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Profiles of Women Who #ChooseToChallenge: an International Women’s Day Series

Updated: July 14, 2021 | Share on LinkedIn

Ursula Burns

She is female. She is black. And she grew up poor. Ursula Burns, the former CEO (2009 – 2016) and Chairperson (2010 – 2017) of Xerox, has had a successful career by anyone’s standards. But when you consider the gender, racial, and socio-economic bias she had to confront to achieve success, it is clear she worked harder than most to realize those achievements. Her career at Xerox began nearly 30 years before being appointed Chief Executive Officer, when in 1980 Ursula won a summer internship and in less than a year continued working full time in product development and planning. At the time, she could never have predicted that she would become CEO. During her address to the graduating class at Rochester Institute of Technology in 2009, Ursula explained that when she had graduated college, it was virtually unimaginable that a black woman would become president of a large global company. But while she may never have expected to be CEO, she has always expected nothing less than success for herself.

It is a result of her outspoken, bold personality and hard work that Ursula can credit her success, but she did not do it alone. From early childhood, her mother taught her the value of hard work, perseverance, and to not let her circumstances define her. Her mother knew that Ursula could become so much more and has been a great inspiration, giving her the traits to excel as a black female engineer in a company and field dominated by white men. But it took the courage to make a significant career shift at Xerox to get her on a path that would ultimately lead her to become the first black woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Ursula not only became the first black woman, but became the first woman to take over leadership of a Fortune 500 company from another woman. In 1990, a senior executive asked her to be his executive assistant and she accepted the role. A year later, she became the executive assistant to the CEO and Chairman at the time, and just nine years later she had risen through the ranks to executive management in the company.

In addition to the good work ethic taught by her mother, courage, perseverance and a “will do” attitude, Ursula was fortunate to receive a good education, receiving her Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University. She holds honorary degrees from no less than 10 other universities and is active on several boards. Ursula understands what it takes to make dreams a reality and works with organizations to help others like her know those dreams are indeed achievable.

Read about how her mother prepared Ursula for her road to success

More information on what is driving the trends of black women in engineering

Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern became prime minister of New Zealand in October of 2017, making her the youngest female head of government in the world at age 37. One of the first things that got the world’s attention was her response to repeated questions about whether or not she was going to have children. While she herself was open about sharing her choice, she was very clear that it’s not a question women have to answer, specifically around employment. This was a new idea in New Zealand. Here’s what she said.

I decided to talk about it, it was my choice…, but for other women it is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace. It is the woman’s decision about when they choose to have children. It should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities.”

In June of 2018, she gave birth to her first child and became the second woman to give birth while in office as a world leader. She has been seen bringing her daughter to work and being a mother and a successful world leader simultaneously.

In March of 2019, the mass shooting at Christchurch took place. She was noted the world over for her both compassionate approach to the Muslim community that was attacked in the massacre and her hardline stance on banning semi-automatic weapons that all but one member of parliament voted for. This work made her wildly popular in her own country and around the world. Jacinda Arden is an excellent example of a woman who is getting things done and should be a lesson to us all that women are excellent leaders, while also being a wife and mother.

Here’s an interview from The Guardian, where Ms. Ardern talks about her approaches to handling stress and her experiences around Imposter Syndrome.

More Statistics about Women in World Leadership positions

Michele Buck

For the past 15 years, Michele Buck has worked within an hour drive from where she grew up in central Pennsylvania.  In March 2017, appointed Chairperson, President, and CEO of The Hershey Company, Michele became the first woman in the company’s more than 125-year history to hold this position.  She is member of an elite group of women who act as CEO of a Fortune 500 company, one of only 41 women.  But she comes from a humble upbringing, where the lessons she learned from her parents were that of hard work and to not fear challenges.  Her father was the first in his family to graduate high school and her mother grew up on a farm with no indoor plumbing.  Her father modeled early the value of hard work, as she saw him take classes while juggling his other responsibilities to gain a degree in Electrical Engineering.  Michele has put the lessons taught by her parents to action daily, as she worked her way into senior management roles of increasing responsibility.

Michele’s career spans more than 30 years in the consumer-packaged foods industry.  This is by no means a static industry and, in her roles in senior management, she has had to face the challenges of consumers’ ever changing eating habits, changes in economy and consumer buying, and most recently, the change in shopping methods due to the pandemic.  Despite these challenges, she has had continued success for herself and the companies for whom she worked.  How has she been so successful?  First, she is a self-proclaimed “unabashed optimist”, she is not afraid to make tough decisions, but she does not seek competition at the expense of compassion, but instead seeks to balance the two.  Finally, she does not solely look at the finances of a company, but also works to fully understand the impact that her decisions have on the entire company and its employees.  She calls herself the “Chief Energy Officer”, feeling it is her job to harness the energy of her employees and inspiring those same employees to achieve the vision of the company.

When asked how being a woman impacts how she is as a leader, Michele said “When I walk into work each day, I don’t think about being a female CEO. I think about how I can be the best CEO for Hershey. I’m incredibly proud to be breaking barriers for women at Hershey, but I realize that I stand on the shoulders of many women who came before me.”  Her advice to women in business is to ask for what you need and to take on an assignment that stretches you.

Hear Michele describe what has made her successful in her own words

More information on how women are setting records in leadership

Aisha Bowe

Aisha Bowe grew up in a working class family in Ann Arbor, MI, the daughter of a Bahamian father, who immigrated to the United States and drove a taxi to support his family. Aisha was not a confident kid, and didn’t always spend time with the best crowd in high school. Her guidance counselor suggest that consider going into to cosmetology after high school. But her father encouraged her to take some math classes and the rest is history. She enrolled at the University of Michigan and completed her undergraduate degree in Aerospace engineering in 2008 and her master’s degree in Space System engineering in 2009. Right out of college, Aisha started working at NASA and earned the National Society of Black Engineers Award for Outstanding Technical Contribution.

“I spent time in the government working for NASA as a rocket scientist, and I didn’t see people who looked like me,” she said. “I wanted to find a company that could demonstrate technical proficiency well by doing cool things.” That’s when she launched STEMBoard, “I’m out to elevate the profile of what it means to be a Black woman in tech, to be a CEO, and to run a company in the hopes of inspiring more people to do the same thing,” she said. “Because when you have multi-million dollar companies, you can create more. We can make investments. We can provide that leadership and infrastructure, which is the ecosystem that our people need to grow and succeed.”

She has made it her mission to empower minority youth to help create a future for themselves, their families and ultimately for their entire community. It is important to her to demonstrate to the black community that technology is a career option.

Visit Aisha’s page to learn more.

How This Former NASA Engineer Wants to Make STEM Youth Education More Accessible

More statistics on women entrepreneurs

Ada Lovelace [1815 – 1852]

Ada Lovelace is considered by many to be the mother of computer programming. She was a friend and colleague of Charles Babbage who is known for his groundbreaking work for designing the “analytical machine” which could handle large volumes of calculations.

Ada broke new ground in computing, identifying an entirely new concept. She realized that an analytical engine could go beyond numbers. This was the first ever perception of a modern computer – not just a calculator – but a machine that could contribute to other areas of human endeavor, for example composing music.

Ada had grasped that anything that could be converted into numbers, such as music, or the alphabet (language) or images, could then be manipulated by computer algorithms. An analytical engine had the potential to revolutionize the way the whole world worked, not just the world of mathematics.

75 years ago, six Philadelphia women became the first digital programmers in service to the US Army. Read more.

Watch a short 2-minute video discussing Ada.

Here’s a quick 3-5 minute read from The New Yorker about Ada.

Amanda Gorman [born 1998]

If asked “Who is Amanda Gorman?”, one will likely tell of Amanda’s delivery of her original poem at the Presidential Inauguration in January. However, Amanda had achieved remarkable things well before her Inaugural performance, having been named the United States’ first Youth Poet Laureate at the age of 19. Now 22, she is using her poetry and her voice to bring about social change.

Amanda was raised in Los Angeles by her mother, an English teacher, with her two siblings. Before she started university, she had already acted as youth delegate to the United Nations, was named first youth poet laureate of Los Angeles, and published a poetry book. She went on to attend Harvard University, graduating in 2020, but don’t think for a moment that this slowed down her poetry or activism.

Amanda knew from an early age that she wanted to be a proponent for change, but this goal did not come without obstacles. One challenge she faced was a speech impediment she had from childhood, which made some letters difficult to pronounce, particularly the letter “R”. It has been through much determination and music therapy (specifically a Hamilton song) that she has overcome this challenge. Amanda is a role model for women today, showing us that the arts and one voice can change the world.

Click here to read more about the movement. Full STEAM ahead!

Watch this short 4-minute video to hear Amanda’s own words.

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