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Unbelievable as it might seem, it took until 2009 for the first Black woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. It happened when Ursula Burns accepted the top role at Xerox. Now a board member for enterprises like VEON, Diageo and Uber, Burns is the model of corporate success for anyone wanting to climb ranks and become a leader and pioneer in their chosen field.
When times got tough in the C-suite, Burns says it was the pearls of wisdom her mother shared over the years that helped her pivot and make important decisions. “I don’t want to overemphasize this, but not a day goes by when I don’t think about my mother and what she would think about what I just did. I often adjust my approach,” Burns said in a 2011 interview with Fast Company.
Here are three lessons Olga Burns taught her daughter that helped her become the business visionary she is today.
1. “If you get the chance to speak, then speak”
In 1990, a senior executive at Xerox named Wayland Hicks offered Burns a job as his assistant. At the time, Burns believed it would just be basic administrative or secretarial work.
Then she realized she was thinking about it all wrong. It could be that, but it could also be her big break — if she took advantage of the opportunities presented each day. As Hicks’ assistant, Burns had the chance to rub shoulders with all the people her boss worked with. She worked hard to earn their respect and consideration, using her honesty and confidence as assets.
Fast forward to 1999 — not even a decade later — and Burns was already Xerox’s vice president of global manufacturing. It was around this time that Burns began to work closely with Anne Mulcahy, another Xerox employee who had ascended the ranks internally. Mulcahy became CEO in 2001, and noted in a Fast Company interview that “The thing I valued most about Ursula, and why I valued her participation in senior management, is that she has the courage to tell you the truth in ugly times.”
At every step of Burns’s journey, she took the opportunity to let her voice be heard. Burns became Mulcahy’s successor in 2009 in a remarkably seamless transition.
2. “Your environment does not define you”
Ursula Burns grew up on the Lower East Side, supported by a single mother working every possible job to help she and her two siblings succeed. Many people let the circumstances of their upbringing diminish their capacity for success, but Olga Burns never let her daughter feel like her environment would hold her back.
“She constantly reminded me ‘Where I was didn’t define who I was,’” shared Burns in her Lean In story. In other words, Burns always knew her current environment did not define her future prospects.
Even though her origins are humble, she didn’t allow them to define her. When she was offered a spot at a prestigious university, Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, she almost didn’t go because she thought she wouldn’t belong. She ended up going for it, thanks to her mom’s words, saying the courage and confidence of her mother enabled her to take that opportunity.
3. “Leave any place you are a little bit better than you came in”
Ursula Burns is known for her legendary “missionary” style leadership. Throughout her career, she’s practiced what she preaches. She credits that attitude to her mother. “She would always say that you have to leave the place — any place you are — a little bit better than you came in,” Burns said in an interview with World Finance.
Throughout her time at Xerox and even during her stint as leader of the White House National STEM program in 2009, she did her utmost to make any place she was in better.
Burns used her advantageous position of leadership to trust and listen to her team. When people spoke up, she heard them. Even if they didn’t have the traditional background Xerox or the White House might expect, she still listened to what anyone had to say. She also did her best to find and provide mentors for up-and-comers, because she credited so much of her own success to finding mentors to help her flourish.
And of course, Burns never would have become Xerox’s CEO if she’d abandoned the company during the insolvency crisis of 2000. Instead, she stayed and helped it work through it, keeping her mother’s words at the forefront of her mind. She credits determination as a key factor in her ultimate rise to CEO.
Ursula Burns’s guidance counselor told her in high school that she could either be a teacher, a nun or a nurse. Instead, she chased her passion and ambition. She credits that attitude to the life lessons her mother taught her; for up-and-coming entrepreneurs, the same lessons can apply.
Use every opportunity as a chance to speak your mind.
Where you are today does not define who you’ll be tomorrow.
Make sure that you leave every place a little better than you found it.
These lessons not only guide aspiring entrepreneurs to a more successful future, but a happier and more fulfilling journey along the way.