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Ursula Burns, the first Black woman to run a Fortune 500 company, is done taking calls from nervous white leaders

December 3, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC
Ursula Burns reflects on her trailblazing life and career in corporate America.
Erin Patrice O’Brien—Redux

To most people, Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox, is largely famous for two things. First, and most significantly, for being the first Black woman to run a Fortune 500 company. And second, for her astonishing candor. “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,” Anne Mulcahy, Burns’s friend, mentor, and predecessor CEO, once told me.

I’ve witnessed it myself countless times: The woman says the thing. She always has.

“Is that a bowl of bacon?” she asked the photo assistant during a shoot for a glossy Fast Company profile I wrote about her in 2011. It was, indeed, a bowl of bacon on the catering tray. A huge one. “That may be the most ghetto thing I’ve ever seen,” she said, flashing her trademark grin my way. We were at a tony hotel on New York City’s Lower East Side, looking from a balcony at the transformed streets of her childhood. She pointed toward the roach-filled tenement she had once lived in with her family. “Damn, I can’t even afford to live here now. How do people do it?” She pointed toward the building where her single mother cleaned a dentist’s office in exchange for health care for her three kids. She pointed to where her neighbor spied her crossing the street against the light and ratted her out. Her mother was waiting for her when she got home, stern-faced and holding a hairbrush preparing to level punishment. “I had to do things correctly, it was that kind of neighborhood,” she said. “Not everyone was going to make it, and the odds were against us.”  

She would echo this theme a few years later when I caught up with her for “The Black Ceiling,” a Fortune story about why there are so few Black women in executive ranks. (When Burns left Xerox at the end of 2016, there were no Black women running a Fortune 500 company, and it would take five years until Walgreens’ Roz Brewer came along.) She told me about how she had planned her exit carefully, taking on new commitments so she wouldn’t find herself suddenly with nothing to do, and that she had designed her next steps with maximum impact in mind. And most poignantly, looking back, she saw that her life was more improbable than even she had considered. “Thirty years ago, when I started working—literally the chances of me making it were worse than minuscule,” she said. “We should be saying ‘hooray’ to the people of Xerox. We should be giving them a medal.”

As a Black business journalist reporting on a predominantly white, male business and financial world for some 25 years, Burns has long loomed large in my imagination. Yes, she is a trailblazer. Yes, she is a player against type. But she is a real leader. A builder. A fearless combatant. She learns out loud and is the kind of truth teller who can put a whole division out of business and still stay friends.

So you’d think I would have been better prepared for her memoir, out earlier this year, to hear the more in-the-weeds versions of even the emotional stories I’d come to know so well. But Where You Are Is Not Who You Are, written largely by Burns herself, hit me differently than I expected.

There is some important CEO-style storytelling, of course. She gets deep into the details on her actual day job, which included the acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services, or ACS, in 2009, a complicated move which saved and changed the company. She digs into the ins and outs of her corporate board service, her support for Hillary Clinton in 2008, and her subsequent work with the Obama administration.

There is also some Burns-esque candor about business and society.

“Very few of us live in truly integrated communities. I call it the ‘ghettoization’ of America,” she writes in the first chapter, as she attempts to put her own success into context. “We have developed communities that are divided by color, by nationality, by income: rich, white ghettos, poor Native American ghettos, Chinese ghettos, Black ghettos, and on and on. While white people can move through all these communities with impunity, the rest of us cannot move through theirs. Maybe the accepted structure will open up in three or five or seven generations, but for now, our entire lives as Black people and as women have been spent conforming to a structure built by white men on the backs of Black people and other minorities—a structure that we can’t be completely a part of.”

Her North Star was and is her mother, Olga, whose wit and wisdom animates the book. But so does her sheer power in the face of grinding inequality. “We had a bathroom and a kitchen and an enduring battle with the roaches who’d lived in the building for a century,” she writes of the airless one-bedroom tenement she shared with her two siblings and her mother when she was a child. “My mother was insanely organized and clean, which is one of my traits now, and kept the kitchen spotless to thwart the roaches, but even she could not get rid of the bedbugs. And she couldn’t do anything about the building’s old boiler, which periodically broke down, leaving us with no heat in the winter. The stove became our boiler. We kept the burners on and the oven on with the door open, which barely made a dent in the cold. We heated water on the stove to wash ourselves.”

At least inside the apartment, they were safe.

It was only while reading Burns’ book that I fully understood how miraculous it was that she had survived at all. She lived in the kind of poverty we like to think happens in other places. An educational system prepared to ignore her. A health care system that ignored her mother to a deadly conclusion. This and many other obstacles stood between Burns and an internship program that put her on track to save the very company that gave her her start. Speaking engagements. Magazine covers. Friends in the Oval Office. By any measure, the book is that story.

But as I read it the night before my most recent conversation with her, it came to be about something else for me. It was about the stories of all the people like Burns—the vulnerable Black daughter of a fierce Panamanian immigrant—and everyone like me, and not like either of us, but who were lost in attempts to conform to a structure not built for them. It became a book about ghosts. And I started to cry and couldn’t stop. There were suddenly so many ghosts.

Then, I dialed her up for our interview.

“I’m so sorry, Ursula, and I’m terribly embarrassed, but I don’t think I can do this today,” I told her. “I read your book, and I can’t stop crying.” She sounded surprised at first, and then I heard her CEO voice, strong with a layer of soft velvet. “Oh no, don’t you apologize, no no, no,” she said. “You’re going to keep going and cry through it, just like you were at a friend’s house,” she said. “We’re going to unpack this together.”

‘Lots and lots of calls’

Olga’s daughter’s power was on full display when Alan Murray and I caught up with Burns early in the COVID pandemic on our Leadership Next podcast to talk about her big post-Xerox venture devoted to diversifying boards.

As usual, she said the thing.

Her opening salvo was to white people: Stop calling her and use Google. “Right after George Floyd, I got lots and lots and lots of calls,” she said. Nervous white leaders making promises and pledges, looking for a Black board member. To a person, to an industry, they asked the then only Black woman to have ever run a Fortune 500 company for a list of qualified names. Oh, and one last thing, Ursula? They had to be sitting or former CEOs. She snorted at the memory. “You do not call me to get the names of those people, there are like 20 of them,” she said, pounding the table and livening up the recording. “You know who these people are. You know what they’re doing.” So, she asks in return: Is every white person currently on your board a former or sitting CEO? Of course not, she says, answering her own question. “You come to me, you tell me that in order for a Black person to sit on your board, they have to have walked on the moon with the rest of the moonwalkers? There were only five of them. Then you can come in? You’ve eliminated all but five Black people in the whole United States.”

The ugly numbers

In September 2020, Burns helped launch the Board Diversity Action Alliance along with Gabrielle Sulzberger, Teneo, the Ford Foundation, and the Executive Leadership Council to increase Black representation on corporate boards. In addition to asking the tough questions, pushing for greater transparency, and revising the skill sets that define successful board service, the Alliance has been crunching some ugly numbers. Here’s one example. The nearly 1,000 venture-backed companies that have gone public since 2000 have had about 4,700 available board seats during their life spans. Only 49 have been held by Black directors. Worse, nearly half of those seats were filled within the past 10 years. “These organizations are started by white men. They start the company with their friends and their family. Their friends and family look exactly like them, right?” Burns, who sits on the boards of Exxon Mobil, Datto, and Uber, and chairs Teneo, told DealBook’s Andrew Ross Sorkin last fall.

This should make everyone squirm, she told Alan Murray and me. “What this is saying is that to play in a room with a whole bunch of relatively average people, you have to be well above average to even enter.

But this isn’t about corporate life, it’s about reshaping the world that corporations enable.

Enter the ghosts.

As I unpacked my reaction to Burns’ book, she took the opportunity to unpack some things of her own. It’s a complicated thing, having survived. “People look at me to this day—particularly when they don’t know who I am, but even when they do—and the things that they see is part of what I want them to see,” she said. The “smart-ass Black woman, who just think she owns the world,” or worse, the people who treat her as the unicorn outlier. “Oh, my God, you’re so spectacular,” she says, engulfed by the amazement. It makes her antsy. “Can we just move on to why are there not more people like me?” We’re closer than ever before, to slowing the machine that makes the ghosts, she says. After 25 years, saying all the things, this time feels…real. “I’m literally having conversations with people and groups, government leaders, that are different than they have ever been,” she trails off. It’s a moment she was made for.

But the enormity of the design challenge still preoccupies her. We talk about beauty, family, survival. “The fact of the world, particularly the structures in the world…has been designed and perfected around a white male ideal,” she says. African American men and women are placed in positions where we are expected to sit back and assimilate. But there is nowhere else to go.

“In mind and visual, except for our thoughts about ourselves, we are expected to be subservient. Why is that important?” she asks. “Because you think about companies, you think about churches, you think about government, and think about educational institutions, particularly education. You think about social justice organizations. You think about charity. You think everything,” all of it built on a fundamental premise that centers one way of being powerful, one way of being sought after. “We as non-whites are kind of talking our way in, occasionally, but really don’t ever fit.”  Someone else holds all the keys, the rule books, the measuring sticks. “This is the problem we have to solve.”

Her life was changed shortly after retirement when her husband, Lloyd Bean, died unexpectedly in 2019. The Xerox alum was 20 years her senior and had retired to help raise their two children and let Burns climb the ladder of change. Let? More like pushed, she says laughing. But also pulled. It’s complicated. He was her foil, her secret weapon, her greatest champion and has left a huge hole in her life. “Yeah, I want my crazy husband,” she says, now facing the years when she has time for companionship alone. “I needed someone who pushed back. He was perfect for me, and I hope—and this is what I don’t know—was I the perfect person for him?”

Ursula Burns is not a ghost, yet. And this, she says, is a big part of what she’s learned so far. “We’re all going to die, so we should all live,” she says simply.

She cried plenty, writing the book, she reassures me. Looking in, looking back, is hard. But where she is now is where she wants to be. Her kids are thriving. She has honored her mother’s legacy. And she is looking for coconspirators to reshape the world. “I want to join them, I want them to join me,” she says. “The more we advocate for ourselves, the more we’ll find solutions.”

And she’s looking for people to get real comfortable with saying all the things to all the people who are in still the way.

“Part of it is like joy that I have yet another chance to say to them, “Get off your frickin’ high horse. Join us in the real world. And let’s not play games with each other. Let’s have some fun,” she says. “Love each other, but also listen. If it’s going to be different this time, it’s up to you.”

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