First Black Woman CEO of a Fortune 500 Company: 5 Things about Ursula Burns
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Profiles - July 21, 2023

First Black Woman CEO of a Fortune 500 Company: 5 Things about Ursula Burns

Breaking barriers and shattering glass ceilings, Ursula Burns has etched her name in history as the first Black woman to ascend to the position of CEO at a Fortune 500 company. Having also been the first woman to succeed another woman as head of the company, Ursula Burns rose from humble beginnings to become a pioneering force in the world of business. 

Ursula Burns‘ influence extends beyond the boardroom. A fierce advocate for diversity and inclusivity, she has continuously championed equal opportunities for women and minorities in the corporate world. Her commitment to social causes and educational initiatives showcases a deep sense of responsibility to give back and create a more equitable society. Let’s take a look at some things about the visionary leader that are worthy of note.

Ursula’s journey and career at Xerox

Ursula Burns’ remarkable journey and career at Xerox began as a summer intern in 1980, and after completing her master’s degree, she joined the company permanently in the early 1980s. Throughout the decade, she held various roles in product development and planning. In 1990, an unexpected opportunity arose when Wayland Hicks, a senior executive, offered her a job as his executive assistant, which she accepted. 

She later became the executive assistant to the chairman and chief executive, Paul Allaire. Ursula’s dedication and talent led to her appointment as vice president for global manufacturing in 1999 and senior vice president of corporate strategic services in May 2000, where she formed a close partnership with the soon-to-be CEO, Anne Mulcahy. In 2007, Burns assumed the role of president of Xerox, paving the way for her historic appointment as the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company in 2009.

Her incredible rise to CEO

Upon her appointment as the CEO of Xerox Corporation In July 2009, succeeding Anne Mulcahy, Burns focused on transforming Xerox’s business model and expanding its services into areas like IT outsourcing and consulting. In 2013, Ursula Burns achieved a significant milestone in her career when she was named an International Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering while serving as the CEO of Xerox. 

Under her visionary guidance, Xerox underwent a major transformation in 2016, splitting into two independent companies: Xerox Corporation and Conduent Incorporated. During this transformative process, Ursula Burns remained as both chairwoman and CEO of Xerox. Subsequently, she assumed the role of chairwoman for the standalone document technology company after the split.

In December 2016, she stepped down from the CEO position but retained her title as chairwoman of the newly formed document technology company. Her tenure as chairwoman continued until May 2017 when she ultimately left the Xerox board and her role as chairperson, concluding her remarkable journey at the company.

She spearheaded the largest acquisition in Xerox history

Shortly after becoming CEO in 2009, Ursula Burns led Xerox in a historic move by spearheading the company’s largest acquisition to date: the purchase of Affiliated Computer Services for $6.4 billion. 

This strategic decision marked a significant shift in Xerox’s focus, transforming it from a global leader in document technology to the world’s most diversified business services company, catering to enterprises and governments of all sizes. Under her visionary leadership, Xerox expanded its offerings beyond traditional printing solutions and ventured into various business services, embracing innovation and positioning the company for greater growth and success in the modern market.

Ursula’s post-Xeros career

After concluding her successful career at Xerox, Ursula Burns continued to make her mark in the corporate world. In July 2017, she was elected as the Chairman of VEON, a prominent telecoms service provider ranked 11th globally by subscribers. Her appointment came at a crucial time when VEON was expanding its offerings to over 240 million customers, aiming to compete as a global online company.

With her expertise in leading corporate transformations, Burns became an instrumental force at VEON. In March 2018, following the sudden departure of the CEO, she was appointed as the Executive Chairwoman during the selection process for a new CEO. Later, in December 2018, her leadership skills and strategic vision were once again recognized, as she was appointed as the CEO of VEON.

Forbes named as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world

Ursula Burns’ impact goes beyond her CEO role, as evidenced by her recognition among Forbes‘ 100 most powerful women multiple times, ranking 29th in 2015. Committed to women’s empowerment and education, she dedicates time to organizations that encourage self-esteem, risk-taking, and ambitious dreams. Serving in leadership roles for various non-profit and educational groups, such as FIRST, National Academy Foundation, and the U.S. Olympic Committee fosters positive change. 

As a founding board director of Change the Equation, she advances STEM education in the U.S. Additionally, her involvement with The Business Council as vice chairwoman showcases her dedication to driving progress in the business community. Ursula Burns leaves a lasting legacy as a role model for women and a champion of education.

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