Closing The Gap

Ex-Xerox CEO Ursula Burns: Companies should 'improve representation for women and for Blacks' or be forced to meet targets

Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox speaking at the 2105 CGI Annual Meeting in New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns is calling on leaders in corporate America to look at the racial imbalances within their own companies amid their statements of support for protesters fighting against racial injustice. 

In a recent interview on CNBC's "Closing Bell," Burns, who was the first Black woman to serve as a Fortune 500 CEO, says that a huge part of racial inequality within corporate America starts at the board level. She points out that "most of the boards still have zero or one African American" members on their team and that "pressure in that area can help to speed up progress and transitions for companies."

As of 2019, 187 of the S&P 500 companies had zero Black board members, according to Black Enterprise. When looking at the CEO spot, Burns, who served as Xerox's leader from 2009-2016, says it's a disappointment that there are only four Black CE0s on the Fortune 500 list today. Of those four Black CEOs, none of them are women. "There has to be more of us who are qualified to do these roles," she says, while explaining that setting diversity benchmarks and targets for companies could be a possible solution. 

Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox speaking at the 2105 CGI Annual Meeting in New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

"I've actually started to switch my thinking a little bit around targets," she says. "I was totally against them and now I'm really starting to investigate and think about whether this would be helpful."

At first, Burns says, she was hopeful that corporate America would do the right thing and hire more diverse leaders on its own without forced intervention. But, after being around for more than 30 years, she says she's upset at the fact that "we still have made very little progress."

"I think we are at the last step of what I call 'voluntary compliance,'" she says. "If we can't start to improve representation for women and for Blacks then I think that we may be forced to do what Europe has done." 

The European commission has proposed a requirement for companies to have at least 40% women on their corporate boards. Any company that doesn't meet this quota would be required to prioritize women candidates when hiring for future leadership roles. Though some European countries opposed this rule, places like France and Italy mandated that local companies meet this quota. As a result, France was the only member of the European Union to have more than 40% women on its corporate boards in 2019, followed by Italy being in close second with 36%.

"It would be a really sad state if we get there," Burns says. "But if we don't do it voluntarily soon, then I will be marching down the streets saying, 'Yes, we should do it.'"

As a current board member at Uber, Burns says companies have to be more "affirmative about the way [they] approach hiring" and business leaders have to be more proactive in leading discussions about social injustices now and every day moving forward. 

"I am part of the 1%, and I still worry when I'm approached by a police person," she says. "We have to get these kind of hidden bombs to the surface and work on them."

Her hope, she says, is that we don't view these injustices as "a problem that's unsolvable" and that we don't "shy away from" and forget these issues quickly. 

"This will pass," she adds. "We will wait for the next killing of a Black man by a policeman and then we will have an uproar again and I'm hoping that this is not the fate we're going into now. That we're not going to quiet down, everything is [not ]going to go back to normal and everybody is [not] going to go back into their houses and we're [not] going to actually wait for the next explosion. That can't be the way it is. I'm hoping that a pandemic plus a social disaster comes together to give us the opportunity to rethink" the injustices in our country. 

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