Ursula Burns Reflects on Being ‘the First’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

In 2009, Ursula M. Burns earned a promotion at Xerox and became the first Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The daughter of a single mother from Panama, Burns went to Brooklyn Polytech, now known as Polytechnic Institute of New York University, and landed her first position as an engineering intern at Xerox in 1980 at the age of 19. She went on to serve as Xerox’s CEO for six years until the company split in two with Conduent Inc.’s spinoff, at which point she served as chairman of the Xerox board.

Today, Burns is chairwoman of the international telecom company Veon and a founding member of the CEO-spearheaded nonprofit Change the Equation, focused on STEM education. Her first book, Where You Are Is Not Who You Are, is a memoir about her life and success in business. She spoke to the Cut about assumptions her colleagues made about her early in her career, “living in her head,” and rethinking what it meant to be the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Coming up, who did you look to as a mentor?
Early in my days at Xerox, it was a manager named Waylon Hicks, who thought I was bright and outspoken, and basically engaged me in a personal way, talking to me about my dreams, and my background and all that. I met my husband at Xerox, and he was an important mentor, too. He was very interested in making sure that I got a good grounding in some of the more social parts of the company. I got to know Vernon Jordan [the civil rights activist and businessman who was on the board of Xerox] in 1990, and he was the most single handedly impactful individual in my business life. He was hands on, when I came to the board to give presentations he would give me unbelievable feedback on everything, from how I dressed to how I spoke to how I answered questions.

When did you feel like you’d “made it” professionally? 
When I became president of the company, two years before I became CEO, that was the first time I said, “wow. there is no playing around anymore.” I was marked, in a positive way. Not only at Xerox, but outside of Xerox. I had more to disprove than to prove.

Around 2002, when I started to go to the business roundtable meetings, when I had transitioned to playing the bigger field, I didn’t realize I was going to make it, ultimately, but I realized I had moved to an extraordinary career. I was playing at a level that was fundamentally different.

Do you wish others would stop fixating on the fact that you’re “the first” and just focus on your work?
By the time I became CEO, I had been at Xerox for, what, 30 years? For me and the people in the company, it was the next natural step. So from the inside, we didn’t think about it as much as other people thought about it. I had done just about every job — so the question was more like: “When is it going to happen?”

When the news coverage started, it was clear to me that we had underplayed something that was fairly important. I had to adjust to how I approached it. It was “this Black woman became the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.” I could’ve been the CEO of Clorox. I had to think about it from this other point of view.

This was also the first time a female CEO succeeded another female CEO. We didn’t catch that one, but it’s also an interesting point. It felt great to become the CEO of Xerox. It felt great to be the first Black female CEO. But I also felt a little bit conflicted. Because for me, it was less about being Black and just about the fact of becoming CEO. Do you know how many people become CEOs? There are 500 Fortune CEOs. It’s a big deal, in and of itself.

Can you share a piece of advice you wish you’d had at the start of your career?
Slow down and enjoy the moments. Xerox had me all over the world. My first plane ride was to Florida. And I took the train home. I was 19. I hadn’t traveled anywhere. But I didn’t enjoy the moments, I ran through them. I tell everyone to take time and relax. That is part of the learning.

Have you experienced self-doubt?
I live in self-doubt all of the time. I am not one of those people that believes that I am bulletproof. Or the smartest person in the room. I will make a decision that day, and if I go home and don’t think about it again, this is a miraculous thing. Most of my friends do this as well. I live in my head. But I do not, generally, let it paralyze me.

If I have to move someone out of a role, that day is going to be the worst day in that person’s life in a month, or longer. That takes a massive amount of thinking.

Have you ever experienced pushback in your career, or felt that people have tried to prevent your success?
Of course, yes. Fortunately, early in my career, pushback was from people far away, not close by. It was less about me, personally, than the fact that I was Black, I was a woman, and I was young. Those three things are not generally attributes of people who run manufacturing. As I moved into more senior roles, inside of the company, I didn’t experience people trying to sabotage me — it may have happened, but I was way beyond paying attention to that.

I did experience, overall, questioning: “How did you really get here?” No one explicitly said it. At the beginning, it was age. People were flabbergasted that I was 31 and doing whatever the hell I was doing. “How old are you, again? And you’re doing what?” That. After a while, it became more clear that it was not overt racism, but it was structural bias.

Racism is there. Even to this day, I can go anywhere, do anything, but people assume that because I don’t have a penis and testicles, because I am brown, that they can predict my interests, how far I can go, and they make assumptions. I walk into Barney’s with my son, and the Black security guard will follow us. Because he has been brought up into a system that defines what we’re supposed to do and where we’re supposed to fit. The same reaction, in a positive way, happens to white men. The reason they think it’s normal is because it was set up for them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Ursula Burns Reflects on Being ‘the First’