It all began in 1980, when an 19-year-old Ursula Burns walked through the doors of Xerox Corp. to work as a summer intern. Over the next three decades she would put an indelible mark on the global leviathan. In July 2009, her prowess and performance led to a headline-grabbing milestone: Burns was installed as Xerox’s chief executive officer, becoming the first African American woman to take the helm of one of the nation’s largest publicly traded companies.
“Ursula takes on the leadership role the old-fashioned way,” announced Xerox chairman and outgoing CEO Anne Mulcahy, upon handing the reins to Burns. “She has earned it.” Mulcahy’s statement couldn’t offer more truth. The journey to reach the most competitive, demanding, and powerful corporate positions requires not just hard work but earned confidence and respect through unassailable, consistent execution. Those qualities have led the chosen few such as Burns to work in high-stakes arenas overseeing decades of brand equity, billions of dollars, and thousands of employees.
On a chilly December day, after trekking up to the city of Rochester, New York, members of the Black Enterprise editorial team got a firsthand glimpse of Burns’ focused demeanor and razor-sharp mind. Editorial Director Sonia Alleyne, who has spent years chronicling in the pages of be the trials and triumphs of women in business, conducted the interview and was quickly captivated by Burns’ wit, wisdom, and insight. She discovered that Burns’ entire 33-year career at Xerox affirmed the maxim of preparation meeting opportunity. Becoming CEO, Burns told Alleyne, was not planned but resulted from aligned, sequenced opportunities that were supported by a variety of mentors, sponsors, and advisers at every stage of her career.
It’s only fitting that we share Burns’ breakthrough in this issue. Burns has reached the height of corporate achievement among the executives and entrepreneurs featured on our 75 Most Powerful Women in Business list, also in this issue. be unveils this roster as we also prepare to bring together roughly 700 female professionals to network, share war stories, and develop business strategies at our fifth annual Women of Power Summit in La Quinta, California.
In developing this issue’s special package, Alleyne led her editorial and research teams to identify female power players across mature sectors and emerging industries, including entertainment and media mogul and be 100s CEO Oprah Winfrey; Tracey Travis, senior vice president of finance and CFO of Polo Ralph Lauren Corp.; and Valerie Mosley, senior vice president and partner of Wellington Management, a global asset management firm.
Burns, however, is in rare air. Although women currently comprise 46.5% of the U.S. workforce, at the largest publicly traded companies women held only 13.5% of executive officer positions and 6.3% of top earner positions; of that group, African American women comprise 1%. “Many black women in the senior ranks really did not have a road map. They are the first wavers,” says Ancella Livers, executive director for the Institute for Leadership Development & Research, for the Executive Leadership Council. “They may have had another family member in business, but probably not another woman who had risen as high as they had.”
Our editors were reminded anew of how the road to business advancement can be paved by hard work, strategy, and innovation, as well as directed by timing, opportune circumstances, and the right environment. But for more African American women to breach the barriers to those elusive positions, more role models and mentors are needed. Burns and the other female business leaders showcased on our list can motivate professionals already in the pipeline—and those yet to come. They prove that such accomplishments are, indeed, possible—and that’s powerful.