As a child, Ursula Burns was told she had three things against her — she was Black, she was a woman and she was poor. Thirty years later, she became the first African American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.
Burns was raised in a public housing project in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her mom, a constant pillar of support, reminded her that where she was didn’t define who she was. Burns dreamed of being an engineer — and after getting a scholarship to the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, she got a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 1980.
That summer, she began an internship at Xerox and never really left. She eventually got her mater’s in mechanical engineering at Columbia — Xerox even helped foot the bill. By the time the ‘90s rolled around, Xerox was slowly dying as new technology forged ahead. By 2000, it was in major debt. It only become profitable again after outsourcing its manufacturing in 2004, which Burns took charge of. She became president in 2007 and later CEO in 2009.
She later became a major force in some of Xerox’s biggest accomplishments. She stepped down as CEO in 2016, but continues to receive accolades, and advocate for minorities and women.