Ursula M. Burns. Leader of Xerox. Innovator in business. Woman at the helm. Often imitated, never duplicated, your story of success enthralls us.
To get here, you started there… just a few miles south in a Lower East Side housing project. Your wise and intuitive single mom sent you to a good Catholic school in spite of modest means. She wasn’t going to let your circumstances outshine your potential, instilling courage and confidence, along with this reminder: where you were didn’t define who you were. You listened, despite some trepidation, taking your super math skills to NYU’s Polytechnic Institute and then Columbia University. You earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in mechanical engineering, bypassing the holy trinity of expected careers—teacher, nurse, and nun.
At age 22, with nothing but the badge of a Polytechnic summer intern and the stride of a New Yorker, you walked in the doors of the company you now run. Two decades and many achievements later, you became senior vice president for strategic services and, soon thereafter, president of business group operations, with a 12.5 billion dollar organization under your watchful eye. In 2009, after being named CEO, you orchestrated the largest acquisition in Xerox’s history, moving the century-old company into a vast, new realm. Then, in what The New York Times called “a transition for the record books,” you were named chairman in May 2010—the first African American woman ever to lead a Fortune 500 company.
We’re talking about more than 140,000 employees, 12,000 active U.S. patents, clients in over 180 countries, upwards of $21 billion in annual revenues, and 2.5 million customer interactions every day. And somehow you manage to keep your cool and your love for a job that seems made-to-measure. At Xerox, you’ve never been bored. You’ve never felt pressure to fit in, hold back, or succumb to the status quo. You crave challenges, speak your mind, and encourage your staff to do the same. And you continue to make a brand so famous that its name is used as a verb, even more global, more revolutionary, and more influential.
To your niece Tara Burns, here on this stage, you are Auntie Maxine…. always genuine and always an inspiration. And for Tara and every one of her classmates, there are countless hours ahead to gather around the Xerox machine and talk about work and life, hopes and dreams. So today, on behalf of all that potential and all you’ve done to pave the way, it is my sincere pleasure to present you with the 2014 Barnard Medal of Distinction.