Ursula Burns looks back at her life, corporate career
Reviewed by Terri Schlichenmeyer
Start small, plan big. You don’t have to have much for the former – just a little love and a place to launch. The latter, though, takes some work.
You have to see the goal, hold your confidence tight, know yourself well, and then you step up and fly, former Xerox CEO and chairwoman Ursula Burns writes in her memoir, “Where You Are is Not Who You Are” (Amistad, June 2021).
Growing up in a New York City tenement, Burns never thought about how much her mother sacrificed for her and her siblings. The family had food, shelter, a TV, school, and clothing. It wasn’t until Burns was almost grown that she realized what a feat this was: her single, Panamanian-born mother kept the family going on $4,400 a year.
Despite the family’s low income, Burns was able to attend a Manhattan Catholic school, where she excelled in her studies and learned that being vocal could make a difference in how things were run. This outspokenness did indeed make change, but it also led to a certain amount of chiding when she was an adult.
Upon graduation, Burns says, she had her pick of several major colleges, but she chose Brooklyn Polytech, having decided upon a tech-oriented career based on potential income. Her studies were heavily steeped in math, a subject she was good at, but at which her more-privileged classmates were better. It took a few months to catch up before she began tutoring others in math.
Burns loved school and she was grateful for the help she got from New York’s Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), which provided support, both career-wise and economically.
At the end of her junior year in college, she accepted an internship at Xerox and the company supported her while she pursued a master’s degree. Upon graduation, she took the full-time job they offered, a position that allowed her to make history as the first Black woman to head a Fortune 500 company.
A few pages into “Where You Are is Not Who You Are” you may reconsider your plan to finish this book. Burns jumps almost immediately to the latter part of her career, leaping from point to place to person in a dizzying chunk that’s exhausting to read. Name-dropping features heavily there. This part of the book lasts way too long and it feels forced.
If you’re stick with the book you’ll be happy to see Burns settle in to share her memoir – a rags-to-riches tale that has the feel of a TV movie. It rambles a little, but that rambling is appealing. Burns writes of poverty, of determination and resourcefulness, and of the love of family before sliding back into the story of her career. This time, thankfully, the writing is easier to read and quite well done.
This is one of those books in which you need to prepare yourself to pick and choose what you read. Be ready to skim or skip parts. Do that, and you’ll be fine; otherwise, reading “Where You Are Is Not Who You Are” could be an arduous task.