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Started from the Bottom.
Now we here.
Welcome to Hustle and Grind’s 0 to 100 series, where we will cover a number of bonafide hustlers, entrepreneurs, and inventors on a (hopefully) weekly basis. The ‘here’ may change, whether it’s the Forbes list, heading Fortune 500 Companies or pure financial independence but the drive and the innovation are constants through and through.
It’s hard to believe that in the 21st there are still a number of barriers to break and overcome, but that’s exactly what Ursula Burns did in 2009, becoming the first ever black-American woman to become the head of a Fortune 500 company when she took over for Anne Mulcahy as CEO at Xerox.
She has been ranked as the 22nd and 29th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Burns has also overseen Xerox through some transitional phases (while emails, cloud technology, and social media are wonderful advancements – they’re not exactly helpful for a company known for printing, scanning and leaking the desktop interface to Apple in the 1980’s) and won numerous business awards.
However, to start there would overlook the long journey Burns took to get to the groundbreaking position she holds. It’s hard enough to even get a job or internship at Xerox let alone rise all the way to run the company. It’s even harder starting where Burns began.
Growing up in New York, Burns was raised by a single mother in a public housing neighborhood in Manhattan.
Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor.
However, despite what told her, Burns did not see her life as already having three strikes.
I was black.
I was a girl.
I was poor.
Burns could not do anything about the first two points, the last “strike” wasn’t a strike at all but simply her starting point. What others saw as insurmountable odds, Burns saw simply saw as her life. There was nothing she could do about where she came from or the situation she inherited, all she could look to do was better herself and make an opportunity where others saw none.
Through school, Burns was a strong student, especially in math science, where she always seemed excel. Recognizing she needed to focus on her strengths improve her lot in life, Burns looked into well-paying professions that utilized those skills. Burns enrolled in college first as a chemical engineer before switching to a mechanical engineering degree which she earned at Polytechnic and eventually getting her Masters of Science from Columbia University.
I can assure you that at my commencement, no one was pointing at me and predicting that I would become CEO of anything.
Burns’ rise to eventual CEO was straight up the company chain at Xerox having worked there for over 35 years as of 2016, first starting as a summer intern in 1980 before joining the company full-time in 1981 and remaining ever since.
At Xerox Burns was known for her “unconventional ways” and unconventional thinking. It’s part of the difficulty of working for such a large and established company. Most are not interested in changing what works. The assumption being that what works now will continue to work. Xerox did copying and printing and they did it better than any other company in the world, why change what has always worked? It’s like sitting at the helm of a large ship, it can steam forward but to change its course and prevent it from hitting an iceberg takes a lot of effort. Even moreso when those around you can’t even see the iceberg ahead or just want to ignore it completely. However, going against most everyone else at the table, whether they were senior to her or not paved the way for Burns success. Some people may know you are worth listening to even if they don’t heed your advice.
I didn’t learn to be quiet when I had an opinion. The reason they knew who I was is because I told them.
It was the math and engineering background helped give Burns her thought process. While dealing with CEOs and others with business degrees, Burns background gave her an outside perspective.
Though Xerox has been around for 110 years, it has not been without its troubles. Facing financial troubles in the year 2000, Burns, who had since risen within the company from intern to executive assistant to executive in her own right, along with 100 other executives, was offered a severance package. The future of the company and, therefore, her position were uncertain. It would have been hard to fault Burns if she had chosen to leave. Although she had been with Xerox her entire professional career, with such uncertainty ahead she did not have to stay.
My entire existence, my business personality, my practices at work – how I lead, manage, and interact – the foundation of it all is my engineering education
Yet Burns, along with most of the executives, decided to stay. Not only did the company and Burns survive the turmoil but they thrived together and Burns rose all the way up the ranks until she was in charge of the very company where she started all those years ago. No “three strikes” to speak of, Burns was not only still in the game but taking it places it had never been before.
For Burns, it wasn’t about where she came from, what her situation was – these were all things that were out of her hands. What was in her hands and what she could control was her work ethic, her education, and her movement within the company that hired her. Neither she nor Xerox could have known where she would have risen to when she started in 1980, but she knew she had to work. Nothing had been handed to her up to that point, and nothing would be from then on. Burns earned every single thing that came to her.
From public housing to the head of a company with over $21.4 billion in annual revenue and an 8-figure salary to boot.
As Burns proves:
It’s not about what others say or think your weaknesses are.
It’s not about what you came from or who your parents are.
It’s about what you do.
It’s about how you handle yourself day in and day out, for the 35 years at Xerox, for the 20 years before that growing up in less-than-ideal circumstances.
Burns powered through it all and made history.