The Broyhill Executive Lecture Series, Leading Out Loud, presented their third guest speaker of the academic year, Ursula Burns, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Xerox on February 11, 2013. Wake Forest University Schools of Business Dean, Steve Reinemund, led a fascinating conversation with Burns, to a standing room only crowd at the Wake Forest University Worrell Professional Center. In 2009, Burns was named the Chief Executive Officer of Xerox, which made her the first African-American woman CEO to head a fortune 500 company. That same year, Forbes rated her 14th most powerful woman in the world. She has been described as a transformational leader in business, as well as an articulate, proactive, and a radical thinker – quick to act on issues that deserve immediate attention. Burns has a reputation of saying exactly what is on her mind.
Her message: Impatience IS a Virtue. She believes people SHOULD be impatient about certain problems we face in this country, whether it is in the workplace, in our schools, or in the community – these problems demand to be addressed and not put aside. Burns encouraged the audience to take note of the important issues we face today and work towards fixing them.
Dean Reinemund asked Burns to share her thoughts on overcoming obstacles regarding race and gender barriers. Burns replied, “It’s interesting that we can think about race and gender being barriers. It’s only in a country like this that race and gender can be a barrier, but then you can actually change that on its ears and make it not a barrier because it’s really not, it’s basically who you are, it’s a part of who you are. Part of my journey is about making that easier to be – a little bit easier to be a woman and be an African-American woman in business.”
Burns shared her beliefs about what it takes to be an effective leader, transforming a company on the brink of bankruptcy into a company that is leading the way in new technologies and new services. When she talks about mentors in her life, including her husband (now retired) who worked at Xerox as a Principle Scientist for 44 years, she emphasizes the importance of learning from other people. Anne Molcahy, former CEO of Xerox, who Burns talk about frequently, played a huge role in her success – from preparing her to take over as CEO to her incredible people skills, Burns admires her and even referrers to her as “flawless and graceful” in how she handled business. Overall, Burns attributes all of her mentors to her continuing success, leading Xerox to new heights. Xerox is going places they have never been before. They now offer services such as: customer call centers, health information exchanges, accounts payable and receivables, IT infrastructures and networks, and HR benefits programs among other new services and they are continuing to grow. Burns stressed, “There is still a lot of work to do.”
Burns discussed being raised by a single mother of three and of living in a low-income housing community in the lower eastside of Manhattan. She describes the neighborhood as really bad. Despite the odds her family faced, Burns said her mother’s expectations about discipline were very clear and extremely strict. Every penny her mother made went to providing a better life for her children. She took in ironing and ran a home daycare, then on the weekends she would clean offices. To understand the level of poverty they experienced, Burns said, “Her highest pay in a year was $4,400 dollars.” Because of her mother’s hard work and dedication, all three children were able to attend a Catholic school, which provided a safer, better education than the neighborhood schools. Later, she received her Undergraduate Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Polytechnic Institute of New York and Masters from Columbia University. Burns said she did well enough to get noticed and received a Higher Education Opportunity Program Scholarship – a scholarship that helps underprivileged students get ahead.
Speaking in front of large crowds, she has the opportunity to address an issue that she is very passionate about, calling it her crusade. Burns says, “There’s this insidious nature about money that you kind of get wrapped up into, getting more for the sake of getting more, when you’re not clear about what enough is.” She elaborated by explaining that once you reach a certain point, your family is taken care of and the bills are paid, money makes no difference to your happiness. “The things that make you happy, I mean like comfortable happy, has very little to do with money.” Burns stressed.
After audience questions, Burns ended with words that she encouraged every person in the room to live by and to really think about; words her mother taught her: You have to leave behind more than you take away; Where you are is not who you are; and we should feel unsettled if there are things around us that need to be changed – it is our job to figure out a solution.