She was raised by a single mother in the Baruch Houses, a housing project in New York City. She attended Cathedral High School, a Catholic, all-girls school and went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Plytechnic Institute of NYU in 1980. Burns received a bachelor of science in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University the next year.
Later she became the CEO of Xerox Corporation, where she has led a major turnaround to profitability. Burns was the first African-American woman CEO to head an S and P; 100 company and a Fortune 500 company. Forbes Magazine rated her the 14th most powerful woman in 2009.
“In March of 2000, we realized Xerox was headed into chaos,” Burns said. “We focused on cash generation and liquidity to strengthen our business. We made decisions quickly. These are things companies to do.”
The Xerox chairwoman and CEO said that our nation has gone from No. 1 to No. 12 for college graduation rates. She said our country will be ranked 16th this year. Our poverty rate is significantly higher, Burns said. Meanwhile, the number of jobs in science, engineering and math are growing.
Turning around a struggling company is all about the quality of people and the amount of innovation. “Great people focused on a common goal,” is the best way to deliver, according to Burns. “There is a shrinking pool of young people with the skills to innovate. It takes a lot longer to grow an engineer than get elected.”
In regards to education, the Xerox CEO unveiled her three-step plan for success. First, there needs to be a larger diverse group of math and science teachers. Secondly, give students the inspiration. Tell them what jobs they can get with a degree in their field. Third, measure what we want the outcome to be.
Burns said she has mixed feelings about charter schools. “They can fundamentally improve teaching, but the problem is taking from other schools that may not be the best use,” she said. “I’ve seen some charter schools that are really, really good.”
Xerox Corporation really had a great CEO in Burns. What an inspirational story for sure.