Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tiger, Obama and Burns

I'm terribly happy that African American children have such successful heroes to whom they can look up!
by Charlie Leck

I don't want to get into a little sniping contest with you right now about whether I should be using Tiger's name in this context given the current news about him, but I'm certain a new and better Tiger is going to be displaying himself to us all in about a year from now. And, you're going to be pleasantly surprised. I'll write about this in another few days. I was impressed with his statement the other day even though most of the press was not (and there's reasons for that having to do with the rather large ego much of the press carries around with itself).

Today, though, I want to say how happy I am that the NY Times, in its Sunday edition, introduced me to Ursula Burns. Since reading the Times article this morning, I've been roaming all over the Internet trying to find out more about the lady. So, I've read a great deal about her and I listened and watched her in action on a You-Tube Video produced at Oregon State University in 2008. If this blog makes you curious about her, you might want to back up to here again later and watch her speech. [click here to watch the hour long video].

If you've not met Mrs. Burns, it is with brio and pleasure that I provide the introduction.

Burns is African American. She is also one of America's most successful and watched business leaders. She heads the Xerox Corporation and its 130,000 employees. She's paid well over a million dollars a year for her talents. I find her as fascinating and inspiring, even as much as I found our current President during his national campaign all during 2008. Obviously, Obama is much more visible than Burns. Nevertheless, I hope children (especially African American children) are somehow being introduced to Mrs. Burns in their classrooms. She'll be quite a role model for them. That said, I should add that this extraordinary person could be an exemplary paragon for any of us to observe.

She grew up on the lower-eastside of Manhattan in a household held together by a single mom. That mother established a good example for her children. She worked tirelessly so her children could have what they needed and that they would have the time and energy to get good educations. She taught them about the importance of education and convinced them they could achieve great things in America. Burns attended Cathedral High School for Girls (on East 56th Street) and then went on to earn her B.S. from the Polytechnic Institute of NYU and a M.S. from Columbia University.

Burns' climb through the ranks at Xerox seems almost preternatural. She began her career as a summer, student intern. That's amazing! In September, 2009, she was name Chief Executive Officer of the company. She is also currently on the Board of Directors of both Boston Scientific and American Express. In between, she held Xerox positions at various levels in project development and planning. In 1990 she was given a position as a senior executive and as a Vice President of Global Manufacturing in 1999. She was made a senior vice president in 2000. In 2007 she was name President.

Today she is 51 years old and she has an amazing future in front of her. She’s deeply involved in community activities outside of her Xerox life. She’s on the boards of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, the National Academy Foundation, MIT Corporation, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the University of Rochester. This past November, she was also named by President Obama to lead the White House’s national program on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

Xerox has had a tumultuous past decade. The company actually faced bankruptcy at the turn of the century. It’s downtown was “surprisingly fast” according to Burns. At the time, she worked feverishly with former Xerox C.E.O., Anne Mulcahy, to guide the company through troubled waters. The strategy was to rededicate itself to customer loyalty and service. Keeping the customer base became a primary motto at Xerox.

“It costs five times more money to get a new customer than to retain an old one,” Burns explained in her Oregon State University address.

Then the company addressed product quality and determined, in a time of vast cuts, to leave product research and development as it was. Though the company lost money for a few years, they were able to stave off bankruptcy by generating cash by giving up various assets.

Now the turn around is evident and Mulcahy and Burns get most of the praise for that.

It is remarkable to both watch Burns and listen to her carefully as she speaks about her company and her work. She is clearly African American in every way – from appearance to language. She is a real treat to the ear and the eye. Though various public relations consultants urged her to work on her speech pattern, she proudly declined. She explained that she might speak quickly and struggle with a word now and then, but she sensed that her audiences got the message both clear and straight. She’s correct about that.

Though there’s a distinct Manhattan accent and the words come quickly with an occasional, “if you ax me…,” she is an inspiring and very coherent speaker. She’s loaded with confidence and carries herself proudly.

I’m terribly happy I learned about her yesterday and I hope kids in schools all over America are being taught about her.

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