Time to Read: 4.5 mins
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It’s 1975. You’re walking down a hallway inside a complex of the Baruch Houses, a housing project in the lower east side of Manhattan. You walk by door after door and you don’t see or hear anything out of the ordinary. You occasionally hear conversations in the hallway and have kids playing, sometimes running past you.
But as you are walking you begin to faintly hear kids playing and screaming. You continue walking until you get to the door of the living quarters housing the kid cacophony. Inside this apartment is the Burns family. A mother and a daughter make up the Burn’s family. The commotion of children playing, a side-effect of their house doubling as a daycare.
But behind the children.
Behind the single mother.
And behind the projects —
sits Ursula, the daughter of the Burns family, working away at her studies.
Fast forward to today, after a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mechanical engineering, multiple rungs now under her on the ladder to the top, and 30+ years of dedicated service to her company, you will find Ursula Burns sitting on the top floor in the CEO office at Xerox.
She is the first African-American woman to be the head of a Fortune 500 Company.
“In addition to the Xerox board, she is a board director of the American Express Corporation, Exxon Mobil Corporation and Datto Inc. Burns also provides leadership counsel to community, educational and nonprofit organizations including FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), National Academy Foundation, MIT, and the U.S. Olympic Committee, among others. She is a founding board director of Change the Equation, which focuses on improving the U.S.’s education system in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). U.S. President Barack Obama appointed Burns to help lead the White House National program on STEM and in 2009 and in March of 2010 appointed Burns as vice chair of the President’s Export Council.“
Who is She?
Ursula had a different paradigm than most. Her mother brought her up with an idea different from what’s experienced in current American culture. The idea was that contribution — not wealth and power — is the real definition of success.
She was told by her mother that her mother’s job was to keep her fed and give her shelter and that she need not worry about those things. But that Ursula’s job was to perform well in school, to learn and to be successful as a person. Her ringing message to her daughter was to “leave behind more than you take.”
Growing up in the projects of NYC, being raised by a single mother, and living amongst the children of her mother’s daycare, not many would look at these lifestyle characteristics and bet on her pony to win the race. But what these gamblers didn’t see was her one advantage.
The one thing that gave her the fighting chance that translated to a knockout was her paradigm. The way success was framed to her. Her mother poured the foundation for her eventual success by instilling the value most important to a well-lived life.
“Give more than you take.”
By living for more than just herself. By living to contribute and by having that framing to build her life around, Ursula would have a lasting motivation that outlived all of her other hardships.
Who Are You?
No one knows where they will end up — and this a significant factor in our anxieties.
But there are a couple of indicators that can give you an idea of where you may be headed.
Determination and ability. You’ve heard it before as drive and skillset. And as perseverance and talent. Fundamentally, it’s what you’ve got in your guts and what you’ve got in your brain.
Ursula’s determination couldn’t be broken because she was fighting the good fight and working with a healthy and happy motive, focusing on contribution.
And her ability was honed through school. Where she tested out a few options until she found a subject that she was good at, mechanical engineering, and further opened up opportunities by mastering that ability.
Never knowing where she would end up, but with her purpose in her back pocket and her ability front and center, Ursula rolled up her sleeves to build an envious career, while breaking through traditions and paving new paths.
Whether the conception of people from poorer backgrounds not making it big comes from an actual cultural stifling, a learned helplessness or a combination of the two, Ursula wouldn’t have any of it.
Wherever you are now, the slums, the suburbs or the hills, coming at success with a drive for contribution, to give more than you take, and moving forward with a growth-mindset, using learning as a personal escalator, will put you on a path toward real success, greatness, and most importantly, a happy and healthy lifestyle.
Who is Ursula to grow up poor, living in the projects, being raised by a single parent, and growing up surrounded by other kids in a daycare — to still end up setting a milestone in the history of CEOs while actualizing her purpose of giving back?
And who are you?
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