Earlier this week, Ursula Burns, the former CEO and Chairwoman of Xerox, spoke with CNN anchor Poppy Harlow about work, money, and the tech industry.
Burns, who grew up in public housing in New York City, was the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. She left Xerox last year, after having worked her way up as an intern many years before, and credits the support and generosity of friends, family, public, and private institutions for shepherding her toward success.
"Institutions both private and public had to help [my mother]," Burns told Harlow. "Her responsibility was to parlay it into something else. That's the American Dream."
Burns quashed any ideas that she might run for office any time soon, telling Harlow that she thinks "we need to do a little bit more structural repair of the political system before I get involved." However, the former executive had no problem getting into the gender politics of the day in the tech world.
With everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Alba to Ashton Kutcher entering the tech and venture capital markets, and talking about how those industries relate to women, it's unsurprising that a veteran like Burns would have something to say. She explained how she fielded the "three strikes" against her — being poor, black, and female — by advocating for herself at work in her personal life. Here are two main takeaways.
Don't Cave To The Status Quo
Burns says that because many companies are actively looking for female employees, women with an interest and a "reasonable level of aptitude" in technology truly can get hired — even if the experiences of women who are hired needs to progress.
"I think [for] women in tech, this is a time of power. You will get a job [and] you will get paid well. You may not like the environment [but] we are not victims here," she said. "We have something to say about the environment. We have to actually own our position in the world, and be strong and aggressive about it."
Burns explained that this often comes up in women's personal lives, where they may relinquish their careers in the face of supporting a male partner's aspirations. She urges women to remember that these decisions are mutual ones, rather than a matter of going along with the norm — especially if the norm is unworkable.
"You have to pick someone or train someone that you've picked to actually be a partner with you — not [think]: There's a set of norms and I’m going to fall into the set of norms," she said. "The amount of time that this happens is amazing, where women — and I mean talented engineers — they fall in line and say they have to leave when the baby comes. Well, there are certain things that only you can do that are probably important and that you should do. But after that, it should all be a discussion."
Call Your Company's Bluff
Burns says that the dialogue about gender, balance, and equality is so widespread these days that everyone can and should be participating in it, including all members of the tech community. For fathers, she says, that might mean telling a CEO, "Hey, my wife and I are having a baby. This is a really big deal, and it's a two-person job. I have to be engaged and take some time off."
Even though such discussions are difficult for everyone (and, perhaps, less common for men), Burns believes that tech employees work in an industry that gives them even more sway to make these kinds of demands, which makes doing so crucial.
"Companies have to have an ear that can listen, but individuals have to take some control of this. This is not indentured servitude. You work for a company you want to work for, and if they tell you they won't give you leave, quit and find another place that well," she says. "Most companies are looking for talent so aggressively that they’re not dense enough to believe they can take a talented woman or man and say, Because you have a baby — which is the thing we do in this world to kind of keep it going — we're going to punish you and the baby is going to raise itself. You have to own it and push for it as you go up," she continues. "It's not the burden of only women to do that. [It's] men, and women, and definitely companies."