In 2009, Ursula Burns shattered the metaphorical glass ceiling two-fold when she became “the first African American woman to serve as CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the first female to acceded to the position of CEO of such a company in succession after another female.”

This week, Burns sat down with CNBC to discuss her career path. She talked about how when she first attained the position she did not realize the significance until she received an outpouring of calls, “from the likes of President resident Bill Clinton, NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and Al Sharpton, to name a few…’Then I said, Holy sh-t, this is a big deal.’” 

Being the first trailblazer can be a daunting task, but Burns attributed her success to her “intense work ethic” and the fact that “she was used to thriving in corporate settings as an outsider – being both Black and female. ‘My natural comfort is being the only or the few in a room…I became very good at playing in that space.’” Burns elaborated that she essentially knew what she was getting into by choosing a career that tended to be dominated by males, adding that she has lived her entire life existing in spaces “where there were very few people” like herself, with the exception of high school. 

Burns even said that being the only Black female in the room did not bother her, and “even consider[ed] it an advantage. ‘If I raised my hand in any meeting, almost surely, it was called on…You’re so different that, at least in open spaces, they can’t ignore you.’” 

Her innate confidence was an attribute that Burns also cited as a contributor to her ascent to this esteemed role. Burns remained at the helm of Xerox until “2016 when the company split into two corporate entities: Xerox and Conduent,” and she relinquished her position as chairman of Xerox in 2017. 

Burns has achieved many accolades in her lustrous career, including being “appointed by former President Barack Obama to lead the White House National STEM program…and serving as vice chair of the President’s Export Council…and serv[ing] on the board of directors of multiple corporations including Uber, American Express and ExxonMobil. In 2014, Forbes rated her the 22nd most powerful woman in the world.”

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