74. Ursula Burns: From Poverty to the Fortune 500



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Ursula Burns was raised by her single mother in the notorious Baruch housing projects on the lower east side of New York City. Her parents were of Panamanian descent who moved to the United States in search of a better life. What they found was drugs, gang violence, and impoverished living conditions. She once told the New York Times that she lived in Baruch, "when it was really bad, when the gangs were there, when the drug addicts were there." From these humble beginnings, Burns has risen to become the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company.

Despite not having much money, Burns' mother insisted she get a good education and somehow managed to send her to a private Catholic School. She attended Cathedral High School, and hoped to study mechanical engineering. However, when she went to college, she felt out of place, and intimidated. Her mother told her that she could not let where she came from define who she is, and Burns followed that advice her entire life. She said people told her from early on in life that she had three strikes against her. She was Black, poor, and female, but that didn't deter her. She credits her mother for being the driving force behind her success.

Burns first worked at Xerox Corporation as a summer intern in 1980. Through the years, she has worked her way up the corporate ladder to become the company's Chair, and Chief Executive Officer. She became CEO in 2009, and during her tenure she transformed the company from a primarily copy machine company, to a well-rounded, full-service company. It has, not only survived, but thrived in a world that is quickly becoming paperless. She has been listed by Forbes several times as one of the most powerful women in the world, ranking No. 22 in 2014.

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