Ursula Burns Earns a Place in the U.S. News & World Report STEM Leadership Hall of Fame

In May 2017 U.S. News & World Report announced this year’s inductees into their STEM Leadership Hall of Fame, comprised of notable figures who have achieved measurable results in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields; challenged the status quo; inspired shared vision; and motivated aspiring young STEM professionals.

Ursula Burns

Ursula Burns ('80), the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company

It’s hard to imagine anyone who more perfectly fits that description than Xerox board chairperson Ursula Burns, who 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.”

“I arrived without even a slide rule or calculator, and Poly [now Tandon] changed my life.”
— Ursula Burns

Burns is a wonderful reflection of Tandon’s demographic makeup; 40% of our students are the first in their families to attend college, and with her as a successful role model, we are proud that the class of 2021 is comprised of 41% women — 22% higher than the national average.

Burns is accustomed to appearing on lists of the most powerful and influential women in business; the U.S. News & World Report honor is just the latest in a long string, and she will always feature prominently on any list of most accomplished Tandon alumni.

“Ursula Burns’ accomplishments stand as a testament to the difference an engineering education can make in someone’s life,” said Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan. “We congratulate her on this well-deserved accolade from U.S. News & World Report and continue to be proud to count her as one of our own.”