Our Voices

Ursula Burns: ‘Diversity is one of the things I care most about’

  • By
  • Melynda Shamie

A more diverse business world is, at last, beginning to emerge. But to appreciate the progress and ensure it continues, it’s important to look to the past, Integrum Holdings Partner Ursula Burns says.

The former Xerox CEO discussed how businesses could work toward a more just and equitable vision for women and people of color during a dynamic fireside chat with RFK Human Rights President Kerry Kennedy Monday morning at the Compass Winter Investors Conference in Miami.

Burns is one of the first Black women to lead a Fortune 500 company; she also served on the board of directors of Uber, American Express, and ExxonMobile and as Chairwoman and CEO of Veon, and Chairwoman of Teneo.

“What’s most intriguing about Ursula Burns, big picture, is the personal perspective she brings to the table,” Kennedy said in her introduction of Burns, who in 2014 was named by Forbes the 22nd most powerful woman in the world. “In 2020, the height of the nation’s racial reckoning, she was a clear voice, telling the world she was fed up with companies making excuses for not hiring Black executives and other executives of color.”

Burns and Kennedy touched on expectations for corporate leadership, improving diversity in the boardroom and private equity space and, perhaps most importantly, disrupting the status quo to effect change.

First, though, Burns explained some history – the factors that led to change being so critical. It’s important to remember how things started, she said. “We designed systems that excluded people. Built our country on those laws. We then changed the laws, but not the habits.”

The United States’ cultural, educational, and healthcare systems, plus governance structures, for a long time only specified that women were less equal than men. People of color were completely overlooked because that’s how the white men in power built it.

Women and people of color stepped in to level the playing field, and laws changed. But traces of ingrained racism and sexism remained.

When referring to boards, Burns said there’s a frightening reality in venture capital, Fortune 500 Companies, and beyond; it’s also a reality that persists.

“You couldn’t design an experiment of exclusion better than what we’ve been practicing,” she explained.

But Compass Investors Conference represents a divergence from corporate America’s exclusionary tendencies because it looks different, she added.

“This room literally represents an oddity, because I see women; I see Black people,” Burns said. More of that kind of diversity is what’s needed to provoke and promote change.

Part of making that happen is Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) policies in business settings, even if they’re coming under fire in some places, including here in Florida.

“Diversity is one of the things I care most about; the most important thing,” Burns said. “We need to be aware that diversity is not a drag, it’s kind of an opportunity. And we should use that opportunity to be a little bit more joyful than we are.”

Burns also said she’s hopeful about the future: “The puck is already moving in the direction of more transparency and diversity.”

The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Compass Investors program brings together thought leaders from around the world who manage nearly $7 trillion in assets. For information about our flagship RFK Compass Summer Investors Conference, set for June 13-16 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, visit our website. To register, LP’s should contact Oraine O’Riggio at [email protected]. GP’s should contact Fanta NGom, [email protected], to learn more about sponsorship opportunities.