She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering, but then went on to earn a Master’s degree as well. During college, she landed an internship with Xerox and was hired on permanently after graduating.

Xerox days.

For about a decade, she learned the ropes in product development and planning, which paved the way for leadership roles in the 90’s. Due to that, she was invited to attend a work-life session, led by a senior executive of the company. It turns out this was the start of a string of events leading to eventually becoming the CEO. During that meeting, someone asked if hiring for diversity was causing work standards to be lowered. The executive addressed the question in the meeting. Burns was astonished that he even gave the question credence with an answer and said so to him after the meeting.

A week later, she was called into his office. He wanted to meet with her on a regular basis. He had noticed that she was curious about why the company was doing things a certain way and was always prepared. He offered her a job as his executive assistant – which was a position given to up and coming people in the company. In that position, she received mentoring from the senior executive and a chance to attend executive level meetings with him (along with assistants of other executives).

During these executive level meetings, which were held by the company president, she noticed a trend of the president saying they were going to stop hiring and then in the next meeting, hearing him announce that we hired a thousand more people. She raised her hand an asked him about it – who in the company had the power to stop the hiring? The president decided to make Burns his executive – stealing her from the vice president for whom she had been working!

She continued to receive mentoring, not only from the president of the company but also from other executives at Xerox.

During the nineties, she lead teams in the fax and office network printing areas of the company and in 1999 was named Vice President of global manufacturing. In 2000, seeing the turmoil and problems the company was having, she decided to leave, but was talked out of it by the board of directors. At that point, she began to think that maybe someday she would be the CEO.

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

In 2009, Burns became CEO, with Mulcahy remaining chairwoman of the board. Burns reportedly felt fortunate that there was an economic crisis when she took over as that gave her leave to demand more-better-faster than she might have been able to do in softer times. In 2010, Burns became Chairwoman as well as remaining CEO. She was the first black woman to be CEO of a fortune 500 company and the first to take over from another female CEO.

Mom gave the ‘gift of value and values’.

She credits her Mom as being 150% of the influence on her before she joined Xerox. At the YWCA Third Annual Empowering Women Luncheon, she told the audience that her Mother gave her and her brothers the gift of value and values.

This combination of talent, values, persistence, hard work and trust in herself and her voice helped Ursula rise to the top of a Fortune 500 American Corporation.

Well done Ms. Burns.


Xerox Press Release http://news.xerox.com/pr/xerox/ursula-m-burns.aspx

Rags to Riches CEOs: Ursula Burns By Lila MacLellan http://www.minyanville.com/businessmarkets/articles/rags-riches-ursula-burns-baruch-houses/11/18/2009/id/25351?page=full

Forbes http://www.forbes.com/2009/09/16/female-ceo-science-executive-forbes-woman-power-women-mythbusters.html

Video of YMCA Third Annual Empowering Women Luncheon http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0lTK4xN87k

Their Launching Pad By Michael Wilson Published: May 31, 2009 http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B07EFDD1F39F932A05756C0A96F9C8B63

Fast Company Executive Profiles http://www.fastcompany.com/article/ursula-burns-xerox

Xerox’s New Chief Tries to Redefine Its Culture By Adam Bryant Published: February 20, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/21/business/21xerox.html?pagewanted=all

Burns’ pay jumps to $13.2 million in 2010 By Andrea Deckert Rochester Business Journal April 12, 2011 http://www.rbj.net/article.asp?aID=187244

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