In 2009 Ursula Burns made history as the first African American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company when she became Chief Executive Officer of Xerox. A Xerox employee since the early 1980s, Burns was also the Chairman of the Board there from 2010 to 2017. During her tenure as CEO, she spearheaded the largest acquisition in Xerox history, the $6.4 billion purchase of Affiliated Computer Services. Her success has landed Burns on Fortune's and Forbes' lists of the world’s most powerful women. She has also provided leadership counsel to several other community, educational, and nonprofit organizations including the Ford Foundation, MIT, the Cornell Tech Board of Overseers, and the Mayo Clinic among many others. From 2009 to 2016, Burns led the White House national program on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) after being appointed by U.S. President Obama.
Among the many experiences that shaped her professional career, none seem bigger than her decision to work for Xerox, which led to her enrollment at Columbia University in 1981. Excellent at math, Burns had already started working at the Xerox Corporation as a summer mechanical-engineering intern through the company's graduate engineering program for minorities. One day, her bosses told her that they wanted her to get her master's degree and then come work for them. Xerox then put Burns in a program that paid for her to go to graduate school at Columbia. She did well and in 1982, she received her Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the Ivy League school.
Since graduating, Burns has made numerous visits to her alma mater for a wide range of public events. As a trailblazer in the business world, many of her talks at Columbia are based on lessons that she's learned over the course of her long and historic career. In 2012, for example, during an event hosted at the Columbia Business School, Burns spoke on the difficulties women and minorities face when climbing the corporate ladder. Similarly, in 2014, after being asked to be the Class Day speaker for Columbia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, Burns addressed the barriers faced by people who have similar backgrounds to her.
Then in 2019, ever the faithful alumna was back on campus for a topic she was well-versed on: women in technology. Hosted by the female Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Burns used her expertise to weigh in on such issues as combating discrimination against women while increasing female student interest in engineering. During the panel discussion, she also explained her choice of career. "I remember going to the library and saying, ‘OK, I need to figure out a way to get my mother out of poverty — myself as well. What's the degree that actually gets me the most money after four years of college?" What followed was not only a highly successful stint at one of the nation's best universities, but a revolutionary career that will continue to serve as inspiration for generations to come.