I was raised by a wonderful mother in the rough and tumble public housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor.
Mom didn’t see it that way. She constantly reminded me “where I was didn’t define who I was.” She knew that education was my way up and out. On a modest salary, Mom somehow managed to send me to good Catholic schools. Back then I was prepared for one of three career options: nun, teacher, or nurse.
None of those paths felt quite right for me and I began to dream of becoming an engineer. Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute offered me a spot in the freshman class and I panicked—a classic case of being careful what you wish for. I didn’t have the right preparation. The school was in a different borough of New York City that seemed foreign and distant. I feared the students would surely be smarter than me.
It was my first “lean back, lean in” crossroads. It would have been so simple to let go of my dreams and set out on a more predictable journey. However, the courage and confidence that my mother and Cathedral High School had given me enabled me to lean in. It wasn’t easy. I had a lot of catch-up courses to master. I was an oddity in a sea of predominantly white males. I doubted myself big time. I started out in chemical engineering, which I hated, and switched to mechanical engineering, which I loved. And, ever so slowly, I regained my footing.
My life since then has been a series of lean in moments: taking an internship with Xerox in upstate New York, going to an Ivy League school for a graduate degree, signing on with Xerox, and climbing the ladder to the top. As CEO, I pulled the trigger on a major acquisition, which has transformed Xerox from a copy and printing company to a technology and services enterprise.
Dreams do come true, but not without the help of others, a good education, a strong work ethic, and the courage to lean in. That’s why I spend so much time with organizations that help minorities and women gain the education and self-respect they need to take risks, to dream big, and, I hope, to someday pay it forward.
Ursula Burns is the chairman and CEO of Xerox