Ursula Burns didn’t view her appointment as the CEO of Xerox in 2009 as a significant accomplishment until she started getting calls from people like Magic Johnson and Al Sharpton.
She quickly became aware that she was the first Black woman to serve as CEO of a Fortune 500 firm. Burns experienced some overwhelm, but her commitment to her work, her ambition, and the fact that she was at ease being the only Black woman and person of color in the room allowed her to hold the post for six years.
According to Burns, being the only Black woman in the room was neither a burden nor a disadvantage.
“If I raised my hand in any meeting, almost surely, it was called on,” Burns said. “You’re so different that, at least in open spaces, they can’t ignore you.”
Burns moved to the United States at the age of two after being born in Panama. The former CEO claimed that she and her two siblings were reared by their mother, who worked as a childcare provider and office cleaner. She frequently said to Burns and her two siblings, “Where you are is not who you are,” while teaching her three children to go out and make things happen for themselves.
Burns followed her mother’s advice, enrolling at Columbia University and choosing a profession in which she would be one of a select few. Even then, the majority of Black persons in a room were guys, but once more, Burns was never troubled by being one of the few Black people present. Instead, it encouraged her to stand out.
“MY NATURAL COMFORT IS BEING THE ONLY OR THE FEW IN A ROOM—I WAS ALWAYS A LITTLE BIT OF A LONER, SO IT DIDN’T BOTHER ME,” BURNS SAID. I BECAME VERY GOOD AT PLAYING IN THAT SPACE.”
Burns was truly in a space by herself while she was the CEO of Xerox.
Women of color make up less than 2% of CEOs today, and less than 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. There are now two Black female CEOs in the United States: Thasunda Brown Duckett, CEO of TIAA, and Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance.
Being a minority, which Burns felt was more of an advantage than a hindrance, and having a strong work ethic were three factors that helped her advance to a CEO position.
“If I had an idea, somebody would pay attention. Being the minority turned out to be advantageous—at least at Xerox—despite the fact that they might not always understand it or agree, according to Burns.