As we pledge to challenge the systemic bias against women on “International women’s day”, I would like to share some thoughts from Ursula Burns Inspirational biography “Where you are is not who you are” and how she conquered the obstacles being Black and a woman to be the first Black women CEO of a fortune 500 company. In her book, she talks about her childhood experiences as she grew up in poverty, raised by a single mum though in a poor neighbourhood but among the people who looked after each other. Burns writes about facing racism, overcoming barriers, systemic bias, challenges, and realities of the world she grew up in. How she didn’t let things affect her negatively as she always had her mother’s powerful guiding words “Don’t let the world happen to you, you happen to the world” and also “Where you are is not who you are”. In her book, she also talks about the part of the system which helped her and how she benefitted from the grants and special concessions which helped complete her studies. She also acknowledges, her bosses and mentors, leaders who were mostly white and majority of them being men who helped her develop personally and professionally.
Some of the points which I find inspirational are
? She mentored her colleagues especially who were underrepresented in the organisation to be comfortable in their skin. She told them “The system is not designed with you in mind, and it is designed with other people in mind “manoeuvre yourself in the given environment without losing who you are and without losing the capabilities and the focus on why you were hired”.
? From her early days, her positive attitude to work, her focus to learn, perform and being open to take every task she was asked to do, earned her a reputation as someone who could be counted for help.
? She describes her uneasiness with the otherness she felt in places like Japan being a tall black professional, she felt like an alien as people would turnaround to look at her, how she managed feeling completely out of place.
? How she learned from her bosses to focus on building the capability, creating the visibility and the mantra that to earn the job one must have the gravitas, knowledge, and the experience to do the job.
? She worked on her communication skills as she was often blunt in expressing herself and how she was guided by her bosses not to intimidate people with her bluntness.
? She admits to her lack of patience and how she learned to step back and not to make it all about herself, to let others be heard and be valued for their ideas and efforts.
Her courage to be the leader, to be authentic, to be vulnerable, to have clarity, to be committed to the bigger cause, her dedication towards the organisation as well as the people it served is an inspiration for all the women.