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March 21, 2013Throughout our lives we come across individuals whose stories leave an impact on us. At Tuesday’s 2013 Catalyst Awards Conference, I had the privilege of sitting in on a conversation between Catalyst President & CEO Ilene H. Lang and a woman whose journey has truly inspired me: Ursula Burns, the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Ursula Burns is one of the most powerful and respected women in business. She began her career as an intern for Xerox Corporation and rose through the company’s ranks to the position of CEO. Although all of her accomplishments are admirable, it’s her journey to the top and the experiences she has encountered along the way that resonate with me. Raised in New York City public housing by a single parent, Burns faced tough odds. But she never allowed her circumstances to define her future.

As a young African-American woman who has shared an upbringing similar to Burns', I left the interview feeling empowered. It was inspiring for me to see someone who was once in my shoes become one of the most influential women in the world. Among her many valuable pieces of advice were the following:  

  • Don’t work in a place that requires you to be untrue to yourself in order to succeed.
  • Love your coworkers—you’ll enjoy work more if you have colleagues you like and respect.
  • Impatience is a virtue—don’t accept the idea that change is impossible or will take too long; it might just be up to you to make it happen.
  • To inspire people, you must be able to tell them a good story—and a good story is one that is about them, in which they can see themselves succeed.
  • Find a supportive partner—and don’t rule out someone older. Ms. Burns is married to a man 20 years her senior who is extremely supportive of her career.
  • Focus on personal fulfillment rather than on things.
  • There’s absolutely no reason to be at every single one of your children’s plays/recitals/games/concerts/etc.—and you shouldn’t feel guilty if you’re not.
  • Be confident and clear about what you bring to the table.
  • It’s important to have opinions—and to know when and how to voice them.
  • Take the long view—striving each day or week for perfect balance between your professional and personal lives is a “fool’s journey.” Instead, seek balance over the entire course of your life.

The theme of this year’s Conference was “Ready For Change.” And after spending several hours in the company of Ursula Burns and Catalyst’s own President & CEO Ilene H. Lang—as well as this year’s Dinner Chair, Denise Morrison, President & CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and the CEOs behind this year’s Award-winning initiatives—I am not just ready for change; I’m inspired to go out and make it!