A mechanical engineer by training, Burns made history in 2009 when she became the first African-American woman to be named CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
“Our next Commencement and alumni reunions will mark the grand finale of MIT’s 150th anniversary celebrations,” said MIT President Susan Hockfield. “For that reason, I am especially glad that Ursula Burns has agreed to share with the MIT community her remarkable personal story; her fearless approach to problem solving as an engineer and a leader; her deep experience at one of America’s most storied technology companies; and her commitment to service. Her life speaks eloquently to the Institute’s own ideals.”
In addition to leading a $22 billion global company, Burns is known as a national advocate for math and science education. She has been a member of the MIT Corporation, the Institute's board of trustees, since 2008.
“I’m honored to be asked to give the commencement address at MIT for a whole host of reasons,” said Burns. “MIT is one of the world’s premier universities. Its graduates have an enormous impact on our world and its people. I have the pleasure of serving on its Corporation and know of the Institute’s excellence up close and personal. And my son will be in this year’s graduating class. So I’m absolutely thrilled to have the honor to speak and I’m eagerly looking forward to it.”
Anshul Bhagi, president of the Class of 2011, said, “Ms. Burns is the epitome of an engineering leader. Through her industrious work ethic, sound understanding of technology and visionary leadership style, she rose from humble beginnings to a position of global influence, and I feel that her story is one that will resonate well with the students of MIT."
Ulric Ferner, president of the Graduate Student Council, shared Bhagi’s enthusiasm. “Ms. Burns’s hugely successful and diverse career will surely prove inspirational for all of MIT,” he said. “To hear from her will be very, very interesting.”
From summer intern to CEO
Born in New York in 1958, Burns earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic Institute of New York University in 1980 and a master of science degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University in 1981.
She joined Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern and later assumed roles in product development and planning. From 1992 through 2000, Burns led several business teams, including the office color and fax business and office network printing business. In 2000, she was named senior vice president, corporate strategic services, heading up manufacturing and supply chain operations. She then took on the broader role of leading Xerox’s global research, as well as product development, marketing and delivery.
In April 2007, Burns was named president of Xerox, expanding her leadership to also include the company’s IT organization, corporate strategy, human resources, corporate marketing and global accounts. At that time, she was also elected to be a member of the company’s Board of Directors. Burns was named chief executive officer in July 2009 and assumed the role of chairman of the company in May 2010.
Burns provides leadership counsel to community, educational and non-profit organizations including FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), National Academy Foundation, University of Rochester and the U.S. Olympic Committee, among others. Burns is also a board director of the American Express Corporation.
In November 2009, President Barack Obama named Burns to help lead the White House national program on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and she was appointed vice chair of the President’s Export Council in March 2010.
Burns joins a notable list of guest speakers at recent MIT Commencements, including Raymond S. Stata ’57, chairman and co-founder of Analog Devices Inc. (2010), Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (2009), Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus (2008), MIT President Emeritus Charles M. Vest (2007) and alumnus and Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Bernanke (2006).