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Lesson in Success: Ursula Burns--From Projects to Penthouse

Mon, 04/08/2013 - 9:15am | by Helen Hoart

If you're looking for inspiration or a role model than consider Ursula Burns. Burns is an inspiration for those looking to climb the corporate ladder, and a shining example of someone who accomplished her ultimate goals despite the odds against her.

Lower East Side Days

Burns' mother, an immigrant from Panama, did everything she could to ensure her daughter had a chance to succeed. She operated a daycare out of their Baruch House apartment on Delancy Street and did laundry for neighbors to make extra money. In a July 2012 interview, Burns said people assume since she grew up in a crime-ridden place, that everyone in the housing project was unsavory and unscrupulous. "We just didn't have the economic means that some other people did," she said. "Everybody I knew was just working hard to make a better life." Boxer Rocky Graziano and rapper Tru Life were also raised in Lower Manhattan and became successful in their respective fields.

Burns graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school before attending NYU-Poly and earning her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. She began her career at Xerox in 1980 as an intern and completed her master's degree in engineering at Columbia a year later. She became an executive assistant to then-CEO Paul Allaire in June 1991, her first major promotion. Burns was named senior vice president in 2000, and was promoted to CEO in July of 2009.

Immediate Impact

The belief that one person cannot make a difference is frequently put to rest by savvy business minds. Brian Ferdinand of Liquid Holdings once turned a single-person brokerage firm called ECHOTrade into a $100 million-a-year powerhouse. Similarly, former Nextel CEO Tim Donahue brokered the $35 billion merger with Sprint in late 2004. Burns, just a few months after becoming CEO, brokered the deal to acquire Affiliated Computer Services for $6.4 billion. It was Xerox's largest acquisition in company history. Xerox, under Burns' leadership, acquired 18 more companies in 2011, according to S&P Capital IQ. The company acquired British data-mining outfit WDS last year, along with at least five others. CNN ranked Burn 7th on their 50 Most Powerful Women In Business list in 2012, and Forbes ranks her 17th on their Power Women list.

A Wanted Women

Burns success has made her a popular individual in the corporate world. Not only is she CEO of Xerox, but is also on the board of directors for American Express and Exxon Mobil. President Barack Obama named her Vice Chairperson of the President's Export Council, the White House's primary advisory board for international trade, in 2010.

Do you have a favorite inspirational rags to riches story like Ursula? Please let us know in the comments.


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