Xerox's Ursula Burns: U.S. Businesses Must Embrace Globalization

The first African-American woman to lead an S&P 500 company says businesses must constantly innovate to stay globally competitive.

The first African-American woman to lead an S&P 500 company says businesses must constantly innovate to stay globally competitive.

Xerox Chairman of the Board Ursula Burns has worked for nearly 40 years to ensure the printing and copying company adapts in an increasingly paperless world. A regular on both Forbes' and Fortune's most powerful women lists, Burns has come a long way from her childhood in the New York City housing projects.

Burns graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic Institute of New York University in 1980, and earned her master's the next year from Columbia University. Starting as an intern at Xerox in 1980, Burns worked her way up to the top position, becoming the first African-American woman to lead an S&P 500 company.

Burns became Xerox's president in 2007, CEO in 2009 and chairman in 2010. Soon after being named CEO, she led Xerox's $6.4 billion acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services, the largest purchase in company history.

In 2016, she spearheaded the company's split into two publicly traded companies: Xerox Corp., focused on document technology, and Conduent Inc., for business process outsourcing. She stepped down as CEO after the split, remaining chairman of the new Xerox.

Burns helped lead the White House's national STEM program from 2009 to 2016, and was chair of the President's Export Council from 2015 to 2016. She also sits on the board of directors of American Express, Exxon Mobil and the Ford Foundation.

Burns is among the 2017 STEM Leadership Hall of Fame inductees and is scheduled to speak at the U.S. News STEM Solutions National Leadership Conference in San Diego on May 25. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

You are regularly regarded as one of the most powerful businesswomen in the U.S. Did you always know that you wanted to lead a major company?

It came with time as I progressed in my career. You've got to think about the time that I grew up. I graduated from college in 1980; I graduated from high school in 1976. So I was growing up in the late 1960s, early 1970s. Access to the information for me to even know what a major company was, how one was structured, that kind of thing, was just not pervasive. So no, I didn't have any knowledge of or aspiration to be running a major company. I did, though, have very clear direction from my mother that I would be successful. That was an expectation that was laid pretty clearly, but her idea of success was not necessarily to run a company.