Ursula Burns grew up in a housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and now runs Xerox. Before the Lower East Side was cool, it was a hub for gangs.
Burns was raised by her single mother in a housing project there. Her mother ran a daycare center out of her home and ironed shirts so that she could afford to send Ursula to Catholic school.
A summer internship turned into a full-time job in 1981, when Xerox hired Burns as soon as she completed her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Columbia University. She’s now Xerox’s CEO and chairwoman. Burns is the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.
Here are the 10 success lessons from Ursula Burns – “Chairman and CEO of Xerox” for entrepreneurs,
1. Work hard and take advantage of opportunities
Ursula Burns knows how to take advantage of the opportunities that come her way. Working at Xerox offered many opportunities for learning, which she capitalized on.
The company was also ahead of its time, focusing on diversity long before other companies recognized that it made business sense. In her illustrious career at Xerox, she worked in many roles, including executive assistant. She also did a stint in London, UK.
2. Speak your mind
This can be a double-edged sword. Ursula Burns’ outspokenness served her well at Xerox, and allowed her to get many promotions. But not every company is that open-minded, and speaking her mind could have been a career ender at other firms.
She challenged others, including the CEO in meetings. Burns stands up for what she believes in. Not many would have the courage to do that. Not surprising, though, the most powerful communication is built on honesty and straightforwardness.
3. Draw your line in the sand
As a leader, you have to know beforehand, which line you are not prepared to cross. Ursula Burns’ weekends are sacred, and only for family.
In the past, she performed work after her kids had gone to bed and before they woke up in the mornings. She also made time to attend events that mattered the most to her children.
4. Be smart and fearless
Ursula Burns is an unconventional thinker, who embraces new ideas, even when the other more senior leaders shoot them down. She is willing to try new things, which allowed her to succeed in her career. Burns is smart about her career management and setting goals, which got her to the top at Xerox.
5. Persevere despite the odds
Ursula Burns could have used living in the projects as an excuse not to succeed, but she didn’t do that. Instead, she got a solid education, which was her ticket out of the projects.
She worked very hard alongside Anne Mulcahy to return Xerox to profitability. While Mulcahy traveled around to assure employees, Burns executed the turnaround plan, so when Mulcahy retired, she was the likely successor.
6. Learn the power of sharing stories
Everybody who works with Ursula knows that her son is at MIT, and her daughter is in high school, and how she grew up, this makes her personable and trustworthy. So many of us keep our work and personal lives separate, it is amazing what happens when you share information about yourself.
7. Know your factor
Burns knew what her factor. Your factor is a powerful, clear, positive idea that comes to mind when people think about you.
Ursula took “on roles of increasing responsibility, distinguishing herself as a quick study who could handle multiple tasks at once and wasn’t afraid to flag a problem.” Not only did Burns differentiate herself, she was not confined by the limitations of her job description.
8. Soak up your parent’s values
Her Mother had clear expectations and let the 3 kids know in no uncertain terms what they were. Some of her sayings were:
- “Where you are is not who you are.”
- “Don’t act like you’re from the gutter because you live in a place that’s really close to the gutter.”
- “Be good people.”
- “Be successful – You have to give more than you take away from the world. ”
- “You have to learn and you have to be curious.”
- “You have to perform at your best.”
- “ You have to worry about the things you can control.”
- “Don’t become a victim.”
9. Leverage your strengths
Ursula went to an all girls catholic school where she showed great strength in science and math. The Sisters advised her to get a degree in education when it was time for college, but Ursula had other thoughts.
According to a Forbes article, she went to the library and looked up math and science related careers to see which ones paid the most. She settled on becoming a chemical engineer since it was the number one income generater, but later decided to switch to the number two, mechanical engineering.
10. Don’t be overwhelmed by riches
She hasn’t moved out of Rochester, she still does her own grocery shopping, she does her own laundry and drives herself to work and home.