Ursula Burns: To succeed, do what you love

May 25, 2011, 6:35 AM UTC

FORTUNE — For virtually every rising executive, it seems as though finding a mentor along the way is key. Xerox (XRX) CEO Ursula Burns didn’t have to look very far to find hers early on. It was her mom.

Xerox CEO Ursula Burns

“My mother was an amazing woman,” she said Tuesday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women dinner in New York City, where some of the most influential women in business, media and politics gathered. At cocktail hour, Chelsea Clinton chatted it up with the likes of Barbara Walters and Meredith Whitney.

But it was mostly Burns who moved the room with the story of her mother, a single mom who raised her and her two siblings in the then drug and crime-ridden Lower East Side of Manhattan. One of the most important lessons Burns learned from her: Do what you love.

“You have to first love it and then you’ll be good at it,” Burns said, adding that she has passed a similar philosophy to her own children. “Relax and go after something that you love.”

It’s that mindset that seems to have carried her through her journey up Xerox’s corporate ladder, beginning as a summer engineering intern in 1980 and then rising to president of the print giant in 2002. In 2009, she was named CEO – becoming the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company.

Her path to the top wasn’t without its own twists, though. Several years into her career as head of manufacturing, Burns decided to leave Xerox for Dell at a time when the printing company was in turmoil. After Burns let human resources know, the power-broker Vernon Jordan, a member of Xerox’s board of directors, called her up to convince her to stay. Burns recalled Jordan telling that her leaving and being so essential to the company could signal a loss of confidence in Xerox during a tumultuous time. Plus the company invested in her growth for so many years.

It was then that Burns realized there were bigger things at stake. So she went with the bigger calling and stayed.