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Meet the Caribbean American: Ursula Burns, first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company

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As we celebrate Caribbean American Heritage Month, we shine a spotlight on the remarkable contributions of Caribbean Americans whose pioneering work has often gone unheralded. From groundbreaking inventions to trailblazing achievements in various fields, these individuals have left an indelible mark on history.

Ursula Burns is an influential businesswoman with a notable career, particularly in technology and corporate leadership. Burns is known for her tenure as the CEO of Xerox from 2009 to 2016. As the first African American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, she shattered glass ceilings and inspired countless individuals to pursue their ambitions regardless of background or gender.

Born in 1958, Ursula Burns was raised by a single mother in the Baruch Houses, a housing project in New York City. Both of her parents were Panamanian immigrants. She attended and graduated from Cathedral High School, a Catholic all-girls school in New York.

After high school, Burns went on to study at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now New York University Tandon School of Engineering), earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1980. That summer, she interned at Xerox as part of a program designed to support underrepresented minorities in engineering. This internship not only gave her valuable experience but also provided financial support for her master’s degree at Columbia University, which she completed in 1981.

Career in business at Xerox

Burns began her journey with Xerox as a summer intern in 1980 and officially joined the company in 1981. Throughout the 1980s, she held various roles in product development and planning.

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In January 1990, her career took an unexpected turn when Wayland Hicks, a senior executive, offered her a position as his executive assistant. In June 1991, she became the executive assistant to then-chairman and CEO Paul Allaire. By 1999, she was named vice president for global manufacturing.

In May 2000, Burns was appointed senior vice president of corporate strategic services and began working closely with Anne Mulcahy, soon-to-be CEO, in what both described as a true partnership. Two years later, Burns became president of business group operations.

In 2007, she was promoted to president of Xerox. By July 2009, Burns was named CEO, succeeding Mulcahy, who remained chairwoman until May 2010. Burns made history as the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company and the first woman to succeed another woman in such a position.

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In 2016, she led Xerox in a split into two independent companies: Xerox Corporation and Conduent Incorporated. She remained chairwoman and CEO of Xerox through the process, but stepped down as CEO in December 2016, succeeded by Jeff Jacobson. She retained the title of chairwoman of the newly formed document technology company until May 2017, when she left the Xerox board and her role as chairperson.

Burns has served on numerous boards, including those of ExxonMobil, American Express, Nestlé, and the University of Rochester. In September 2017, she joined the board of directors of Uber.

Additionally, Burns is active on several private company boards and provides leadership counsel to various community, educational, and non-profit organizations, including the Ford Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Mayo Clinic.

Public service and private life

In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama appointed Ursula Burns to help lead the White House National STEM program, a position she held until 2016. In March 2010, President Obama also appointed her as vice-chair of the President’s Export Council, where she served from 2015 to 2016.

In 2014, Forbes ranked Burns as the 22nd most powerful woman in the world; in 2010, she was ranked 14th on the same list. Burns was married to Bermudian Lloyd Bean, a Xerox scientist, until his death in 2019. She has a daughter, Melissa, and a stepson, Malcolm.

In February 2022, Burns was appointed Vice Chair of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Advisory Council on Supply Chain Competitiveness.

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