During my days at Bennett College for Women, every student was required to attend weekly Academic and Cultural Enrichment Series. We’d gather in the chapel every Tuesday and Thursday and listen to guest speaks talk about their experiences in the “real world” and offer advice on navigating the workforce. One of those moments, in particular, resonated. It was a lecture about women in high positions of power. Our president, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, took to the podium and quoted the words of Bennett’s ninth president, Dr. David Dallas Jones: “Young lady, what is your purpose?” As she continued her speech, the message was clear: discover your purpose, walk in it and find a mentor to help you along the way.
I took Dr. Malveaux’s words to heart and went on a search to find a role model. She had to be a trailblazer, she had to be a self-made woman and she had to be so darn good that even men are drawn to her leadership style. Finding “her” was fairly easy because she was the center of conversation in all my business classes. Her name was Ursula Burns.
At the time, Mrs. Burns was serving her first year as CEO of Xerox. She was the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company, and after I read her from intern-to-CEO success story, I knew she was the one. Today, nearly five years later, I’ve never met my mentor in person but she’s traveled with me on my journey to find my purpose — as I finished college at BC, during my numerous internships, when I first set foot on Columbia’s campus for graduate school (also her alma mater), and now, as I embark on the first years of my career.
My friends often joke that she can do no wrong in my eyes, but that’s clearly not the view of the masses. Ursula Burns was recently named one of the least-liked CEOs in America by 24/7 Wall St., which identified leaders with the worst reputations by examining employee reviews at Glassdoor. According to the list — which included eight other business heavyweights — Burns’ low rating reflected Xerox’s difficulties in its services business and employee layoffs.
Ursula Burns may not be the most popular person in corporate America right now, but I still look up to her for multiple reasons. She didn’t reach her current status being the nicest, sweetest or most-attractive person in the room; she was the person willing to take risks and stand by those decisions whether they immediately excelled or took time to pick up wind.
She came from humble beginnings. “I was raised by a wonderful mother in the rough and tumble public housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” she wrote in her Lean In story. “Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor.” However, her mother didn’t see it that way. “She constantly reminded me ‘where I was didn’t define who I was,’” and Ursula took those words and ran with them. In 1980, as a mechanical engineering major at the Polytechnic Institute of New York, she landed a summer internship at Xerox, and she never fully left. She worked her way up the ranks to executive assistant, vice president and eventually chief executive officer.
As a leader, according to Fast Company, “She has long been willing to do whatever it takes–dismantle the company’s manufacturing unit that shaped her career; cut back or eliminate products that once defined the Xerox brand; branch out into uncertain (and risky) new areas of business–in an effort to reposition the company in an era of technological upheaval.” Her biggest criticism – the main reason why she made the unfavorable list – came from a push to buy Affiliated Computer Services, which closed for $6.4 billion in 2010. In the two years following the purchase, Burns said “there were lots of reasons for Xerox not to acquire ACS” but she took the gamble. The information technology company helped Xerox transition from its machine-making roots to digital services, but more than two-thirds of Xerox employees said it wasn’t enough and ultimately gave her bad review.
I respected the move. She spearheaded a shift at Xerox, a company once known copying machines and printers. Now, we rely on the brand for IT services like paying a parking tickets, booking an airline tickets and using the E-Z pass on the road. Xerox ‘s changes are still fairly new and it’s hard to determine the success so early, however, she’s taken full responsibly for the glitches and hard-to-swallow truths all the way.
That’s just the type of leader she is. She’s publicly taken accountability for every decision – good and bad. “We’re going to make mistakes,” she said during a recent interview with Ozy.com. “We just try to make mistakes where you can make them fast, so you’re not five years into the damn thing and realize, ‘Oh my God, that was a bad move. And we just threw billions of dollars after it.’ Fail fast and make sure that you fail early.” Her predecessor, friend and former CEO Anne Mulcahy, said she admires Ursula’s directness. “The thing I valued most about Ursula, and why I valued her participation in senior management, is that she has the courage to tell you the truth in ugly times,” she shared. And even President Obama praised her ability to ask tough questions during hard times. In 2011, the POTUS called upon Ursula to discuss methods for spurring the economy at the debt-ceiling debates. She was last to speak and before she took the floor, Obama said, “’This has been really good, and now I’m bracing for the tough one.’”
Leaders aren’t always the most popular people during change. Even if you don’t like her leadership style, Burns’ five-year tenure proves that she’s doing something right and still making a huge impact on the company.
I think Ursula Burns should look at her performance review like a midterm grade. It’s not the end of the semester; it’s just an opportunity to stay in the know, address concerns about bias and continue to break down barriers. Yes, her story let’s me know that I, too, can be a boss and work my way to the top. But more importantly, she leads by example and prepares me for what’s to come. Some women in business have a desire to be liked by everyone, and that mindset can be self-destructive. If someone asked me today, “Young lady, what is your purpose?” I’d smile and say my ultimate goal is to take risks and bring about genderless leadership. And like my role model, I will do it unapologetically.
Share your thoughts with me on Twitter @MyeishaEssex.
Check Out This Gallery
From A-Z: Dynamic Black Women In History
1. Where Would We Be Without These Black Women?1 of 63
2. Alice Walker2 of 63
3. Angela Davis3 of 63
4. Anna Tibaijuka (United Nations)4 of 63
5. Asha-Rose Migiro (United Nations)5 of 63
6. Audre Lorde6 of 63
7. Ayana Mathis7 of 63
8. Ayanna Pressley8 of 63
9. Barbara Smith9 of 63
10. Bebe Moore Campbell10 of 63
11. bell hooks11 of 63
12. Bessie A. Buchanan12 of 63
13. Carol Moseley Braun13 of 63
14. Cathy Hughes14 of 63
15. Madame CJ Walker15 of 63
16. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie16 of 63
17. Condoleezza Rice17 of 63
18. Coretta Scott King18 of 63
19. Cynthia McKinney19 of 63
20. Dame Eugenia Charles (Dominica)20 of 63
21. Fannie Lou Hamer21 of 63
22. Gwendolyn Brooks22 of 63
23. Donna Edwards23 of 63
24. Dr. Dorothy Height24 of 63
25. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia)25 of 63
26. Gloria Naylor26 of 63
27. Gwendolyn Brooks27 of 63
28. Harriet Tubman28 of 63
29. Ida B. Wells29 of 63
30. Kamala Harris30 of 63
31. Karen Bass31 of 63
32. Lorraine Hansberry32 of 63
33. Margaret Sloan-Hunter33 of 63
34. Mary Church Terrell34 of 63
35. Mary Fair Burks35 of 63
36. Mary McLeod Bethune36 of 63
37. Maya Angelou37 of 63
38. Michaëlle Jean (Canada)38 of 63
39. Michelle Obama39 of 63
40. Nikki Giovanni40 of 63
41. Ntozake Shange41 of 63
42. Octavia Butler42 of 63
43. Pearl Cleage43 of 63
44. Phillis Wheatley44 of 63
45. Robin Kelly45 of 63
46. Rosa Parks46 of 63
47. Ruth Simmons47 of 63
48. Septima Poinsette Clark48 of 63
49. Shirley Chisholm49 of 63
50. Sojourner Truth50 of 63
51. Susan Rice51 of 63
52. Suzan Lori-Parks52 of 63
53. Terri Sewell53 of 63
54. Toni Morrison54 of 63
55. Terry McMillan55 of 63
56. Sonia Sanchez56 of 63
57. Wilma Rudolph57 of 63
58. Margaret Walker58 of 63
59. Rebecca Walker59 of 63
60. Unita Blackwell60 of 63
61. J. California Cooper61 of 63
62. Zane62 of 63
63. Zora Neale Hurston63 of 63