When Ursula Burns started as an intern at Xerox more than 30 years ago, she had no idea that she would someday end up running the company. "I just chose to work," she says simply.
But it's safe to say that she probably wasn't entirely surprised. Burns -- who became the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company when she took the reins of Xerox (XRX) in 2009 -- has never lacked for confidence. "I learned from my mother that if you have a chance to speak, you should speak. If you have an opinion, you should make it be known."
Burns tells her personal story in "Makers: Women Who Make America," a new documentary film airing on Tuesday, Feb. 26. An initiative of PBS and AOL, the film chronicles the past 50 years of the women's movement, through the experiences of trailblazers like Burns and other pioneers in business, media and the workplace. (Check your local listings for air times.)
A summer internship turned into a full-time job in 1981, when Xerox hired Burns as soon as she completed her master's degree in mechanical engineering at Columbia University. It wasn't necessarily the predictable path for someone who grew up "very, very poor" in a Manhattan housing project, raised by a single mother "who was struggling to feed us properly and make sure that we got a good education," Burns recounts in the film.
A few years later, her mother's admonition to speak up brought Burns to the attention of Xerox senior executive Wayland Hicks when she challenged him over the role of women and minorities at the company. By 1990, she was Hicks's top assistant, starting her ascent up the corporate ladder. At the age of 51, almost three decades after joining the company as an intern, she was named CEO.
Both Forbes and Fortune magazine have consistently named Burns one of the most powerful women in business. But she remains down-to-earth. The day she got the top job, she says, she called home and her daughter answered. "I was made CEO today," she said. "Yeah," her daughter replied. "Wanna talk to Dad?"
Burns points out that her appointment wasn't the only history made that day. She took over the job from then-Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy, making it the first female-to-female CEO transition in Fortune 500 history.
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To see interviews with more than 150 Makers in business, politics, sports, arts and more, go to Makers.com.