2013 President's Commencement Colloquy
Ursula M. Burns

“President’s Commencement Colloquy”
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, May 24, 2013

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Ursula M. Burns
“Rensselaer Commencement”
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, May 25, 2013
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Ursula M. Burns
“Rensselaer Commencement”
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, May 25, 2013
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Honorary Doctor of Engineering | News Release

The first African-American woman to be named CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Burns earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic University of New York University, and joined Xerox in 1980 as a mechanical engineering summer intern. She later assumed roles in product development and planning, as the company was securing its leadership position in digital document technologies. From 1992 through 2000, she led several business teams, including the company’s color business and office network printing business.

In 2000, Burns was named senior vice president, Corporate Strategic Services, heading up manufacturing and supply chain operations. Alongside then-CEO Anne Mulcahy, Burns worked to restructure Xerox through its turnaround to emerge as a leader in color technology and document services. In April 2007, Burns was named president of Xerox, expanding her leadership to also include the company’s IT organization, corporate strategy, human resources, corporate marketing, and global accounts. At that time, she also was elected a member of the company’s board of directors.

She was named chief executive officer in July 2009 and shortly after, made the largest acquisition in Xerox history, the $6.4 billion purchase of Affiliated Computer Services, catapulting the company’s presence in the $500 billion business services market and extending the company’s reach into diverse areas of business process and IT outsourcing. On May 20, 2010, Burns became chairman of the company.

In addition to the Xerox board, she is a board director of the American Express Corporation and Exxon Mobil Corporation. Burns also provides leadership counsel to community, educational, and nonprofit organizations, including FIRST – (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), the National Academy Foundation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the U.S. Olympic Committee. She is a founding board director of Change the Equation, which focuses on improving the U.S.’ education system in science, technology, engineering, and math. In March 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Burns vice chair of the President’s Export Council.

Commencement Remarks by Ursula M. Burns (as prepared for delivery on May 25, 2013)

President Jackson and the distinguished faculty, alumni, students, graduates, family and friends of RPI... thank you for bestowing on me this honorary degree.

I am humbled to be here with my fellow honorees... and it is a privilege to be with you today and to become a part of your vibrant community – if only for a day.

It’s hard for me not to reflect a little on my own graduation in 1980. It was a dream come true. I grew up in a single-parent household in the public housing projects of lower Manhattan.

My mother’s highest income year in her life was $4,400. Yet she managed to send me and my brother and sister to Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school. I didn’t fully appreciate it then, but it was a gift of immeasurable value.
That was followed by a scholarship to Brooklyn Polytechnic – now NYU Poly: your cross-state rival – and on to a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Columbia.

Mom saw education as a way up and out of the projects. She made whatever sacrifices were necessary to see to it that we had an opportunity to get a good education and then she insisted that we take advantage of that opportunity.

All of the graduates here today have that same opportunity. Don’t take it for granted. All of you will immerse yourselves in a world full of opportunity and challenge.

So, as you set out to write the next chapter of your lives... I’ve given some thought about what my advice to you would be and I’ve come up with five simple things. So here goes.

First, I would encourage all of you to follow the example of RPI and embrace change and learning willingly and with a sense of excitement and calm. That’s one thing that has not changed since the very first RPI commencement in 1826. Think about that. RPI has survived and excelled for 187 years because it has evolved and changed.

Back in 1980, when I sat where you are sitting today...

  • there were no cell phones...
  • the Internet, let alone the iPad, was not even the stuff of dreams...
  • the fax machine was considered close to magic...
  • genetics was in its infancy...
  • the word terrorism was not a part of our vocabulary...
  • the thought of a global economic recession was beyond comprehension...

I can't pretend to know how your world will change – but I know it will and at a pace that will continue to increase exponentially. You can’t stop it. In many ways, you are the cause of it. Learn to love it. Make it your ally.

Stay relevant by devoting yourself to a lifetime of learning. You are being given a wonderful academic foundation – an invitation to begin a journey of learning, exploration and growth. Treasure it and use it.

Second, have fun. Enjoy life. Choose a career that gives you pleasure and fulfillment. Surround yourselves with people who make you laugh. Don't fall into the trap of letting someone else define your success and happiness.

Some of your parents here won’t like what I’m about to say. When they left school, their immediate future was pretty well prescribed. The vast majority of college graduates got a job, settled down, bought a house and had a family – all by the age of 30.

That has changed dramatically. Now the decade after college is spent trying a few jobs, getting a graduate degree, traveling, living and then settling down. I, for one, think it’s a very good development.

That’s because people are more likely to be successful if they have a passion for what they do. Finding it takes time. Make yourself a promise today. If down the road, you find that your career is not fun, revert to my earlier piece of advice – change!

Third, be true to yourself and your values. Your family... RPI... your church or synagogue, or mosque or mountaintop... have given you a set of core values – a moral compass. Hang on to it.

A predecessor of mine at Xerox used to say he tried to live his life as though any piece of it might end up in his obituary. Would he be proud of it? That's not a bad test. I have an even better one. It hangs on the wall of my office.

“Don’t do anything that wouldn’t make your Mom proud!”

Fourth, do good in the world. We need your help. When your life’s journey ends, I promise you that you won’t care very much about the money you made or the status you’ve achieved if you haven’t made the world a better place along the way.

Doing good is not an “add on” but central to leading a rewarding life. As my Mother used to tell anyone who would listen, we all have an obligation to “put back” more than we “take out.” Leave more than you take – not a bad formula for true success.

Fifth, do RPI proud. You have a rich tradition to uphold. RPI is well-known for its breakthroughs that impact the world.

You are about to join the ranks of RPI alumni – individuals who literally built America... from ferris wheels to Fenway Park; from the transcontinental railroad to the Brooklyn Bridge... people who transformed our lives by putting TV’s in our homes, GPS in our cars, digital cameras in our hands and email on our computers.

Stephen Van Rensselaer created a special place here in scenic Troy. The mission of RPI has remained constant for well over a century – to apply science to the common purposes of life.

As you look ahead to your careers in business, public service, science or engineering... lives in which many of you will help create the future technologies that will shape our nation and our world for decades to come... what an opportunity you have been given. What a responsibility you have – not just to contribute but to lead... not just to succeed but to serve.

That is your charge – to define your success at least in some measure by what you do for your fellow man and society. You cannot enter the ranks of the elite and then close ranks behind you.

But for now, to all of the graduates, allow yourself to bask in the glory of what you’ve accomplished. And pledge to yourself that you will cherish what you have learned here and use it as a foundation to do good.

Class of 2013, today is your day and the future is yours. You’ve worked long and hard to arrive at this place. My congratulations to all of you.

And my congratulations also to all the parents, grandparents, spouses, family members and faculty that helped to bring you to this moment. All of you should feel very, very proud.

Thank you for letting me share this great day with you.

2013 President’s Commencement Colloquy

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