Next Question

Xerox CEO Ursula Burns Talks to Katie About the Importance of Mentors and the Best Advice Her Mother Gave Her

ursula burns

Claudio Marinesco

In the newest episode of Next Question, the history-making businesswoman opens up about how she got here.

This week, Katie spoke to trailblazing business leader and all-around badass Ursula Burns. When she became the CEO of Xerox in 2009, she was the first Black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Her story is incredible and her energy is fantastic, and Katie and Ursula have a really fascinating, wide-ranging interview. We all came away in awe of this woman. 

There’s so much more to Ursula’s career and life story aside from her historic achievement, which is movingly detailed in her memoir, Where You Are is Not Who You Are. In it, Burns opens up about her childhood growing up in public housing in New York City, her Catholic-school days, her marriage, and, yes, her 30-year ascent to the tippy top of Xerox’s ladder. 

On this episode of Next Question with Katie Couric, Katie and Burns talk about why writing that life journey was one of the most difficult things she’s ever had to do, how she led Xerox at a time when no one needed Xeroxing, and why we all need to continue to push the business world to diversify their ranks (and what corporations are missing out on if they don’t). Below are some of the highlights. And when you want more, be sure to listen to the full podcast. 

Burns on her mom being “the backbone of America”

“I think that this is the backbone of America. It’s the dream of America, embodied in my mother. She did it. She came here with very little, like literally nothing. She had a high school education. She, at the time, had a husband. He left early. My mother never spent time thinking about or talking about what we did not have. That was not part of our daily discussions ever — including my father. Literally, my aunt told me about my father. So, my mother was just this person who, when I tell the story, when you look back, it seems like she was this perfect Saint. She was a typical mother because she cared about her children immensely. She sacrificed everything in her sphere for us. She lived for us. She had no idea she was going to die at 49.”

On her mom’s advice to “leave more behind than what you take away” 

“My mother had these amazing Panamanian English translation sayings that she said all the time. And of course, when you’re growing up, you think, you know, can I hear this one more time? I’m going to explode…

“[She would say], ‘God, doesn’t like ugly.’ That’s what she would say all the time — that God doesn’t like ugly. And that meant you yourself can’t be ugly. Not things — you. God, doesn’t like ugly. So you can’t be an ugly person.

“She would say, ‘leave behind more than you take away. That’s how we’ll measure whether or not you’re successful. It’s not about anything else’

“She said, ‘don’t worry about how the world can happen to you. You have to happen to the world.’” 

Burns on her mentors and having support

“The difference between a good life, earning a good living, and an amazingly great life for me was these people. My mother laid the foundation for me to have a good life. These people transformed that good life into a life where I write a book and people are going to read it, into a life where George Floyd is murdered. And I have a voice that people will listen to, to try to help, to amplify the issues that we are dealing with, and to amplify my ideas about some of the solutions, my ideas that are cultivated and gotten from friends. But the difference between that and having a good life is our friends and support. And shoulders to stand on and people to push you and encourage you and smack you when you’re doing silly things. My husband was one of these people as well, who just basically said, you know, stop, settle down, etc. It’s the difference between ordinary and extraordinary.”

For more of their conversation, listen to the full episode now.

You can find more about Where You Are is Not Who You Are: A Memoir and buy your copy at HarperCollins.

Interested in seeing Katie when she goes on her Going There book tour this fall? Find out when and where she’s heading and get your tickets at Ticketmaster.com.