When Ursula Burns was only 10, she heard something that she will never forget. She was told: “you are smart, but you have three strikes against you. You are black, you are a girl, and you are poor.”
Burns, who eventually became CEO and chairman of Xerox and the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, was determined to persevere beyond this mindset. She asked the Georgetown McDonough class of 2018 to emerge from the sidelines and actively engage in change for the better so that future generations do not face the same obstacles she encountered.
“I had to find my place and my confidence in a world that basically told me has a structure that defines my success in a very narrow range,” she said. “This is true for Hispanics. This is true for American Indians and Blacks and women, too. And it is not their problem. It is all of our problem. Because I believe a world that is so fundamentally uneven has to fall under its own weight. Allowing this to continue will be a real tragedy for the world and this country. So, translating this anger into action is what this is all about.”
The path to change, however, will not be an easy one. She shared the secret to her success with the 850 Undergraduate, MBA, Executive MBA, Executive Master’s in Leadership, and Master of Science in Finance graduates, complete with academic research to back it up. They key: Hard work and grit.
“No matter what you pursue, there will be obstacles, big, small, devastating, and inconsequential, and everything in between,” Burns said. “The difference between you and the next guy will be how hard you are willing to work and persevere to overcome.”
Burns also noted that advances in technology are accelerating the pace of change. Today, graduates have the ability to change the world through something as simple as social media.
“Make sure that in the tradition of Georgetown that you work for others before you work for yourself,” she said. “When I look at a Georgetown degree, I expect more. I expect more than the pizza delivery app that makes a guy a million dollars. I expect you to use technology to solve potable water problems, food distribution problems, healthcare distribution problems – real issues – in addition to the pizza delivery app.”
Before her speech, Burns was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters. A mechanical engineer by training, she holds an undergraduate degree from Brooklyn Polytechnic and a master’s degree from Columbia University. She currently is the executive chairman of VEON, an international telecommunications company. In addition, she sits on the boards of American Express, ExxonMobil, Nestle, Diageo, and Uber.
During the ceremony, Georgetown also honored a special graduate. World events caused Carlos Sera to leave Georgetown in 1959 – just four credits shy of graduating. As the son of a Cuban diplomat, his family lost everything with the rise of the Castro regime. Today, he earned his degree at age 81 after working to complete his coursework this spring.
“Carlos, we are tremendously proud of you and your lifetime of accomplishments,” said Georgetown McDonough Dean Paul Almeida to Sera, who was watching the webcast of the ceremony from his home in Houston. “While you have always been a Hoya, today we make it official with your diploma.”
For the graduates on campus, it was an emotional day.
“Georgetown has offered me so many transformative experiences and life-long friends,” said Amelia Fattore, a graduating senior who will join Citigroup in New York. “I've had the opportunity to study the wine industry in Mendoza, Argentina, represent McDonough at an all-female case competition in Austin, Texas, and conduct research with distinguished faculty. I thank Georgetown for these experiences that have shaped me into the person I am today. While I'm sad to be leaving the Hilltop, I know the Hoya community will stay with me as I enter the next phase of my life.”
“A lot of us worked for a long time, so coming back to school was somewhat daunting,” said Kenny Thompson, a graduate of the Executive MBA program. “Then when you look back and see all we have learned and experienced together, it’s a huge day. It’s a great culmination of a lot of hard work.”