Unduplicated Success

Ursula M. Burns makes history as the first African American woman to head Xerox

relationship with Anne Mulcahy. She had an opportunity to be a part of important business conversations, to be seen as a strategic partner. That’s huge.”

Photo: Yoni Brook

Mulcahy's mentorship was key to Burns' ascension.

Burns confirms that part of Mulcahy’s strength was in orchestration. “[I] was totally empowered. She knew to not play the guitar, but make sure that the guitar was played well. It was perfect training for me.”

Burns has traveled a great distance from her roots on New York City’s Lower East Side. The middle of three children raised by a single mother, she went to work for Xerox as a 19-year-old summer intern in 1980 while studying mechanical engineering at Polytechnic University of New York University in New York City. “From the day I walked in, I was trained by Xerox to believe that what I did was real and had real impact. It was, ‘Here’s a problem; can you solve it?’” she says of her annual summer internships. “So therefore I got confident.”

After graduation, she was hired as a consultant and worked 100 days a year before gaining a full-time engineer post. Holding two degrees in mechanical engineering (she later received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University) and a passion for the work, she could have easily remained on the technical side, if she hadn’t been exposed to several key mentors—one of whom she married. Before they started dating, her husband, scientist and 43-year Xerox veteran Lloyd Bean, helped her with the “basic blocking and tackling of entering a company,” she says. “He also helped me to look up a little bit and realize it’s not only the labs.”

Within several years at Xerox, Burns gained two significant assignments that would help define her as a promising executive who could handle more than just lab work. In the ’90s, she served as executive assistant to two senior executives, Wayland Hicks, the company’s executive vice president who oversaw marketing, sales, service, and all field operations, and then CEO and chairman Paul Allaire when he took the helm. “Working for these two people got me publicly known inside the company,” she explains. “Before that I was not really exposed.”

Xerox was also undergoing a major transformation. Allaire, a former financial analyst, focused on reorganizing what had become a function-driven bureaucracy into an outfit with smaller,

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