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Ursula Burns' New Memoir Chronicles Her Journey From New York Tenements To Xerox CEO

Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns. (Photo by Claudio Marinesco)
Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns. (Photo by Claudio Marinesco)

When Ursula Burns was named the CEO of Xerox in 2009, her promotion was hailed as a groundbreaking achievement: Burns was the first Black woman to head a Fortune 500 company.

She took over Xerox at a critical time when the country was just coming out of the 2008 recession. And as Burns writes in her new memoir, she began as an intern and worked her way up over three decades.

Along the way, Burns was fortified by the wisdom of many mentors including her mother, who inspired the title “Where You Are Is Not Who You Are.” Her mother — a first-generation immigrant, single parent and welfare recipient — always believed Burns would be successful.

“When we were growing up, [my mother] would say to me always, this place that we live in that is run down and dirty, this neighborhood that we live in that is disordered and not cared for, is not who you are,” Burns says. “Who you are is the people you surround yourself with, who you are is the values that you have.”

Burns’ mom never made more than $4,400 a year, a reality for millions of Americans even today. In her memoir, Burns chronicles the grit and lessons she learned through overcoming poverty that helped her in her corporate career.

In college, Burns says she knew her tenacity and confidence set her apart from other students in the classroom. And it’s played a role in her rise to success at Xerox and her work in board rooms.

Burns studied mechanical engineering and writes that she was often treated as extraordinary because she was Black woman who excelled in science. Even as she became a CEO, this bothersome treatment persisted.

People tell her she’s exceptional to make themselves feel better about the fact that no one else in the room looks like her and justify the lack of diversity, she says.

“That may be a very negative approach to the compliment, but I don’t feel it as a compliment,” she says. “I don’t see myself as being exceptional in any way.”

In 2014, Forbes ranked Burns as one of the most powerful women in the world. More diversity at the top of the corporate ladder is needed to change this “exclusive club of wealth and power and influence,” she says.

To integrate corporate leadership, the U.S needs to equitably improve education in low-income neighborhoods, health care, opportunities to enter companies and funding for startups, she says.

After a lifetime of being treated as exceptional, Burns knows more people can do exactly what she’s done.

In 2009, Burns took on the monumental task of bringing Xerox into the future as CEO.

“Part of the challenge was fundamentally that when you are a behemoth, change is really, really hard,” she says. “All of the things about Xerox that were amazing were under attack not by necessarily competition, but by advancements in technology, period.”

Xerox excelled at direct sales and making machines that last — but the company needed to learn to let go of many of its strengths to adapt to changing times, she says.

Changing the company required getting a large number of people, both customers and employees, on the same page. And the emergence of social media also complicated the shift, she says.

In her book, Burns writes about her experience managing her home and work lives as CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Parents need support from businesses and the government in ways such as health care, child care, career progression and pay, she says.

“All the basic infrastructures of work cannot suffer because one gender has to actually physically carry the child and therefore, in the younger part of their life, are more naturally aligned to take care of the child,” she says. “This can’t be a negative.”

At the start of the book, Burns writes she didn’t feel her life was interesting enough to fill the pages. She hopes this book shows readers that people don’t need silver spoons or trust funds to change their communities — or even the world.

“I always push against this zero-sum game theory that we are playing right now, that I can only make it if I take it from you. It’s so untrue,” she says. “My life is proof that that’s not the case.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

Book Excerpt: ‘Where You Are Is Not Who You Are’

By Ursula Burns

I started writing this book well before the world as we knew it changed. Pre-pandemic and pre–social justice reawakening and pre–the end of the darkest four years in my life. I finally responded to the encouragements—“You have to write a book”—I received after speaking engagements and conversations. I must say that writing this book has been much, much harder than I thought it would be. Not only because of the before-and-after situation that we are still in the midst of, but also because it is hard for me to find a lot that is truly remarkable or book-worthy about my story. I am not being humble in that statement—the fact of the matter is that life happens one day at a time, and only in the retelling does it come together into remarkable, exciting, or insightful stories. In other words, you live your life not knowing the end of the story, and retell it only as if you knew what the outcome would be.

In this book I hope you see that good things can and do happen. I hope you see how much of a positive impact one person who is neither rich nor famous can have on the world. I hope you see that hard work, belief in yourself, and support by good people are the magic sauce.

As of this writing, the pandemic is still here, social justice is awakening, and post-Trump America is in inning number one, but I am optimistic about America and the world. As I love to say, the USA is not a zero-sum nation. I’ve seen over and over that it is not necessary for someone else to lose in order for me to win. Someone doesn’t have to starve for me to eat; someone doesn’t have to go without health care or an education for me to have them. America, the world is not playing a zero-sum game. I am optimistic.

Excerpt from Where You Are Is Not Who You Are: A Memoir by Ursula Burns. Published by Amistad. Copyright © 2021 HarperCollins.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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