Ursula Burns

Chairwoman of VEON, Senior Advisor to Teneo, former CEO of Xerox

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Ursula Burns

STEM Leadership Hall of Famer Ursula Burns earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1980 from what was then known as the Polytechnic Institute of New York and went on to become the first African-American woman ever to head a Fortune 500 company when she took the helm of Xerox in 2009.

Burns, who received honorary NYU degrees in 2005 and 2010, had first joined Xerox in 1980 as a summer intern and was hired as a full-time employee the following year. She steadily worked her way up at the company, serving as executive assistant, vice president for global manufacturing, senior vice president of corporate strategic services, and president, before attaining the post of CEO. Shortly thereafter, she organized a $6.4 billion purchase of Affiliated Computer Services, marking the largest acquisition in Xerox history to that date. Appointed by President Barack Obama, she also helped lead the White House’s national program on STEM from 2009 to 2016. She stepped down from the CEO spot in early 2017 to become board chair of Xerox’s newly formed Document Technology arm.

The first in her family to attend college, Burns has long credited the School of Engineering with much of her success. Growing up in a public housing development not far from the school, she had decided to study engineering because her pre-Internet library research showed that it would provide a solid path to a decent salary and the middle class. “I arrived without even a slide rule or calculator,” she recalled when receiving her honorary degree in 2010, “and Poly changed my life.”