Ursula had been told from a young age that she had three strikes against her.
She heard it in elementary school.
She heard it in middle school.
She heard it again in high school.
“You have three strikes against you.”
Ursula was poor. Ursula was a woman. And Ursula was black.
Three. Big. Strikes.
Ursula Burns knew she didn’t always have to be poor.
After all, she had moved from the poorest tenements of the Lower East side of New York to a small apartment in the projects and then into a bigger apartment in the projects.
Things could change for her financial future.
But Ursula would always be black and always be a woman.
That would never change and those words would trouble Ursula for years to come.
She knew there was nothing she could do about how she was born.
As she grew, she was determined to rise above all three of her “strikes.”
Small things, like going to and from school took an act of courage.
She didn’t know that stepping over junkies and watching drug deals happen was not supposed to be a part of everyday life for a child.
She didn’t know that most kids weren’t listening to gunshots at bedtime.
She didn’t know that some kids never had to worry about if there would be food in the house to make something for dinner.
These were the problems she had to solve for herself and her siblings — every day.
As Ursula made her way through school, she also only seemed to have three choices as to what she would do with her life. She could be a nun like most of the teachers at her Catholic high school. She could be a teacher like the rest of the women at the school.
Or she could be a nurse.
Skipping out on college was not an option for Ursula. Her mother wouldn’t stand for it. But her options were definitely limited.
Her single immigrant mother from Panama had worked too hard for Ursula to follow in her footsteps, having to work numerous jobs just to feed herself and her children.
She expected Ursula to do better. To excel.
When Ursula scored well on the Math section of the PSAT, her counselor told her to look into different jobs.
Different than being a nun or a teacher or a nurse. Jobs that had math at the core.
And so she did.
She flipped through page after page after page of career books to find out what she could do. What she wanted to do.
She already had some rules for herself. She wanted to be able to graduate in 4 years and to be qualified to earn the highest paying job available.
And according to her career research — that job was as a Chemical Engineer.
Ursula picked the top 6 schools she wanted to attend and filled out an application for them all.
But there was one big problem. Every application had an application fee. And they weren’t small.
It would have taken much more than what her mother made in over a week to pay them all.
And it was way more than she earned cleaning houses and offices after school and during the summer.
Her plan wouldn’t work. She had to try something else.
She only applied for programs that would help her pay her college application fees.
She applied to all of them. And she got back some good news.
Brooklyn Polytechnic accepted her into their program.
But that quickly led to another problem.
It only took a semester to realize that Chemical Engineering was not for her after all. A shattering blow to her sense of self. Her idea of the future.
So she had to reboot.
Even though Ursula was great at math, she clearly did not excel in science. And so she changed to Mechanical Engineering and continued her studies.
Studies that saw very few women and very few black people in them. And even fewer black women.
She stuck out in a sea of white men.
But instead of feeling out of place, Ursula excelled.
Feeling odd had become normal to her. Not blending in had become the norm.
So normal that it was usually her white male counterparts who were the uncomfortable ones.
They weren’t sure how to deal with a woman in the classroom. Especially a woman of color.
And so she used it to her advantage.
After finishing her Bachelor’s Degree, Ursula went on to get her Master’s degree — and then leveraged that into a job at Xerox where she had interned for a summer.
A job that paid her $29,000 per year. More money than she had ever seen in her life. And five times more than her mother ever made in a year.
It was 1980. And while she had a job, it certainly wasn’t that “highest paying job” she had spent her entire life working towards.
Little did she know that for the next 12,775 days, this would be her home. Her career. The fruits of her hard work and determination to turn those 3 strikes into her distinct advantage.
For the first 10 ten years, she kept her head down — doing various projects in product development and planning.
When she was asked to do a job outside of her comfort zone, as the Executive Assistant to a member of the senior leadership team, she jumped in with both feet.
Then Paul Allaire, the chairman and CEO of the company, asked her to be his Executive Assistant. And that consumed another 10 years.
She was promoted to Vice President for Global Manufacturing. Then to Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategic Services. To President of Business Group Operations. And finally to President of the entire company.
That was another 10-year journey that ended up with Ursula Burns being named CEO of Xerox in July of 2009.
The first African-American woman CEO in history to lead a Fortune 500 company.
Her $29,000 salary replaced with a $14 million payday. She’s on the board of Uber, Exxon, American Express, Nestle and was tasked by President Obama to lead the White House National STEM program.
To say that she is a success story is an understatement in every possible way.
But the lessons you might draw from her are less than obvious at first glance.
Ursula will be the first one to tell you that she did not make that climb alone: “Everyone gave me a hand.”
She had lots of help along the way.
From the members of her community who would give her a slap upside the head if she tried to skip school.
To the school itself who would let tuition slide for just another week when they couldn’t afford to pay for it.
To the rich people who supported the application scholarship that got her into college.
To the human resources person who took a chance on someone who was too young, too female, and too black to be in tech.
To her husband who stayed home to raise the kids so she could live her dream and break barriers.
“SUCCESS TAKES A HELPING HAND.”
You won’t get there on your own. Look for help. Take help. Give help.
You can be a part of someone else’s climb. You can be the difference that allows someone else to rise.
But there is another important lesson about her success.
She mastered the focus to make smart decisions over a long period of time.
It’s a mistake to sum up her Xerox success in decades — 3 of them. Or years — 35. Or days — almost 13,000. It was more than that — almost 115,500 working hours.
There was no “easy path” or “silver bullet”. There wasn’t even a 7-step program. She had to stay motivated for many thousands of mornings.
Despite having a family. Despite having a life outside of work. Despite everyone else around her not being fair.
It was up to her to own her future. To make things happen. To do what needed to be done.
That part of her life consumed close to 7 million seconds of choices.
That’s your mission as well. To stay inspired and focused and driven until you get to where you want to be.
To own the day. Each day. Each hour. Each second. Consumed by a goal and destiny.
Regardless of where you start. Regardless of where you are right now.
Resolve that this choice is the first of many more — focused on you achieving your brand of awesome.