Ursula Burns

First president of Business Group Operations, Xerox Corporation

Nationality: American.

Born: September 20, 1958, in New York, New York.

Education: Polytechnic Institute of New York, BS, 1980; Columbia University, MS, 1981.

Family: Married Lloyd Bean (retired Xerox scientist); children: two.

Career: Xerox Corporation, 1981–1991, various positions in planning and product development; 1991, executive assistant to the chairman; 1992–2000, head of several departments; 1999–2000, corporate vice president; 2000–, senior vice president of Corporate Strategic Services; 2001–2002, president of Document Systems Solutions Group; 2002–, first president of Business Group Operations.

Awards: 50 Most Powerful Black Executives in America, Fortune , 2002.

Address: Xerox Corporation, 800 Long Ridge Road, Stamford, Connecticut 06904; http://www.xerox.com.

■ Most people outside of Xerox Corporation had no awareness of the existence of Ursula Burns as of 2004. While remaining relatively unknown, Burns steadily gained ground at Xerox for more than two decades, eventually becoming president of Xerox's Business Group Operations. She and the company CEO Anne Mulcahy together helped bring Xerox through a difficult financial period.


Ursula Burns was born on September 20, 1958, in New York; she grew up in the projects on Delancey Street in Manhattan with her mother and two siblings. Although her father was not a part of the family, she was able to attend private schools because her mother ran a successful day-care center out of her home while also taking in ironing.

Throughout her schooling Burns was a math ace; she eventually earned an engineering degree from the Polytechnic Institute of New York and went on to earn a graduate degree from Columbia University. Xerox Corporation helped pay for part of her tuition; she also had a summer internship with the company in 1980. After Burns received her master's, she went to work for Xerox, where she would remain for more than 20 years.

Burns began working in various engineering positions in the departments of product development and planning. In 1987 she completed a transition to engineering management, rising through the ranks as the head of several different teams, at one point working as executive assistant to the CEO. For a period of time Burns worked for Xerox's London offices. She held several high-level positions before becoming corporate vice president in 1999 and then senior vice president of Strategic Services in 2000. Her climb up the corporate ladder continued when she added president of the Document Systems Solutions Group to her already-lengthy history of job titles in 2001. Many felt her quick rise was a result of affirmative action. Burns addressed the issue when speaking with Cassaundra Hayes of Black Enterprise : "The fact that I did it faster than others has nothing to do with my race and gender. It was my performance" (August 1997). Due to her ascent and undeniable influence at Xerox, Burns was ranked 28th on Fortune magazine's list of the 50 Most Powerful Black Executives in America.


In the early 2000s Xerox faced financial difficulties. During this time Anne Mulcahy took over as CEO, and Burns was promoted to first president of Xerox's Business Group Operations, becoming the first woman to hold that position. Burns was responsible for the engineering center and five separate divisions; together her group brought in 80 percent of Xerox's profits.

While Mulcahy crisscrossed the country reassuring employees and shareholders and refining a plan to save the company, Burns began implementing the plan and streamlining the company, hiring an outside contractor, Flextronics International, to make many of its products. She successfully negotiated a contract with union workers. Many at the company placed Burns on the list of Mulcahy's potential successors.

With Burns's streamlining and Mulcahy's finesse, Xerox went from a company in trouble to one poised to become the leader in sales in its industry. Though many believed Burns could become the next CEO, others had their doubts. Many believed she needed to learn to strike a balance between micro-managing and undermanaging; she also needed to hone her listening skills, become more visible to investors and others in the industry, and wait until the appropriate time to make decisions rather than relying on initial reports and moving too quickly. Mulcahy told the New York Times , "Every weakness is one she can easily fix" (June 1, 2003).


Burns accomplished what she did by being smart and fearless in setting goals and moving up the corporate ladder. According to a consultant quoted in the New York Times , "Even in her 30s Burns was a smart, unconventional thinker who'd embrace new ideas even while older executives at the table were rejecting them" (June 1, 2003).

In addition to her duties at Xerox Burns was a board member of the Rochester Business Alliance, American Express, Boston Scientific Corporation, and the University of Rochester. She was adamant about spending her weekends with her family and only working at home after the children had gone to bed or early in the morning before they had woken up. Burns was married to Lloyd Bean, a retired Xerox scientist whom she met at the company. The couple resided in Rochester, New York, with Bean's son, Malcolm, and their daughter, Melissa.

See also entry on Xerox Corporation in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

Deutsch, Claudia H., "An Apparent Heir at Xerox," New York Times , June 1, 2003.

Hayes, Cassaundra, "Life atop the Crystal Stair," Black Enterprise , February 1998, pp. 107–112.

——, "Ursula M. Burns, Vice President and General Manager Departmental Copier Business," Black Enterprise , August 1997, p. 62.

"Xerox Corporation: Ursula M. Burns Named President of Business Group Operations," Jet , July 7, 2003, p. 31.

—Ashyia N. Henderson

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Nov 16, 2010 @ 11:23 pm
well written article but for the sake of inspiration I woul like to read some more details about Mrs. Burns's strategic career plans which made her such a benchmark in the industry.

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