Ursula Burns

“I am a black woman who doesn’t play golf, doesn’t belong to or go to country clubs, doesn’t like NASCAR, doesn’t like country music, and has a Science degree in engineering.  Like a typical New Yorker, I speak very fast, with an accent and vernacular that is definitely New York City, Black tilted.  So, when someone says I’m going to introduce you to the next CEO of Xerox, and the candidates are lined up against a wall, I would be the first one voted off the island.”     

— Ursula M. Burns

Run, don’t walk, to buy this book about the amazing life and career of Ursula Burns, who rose to lead and help save the Fortune 500 company, Xerox. If you’re looking for life and business lessons about how to navigate both as a black woman, this book is for you. If you’re wondering why girls should study STEM subjects and become engineers in our changing economy, you’ll understand why. And if you’re ready to be inspired during this difficult time in America, Ursula’s story of being a poor immigrant’s daughter delivers.”

–Hillary Rodham Clinton

When Ursula Burns, a twenty-eight-year veteran of the Xerox Corporation, was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the $8 billion company in 2009, there was a huge uproar in the press.  Thrust into the public eye as a curiosity, the focus of numerous headlines about Burns and her appointment was that she was the first African American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company and that for the first time the mantle of CEO was being passed from one woman to another.  As far as she’s concerned, the press totally missed the story.  Says Burns, “It should have been how did this happen?  How is it that the Xerox Corporation had two female CEOs, one after another?  How did the Xerox Corporation produce the first African American woman CEO?  Instead there were these ridiculous stories that basically proclaimed, ‘Oh my god, two women, not just one’ and ‘Oh my god, a Black woman made it.’”   

Ursula Burns’s autobiography, WHERE YOU ARE IS NOT WHO YOU ARE: A Memoir (Amistad; June 15, 2021; $27.99), is a smart, no-nonsense book that is part personal narrative and part cultural critique.  In it the author writes movingly about her journey from the tenement slum housing of Manhattan’s gang and drug infested Lower East Side where she grew up, to the highest echelons of the business world.  Crediting her success to her mother, a Panamanian immigrant on welfare who set no limits on what her children could achieve, Burns details the barriers, challenges and realities she overcame at school, where she was put in a special category—unique, amazing, spectacular—because classmates, mostly students of privilege, “just couldn’t comprehend how a Black girl could be as smart as or, in some cases, smarter than they were.”  She often faced the same attitudes in a corporate milieu that was overwhelmingly white and male.  With characteristic frankness Burns writes, “We all start out with two arms and two legs and a head, but if you’re born white with testicles and a penis, you’re already way ahead of the game.”    

Burns also reflects on what’s happening in this country today: the Pandemic and its financial challenges; the role that corporations must play in maintaining not just the economy but also a good and healthy society; the need for racial and economic justice; how greed is threatening democracy and what we can do about it.  “I do not believe in socialist or communist systems in which resources are distributed evenly, independent of effort, education or accomplishment,” writes Burns.  “But I also do not believe that the current version of American capitalism is operating correctly.”

Highlights of WHERE YOU ARE IS NOT WHO YOU ARE include:

  • The extraordinary story of her mother Olga Racquel Burns, a single mother who navigated a new country with no marketable skills and three children to support.  Olga’s unrelenting concern for her kids and the strict demands and life lessons she drummed into them—captured in a series of odds sayings she’d often repeat, including the one Ursula chose for the title of this memoir—instilled in Burns the foundation that governed her future. 
  • The story of Olga’s passing at age 49, when Ursula was just 25, and its harsh lesson on how not having money and not having a voice can fundamentally change the quality of health care one receives.  Burns writes, “She was one of the many, many dots on the board in Bellevue, a hospital that was trying its best to provide health care to people who couldn’t afford the best, who didn’t have great advocates, who didn’t get care early enough.  Like so many others today, my mother was a victim of poverty.”  
  • Ursula recounts her own dedication to education and hard work, and how she took advantage of the opportunities and social programs created by the Civil Rights and Women’s movements as she worked her way from the local parochial school to a Catholic High School, and from there to Polytechnic Institute of New York in pursuit of an engineering degree, and ultimately to Columbia grad school, sponsored by Xerox, where she had been a summer intern.  Burns slams the drive to eliminate the kinds of opportunities that helped her as “tragic for all those who need just one break to cement a better future.”     
  • Fascinating details of Burns’ 35-year career at Xerox, a company that had already gone through two or three near-death experiences by the time she took the helm.  Ursula’s career there was all about fixing things, from cutting millions of dollars as head of manufacturing to saving the company from bankruptcy to acquiring a $6 billion business services company that gave Xerox a future.  It was not an easy ride.
  • Reflections on Xerox’s shift to outsourcing and automation in the early ‘90s and the agonizing decisions that came with it as Burns sought to balance her responsibilities to the shareholders, the customers, her employees, the community and the government.  Burns looks at the ongoing backlash to globalization today and what gets overlooked with the insistence that American companies operate with their eyes focused only on the U.S.   
  • Ursula’s unique perspective on what she calls the “ghettoization” of America.  Whether she’s looking at the corporate model that basically remains white male, or the communities we have developed that are divided by color, by nationality, by income, her viewpoint is of someone who had lived in her own racial ghetto for years and years as “the only” among her fellow students and white colleagues. 
  • Details of her work as Vice-Chair and then Chair of President Obama’s Export Council including her account of an extraordinary fact-finding visit to Cuba with the President and his family in March 2016, the first visit by an American President to that country since 1928.  Burns, who has traveled extensively thanks to her work at Xerox, reveals why this trip was one of the most memorable of her life.
  • A look at the current Pandemic and how it compares to the financial crisis of 2007/08.  Burns also discusses predictions that 60 percent of the jobs that exist today will be gone or reconfigured in the next ten to twenty years.  Always on the side of the laborer, she celebrates a time when CEOs lived in the communities alongside their workers, while showcasing the ways corporate culture is destroying the spirit of democracy.      
  • The lessons she learned from key mentors during her journey in the corporate world including the late Vernon Jordan, a towering corporate titan and adviser to President Clinton; Ken Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express on whose board she sat; and Wayland Hicks and Paul Allaire of Xerox who gave her an immersive education in leadership that would prove crucial when she took the over the company’s reins.     

The book concludes with Ursula’s musings on the grip that the old white male establishment has on the definitions and measures of and for success, and why traditional measures of power in business—what size organization you lead; how many people work for you; the amount of revenue generated—leaves out so many other measures of accomplishment including social justice, educational, and religious impacts.  She writes about the power of access, and more importantly the negative impact of lack of access, at a time when poverty is often demonized and poor schools, poor health care, poor jobs are ignored.  And she looks at how business government, NGO’s, and educational institutions must come together in a new grand bargain that redefines capitalism. 

Empathetic and dedicated, idealistic and pragmatic, Ursula wants people to see that good things can and do happen, and how much of a positive impact one person who is neither rich nor famous can have on the world.  Above all she wants them to see that hard work, belief in oneself, and support by good people are the magic sauce.  “As of this writing,” notes Burnes, “the pandemic is still here, social justice is awakening, and post-Trump America is in inning number one, but I am optimistic about America and the world.  As I love to say, the USA is not a zero-sum nation.  I’ve seen over and over that it is not necessary for someone else to lose in order for me to win.  Someone doesn’t have to starve for me to eat; someone doesn’t have to go without health care or an education for me to have them.  America, the world is not playing a zero-sum game.  I am optimistic.”  

About the Author:

Ursula M. Burns is an American businesswoman. She is currently Senior Advisor of Teneo Ltd and serves on the Board of Directors of Uber, Exxon Mobil, Nestle, Waystar and IHS Holdings. She also serves on the Board of the Ford Foundation, Mayo Clinic and MIT as well as other non-profit organizations. She was the Chairman of Veon Ltd. from 2017 to 2020 and CEO from 2018 until 2020. She served as CEO of Xerox from 2009 to 2016, and as Chairman from 2010 to 2017. She regularly appeared on Forbes’ and Fortune’s most powerful woman lists. She was a leader of the STEM program of the Obama White House from 2009 to 2016, and Vice Chair of the President’s Export Council from 2010 until 2015 and then Chair of the President’s Export Council from 2015 to 2016. She lives in London and in New York.

For further information about WHERE YOU ARE IS NOT WHO YOU ARE, or to arrange an interview with Ms. Burns, please contact Paul Olsewski at [email protected] or at 212-207-7912.