I got to meet Ursula Burns!!

Written by
Lauryn Mwale
Last Updated
October 9, 2022 18:04

I booked a random Tuesday off. To record a podcast episode for an upcoming project and to rest because the weekend is not enough. On the preceding Wednesday, I received an email with an impossibly exciting proposition. The Aleto Foundation had 10 slots for an event happening at Chatham House; In conversation with Ursula Burns! I was screaming and sending up silent prayers as I filled out the interest form and explained why I was worthy of such an opportunity.

Ursula Burns, for the grossly uninitiated, is a titan of industry and one of my personal heros. She was the CEO of Xerox from 2009 to 2016, making her the first Black women to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the first female CEO to succeed another. She led the US White House STEM program from 2009 to 2016 and sat on the President’s Export Council from 2015 to 2016. She sits on the board of companies like Uber, American Express and Exxon Mobil. And, atypically for CEOs, she started her career as a Mechanical Engineer, a fact that reminds me that there is value in STEM education outside of obvious STEM occupations. This woman is an ICON.

In part, the conversation was centered on her memoir, Where You Are Is Not Who You Area book am I hungrily devouring on Audible — and the chance to bask in her wisdom and excellence was impossibly valuable. I must commend the Aleto Foundation for providing this opportunity, especially to young Black people. Organisations working to close gaps in representation, opportunity, aspiration and so on are invaluable to young people from marginalised communities and their impact is necessary to see the next generation Ursula Burns ascend.

Where You Are is Not Who You Are Cover

Since not everyone could be in the room where it happens, I wanted to summarise some of my takeaways from the conversation.

General advice for life

  • “You leave behind more than you take away” — be aware of the impact you have, on both the micro and macro scale and recognise that we multiply what gets poured into us
  • “The world doesn’t happen to you. You happen to the world” — This is a quote repeated by Ms Burns’ immigrant mother to remind her children that they were in charge of their own destinies, despite the blockades that stand in the way. To live a fulfilled life, you must decide to drive it yourself
  • “You can do bad all by yourself. You don’t need company for that. Only get good company” — I love this phrasing! Simple advice. You are the sum of the people you spend the most time with. Do not let bad influences pour into you. Accumulate friends and loved ones who make you better
  • “Community saves your spark” — Bring people along because they will keep you grounded, celebrate you and help you keep the passion alive

On mentorship and employment progression

  • “People are looking out for you, even if you don’t know it. They are watching and supporting you. Be open to those connections and relationships” — Ms Burns’ shared stories of mentors and sponsors who she wasn’t explicitly aware of and how doing her best work and remaining open to building relationships with others (listening to their advice and making the effort to build those relationships) accelerated her career and learning
  • “Partner with your colleagues to grow your career” — Be it through explicit mentor-mentee relationships, always putting your hand up to help or do the hard work or even being a present, pleasant part of the team, it is our job as young people and early careers professionals to actively upskill for progression

On inclusive capitalism and economies

  • “The system, which was designed by white men says ‘You have to look like me and act like me to get access to these things’ to people from other communities. I didn't fall into that and succeeded while staying myself” — Hopefully this inspires each of us to remain authentic as we rise. It’s possible. It has been done and it can be done again
  • “For inclusive capitalism to work, we need people to be really honest about what they earned and what they were given” — a comment on privilege. Who you are may have put you 2 steps ahead or pushed others 5 steps back. Accept the reality of that privilege so that we can all work to build more inclusive systems
  • “We don’t know yet, as humans, to do all the things we want to do without burning the house we live in” — Let’s all put our heads together to build sustainably. The climate crisis is making itself more and more known and we need to centre sustainability efforts in development
  • “You need to believe democracy is good and enable it” — what can we start doing or do more of to enable our democracies to function well?Find the answer and do that
  • “Systems that enable excellence are good education and healthcare, well-functioning government as well as consequences for bad behaviour” — Answer to what we may need to enjoy inclusive capitalism

This conversation was incredible and I would like to share one tip from me. This January, I published a book about young Black women in STEM and Ms Burns is an explicit inspiration to me and the book. I decided to take her a copy. Knowing that she must be endlessly busy, I made sure to put my hand up to ask a question and mention the book when introducing myself. When she good humouredly asked where she could get a copy, I announced that I had brought her one, to the amusement of the audience. Every year, I promise myself that I will get better at self promotion and I am very proud of myself for following through on that day. So, if you’re meeting one of your heros, be sure to put your hand up.



Lauryn is the founder of Project Ignite Her.

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