Becoming Xerox CEO 'shouldn't have been shocking': Ursula Burns

·3-min read

The annual Fortune 500 list made headlines this month as a marker of progress in corporate diversity, since for the first time it included at least two Black women chief executives: TIAA (TRGIX) CEO Thasunda Brown Duckett and Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) CEO Rosalind Brewer.

But headlines that trumpet the unique success of Black women executives may not deliver the message of progress they intend, says former Xerox (XRX) CEO Ursula Burns, who became the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company when she took over at Xerox in 2009. 

In a new interview, Burns says her appointment as CEO "shouldn't have been shocking," in light of her education and achievements prior to the accomplishment. Moreover, news stories that focused on her race and gender missed an opportunity to better understand what Xerox did to become a company that would promote diverse leadership, she said.  

Burns, who was raised in a public housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, earned a bachelor's degree from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and a master's degree in engineering from Columbia University. Prior to being named Xerox CEO, she had spent nearly three decades at the company.

"If you can [look at] my accomplishments in life at that point, I'd gone to two very, very good schools, one of them Ivy League; I had gotten a master's degree in engineering; I had spent over 28 years in a single company; I had done most of the jobs in that company." 

"So this shouldn't have been shocking," she adds. "I was the only thing that was different about me and the other CEOs — the only thing was my gender and my race." 

"These are two things that I love," says Burns, author of a new book entitled "Where You Are Is Not Who You Are: A Memoir." "But I didn't make [them]. I didn't own them. It just was who I was." 

Despite the record number of Black women on the Fortune 500 list, white people continue to hold the vast majority of top CEO positions. Only five Fortune 500 chief executives are Black more than a decade after Burns became Xerox CEO.

Fortune 500 companies did increase the share of Black board members in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd last May — but corporate boards remain 82.5% white, according to a study released this month by the Alliance of Board Diversity and the consulting firm Deloitte.

After leaving Xerox in 2016, Burns joined Amsterdam-based internet services company Veon as chairman, a role she held from 2017 to 2020, in addition to a period as the company's CEO. She is currently a member of the board of directors at Exxon (XOM), Uber (UBER), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, file photo, Ursula Burns, president and chief executive officer of Xerox, talks as Alan Mulally, president and chief executive officer of Ford, looks on during a Power Panel discussion at the 2012 International CES in Las Vegas. Xerox says Burns won’t be CEO after the company splits in two later in 2016. Burns became CEO of Xerox in 2009, becoming the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. Xerox says after the split she will become chairman of a newly formed document technology company. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File)
In this Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, file photo, Ursula Burns, president and chief executive officer of Xerox, talks as Alan Mulally, president and chief executive officer of Ford, looks on during a Power Panel discussion at the 2012 International CES in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey, File)

In her new memoir, Burns calls her notoriety as the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company a "ridiculous way to make history." She continues: "Was it truly so amazing to think a Black woman could lead a multi-billion dollar company?" 

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Burns said she wanted news coverage to focus on Xerox and the lessons that corporate America could learn from the company.

"My whole hope was that they would say we actually tried to move the conversation," she says. "How did this happen? How can this happen in Xerox?" 

"Because if we want more of this, we should probably look at what happened in this company, and try to see if there's anything we can learn," she adds. "Instead, it was this shock and awe of 'Oh my God, look at her. She looks so different.'" 

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