Wearing a gray suit and an expression that showed just how many times she’s been asked to speak with reporters and at events, Ursula Burns, the CEO and chairman of Xerox, walked into what she called “the cold room” at the Gotham Hall event space in Midtown Manhattan. A couple hundred people had all gathered Thursday to honor Burns with the Prism Award for Distinguished Leadership, an award presented by New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies Graphic Communications Management and Technology graduate program. Before the awards luncheon got underway, MadameNoire Business was given the chance to sit down with Burns for a few too short minutes.
Burns is the first African-American woman to head up a Fortune 500 company (if you have time, be sure to watch the video at that link when you finish this story) and ranks number 14 on the magazine’s list of Power Women. She took the CEO position in July 2009 and became chairman in May 2010. She started with Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering intern. Basically, it’s the path to the top that so many business aspirants are working for.
Shortly after she became CEO, she was leading the largest acquisition in Xerox’s history, valued at $6.4 billion. She heads a company with 140,000 employees spread across 160 companies.
“Women and underrepresented minorities have come a long way,” Burns told us. “At all levels of leadership, we’re starting to see more and more women and African-American males. We’re just at the start. It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary.”
The quote from her speech that has been picked up in a couple of media outlets refers to the increase in the number of women in STEM professions: “There’s a tidal wave that’s coming. The best companies won’t be dragged along.”
“It’s important,” she continued, that companies “grab quicker” in order to get the best qualified women — of all races and ethnicities — who are coming into the fold.
The number of black women in leadership positions — throughout the C-suite, for instance — is still small, though growing. For many black women, the obstacles leading up the ladder continue to loom tremendously. Among them, things like appearance. For women, black women in particular, these superficial things can become a big deal.
“You can’t call it superficial,” Burns disagreed quickly. For example, being a woman definitely isn’t superficial. However, “being black is superficial,” she continued, emphasizing how race, though important in one sense, certainly doesn’t determine ability. Burns acknowledged that “for many years” these two things were the primary ways that women were identified. But there’s change afoot, and the optimism and hopefulness that Burns clearly feels comes through when she talks about the topic.
Other aspects of how we look — hair, for instance — are of even less significance.
“Black women spend more time thinking about their hair than anyone else,” she continued. “Majority men don’t get it… It’s in our own culture.”
Rather, we should focus on the work; what we’re passionate about and how we can stand apart doing that thing that we love.
“Getting there has 100 percent to do with your efforts,” she notes. “We’re at the beginning of the transition that has happened for most groups before us. We have to continue the work.”
Before I had a chance to ask, Burns was off to take her spot on the stage for the start of the awards ceremony. Thankfully, she got around to answering the question that was next on my lips: How do you get excited about Xerox? Answer: Ursula Burns is very excited about the company she’s been a part of for 30 years because it’s about more than photocopies. During her comments, she noted that the company hasn’t made a standalone copier since 2007.
“[Xerox is one of] the leading indicators of the way a lot of businesses will change,” she said during her remarks. In so many ways, Burns’ comments were focused on the future just as much as they were on the present state of business.
Interestingly, I was seated next to a young woman who had just graduated from the NYU-SCPS program and talked about how she wanted to work her way into a managerial position. She came to this country from Bulgaria and has worked hard to build a career in the graphics design area despite her family’s concern. This young woman is one of the drops in the tidal wave that Burns was referring to.