We were excited to learn that the theme of this year’s Black History Month is to “explore black women’s contributions to America”. History has given us some incredible stories of courage, strength and leadership from African-American women, including pioneers for freedom and equality: Harriet Tubman, the leader of the Underground Railroad; Sojourner Truth, who spread the word of equality; and Rosa Parks, the mother of the modern Civil Rights Movement, to name just a few. The paths that these women paved have certainly played a critical role in helping to create a new generation of black women leaders, women who have distinguished themselves in all areas of industry, and who are making history today. One such Woman You Should Know is Ursula Burns, rated by Forbes in 2009 as the 14th most powerful woman in the world.

Ms. Burns is the chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corporation, the first black woman to be named CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and the mother of two. Here is her extraordinary story.

Born Sept. 20, 1958, Ursula Burns grew up in a low-income housing community on Delancey Street, in New York City. She was the middle child of three with a single mother who worked several jobs to be able to send Ursula and her siblings to Catholic school. It was important to her mother to be able to provide her children with a good education in a safe environment, and was dedicated to making it happen for them. It was at school, that Ms. Burns discovered her incredible aptitude for math.

Armed with her wizardry for numbers, Ms. Burns charted her path up and out of the projects. She headed to Polytechnic Institute of NYU where she chose a road less taken by most women of her generation, and earned her Bachelor of Science degree in engineering. She continued to defy the teachers who had been directing her toward a more traditional career in nursing or teaching, and entered a graduate program in mechanical engineering at Columbia University. The program at Columbia was specifically created for minority students, and tuition was partially paid for by the Xerox Corporation. As part of the graduate program, Ms. Burns took a summer intern position with Xerox, and when she graduated with her degree in 1981, she joined the company full time.

Ursula Burns XeroxKnown for her tenacity and incomparable work ethic, it wasn’t much of a surprise that Ms. Burns quickly made her way through the ranks at Xerox overseeing several areas of the company – engineering, manufacturing, product development, and marketing – along the way. But, there were the naysayers who felt her quick rise through the company was a result of affirmative action. In true no-nonsense form, Ms. Burns responded to these claims in an interview with Black Enterprise magazine in 1997, “The fact that I did it faster than others has nothing to do with my race and gender. It was my performance.”

It was with this confidence that led Ms. Burns to several high-level positions before becoming Corporate Vice President in 1999, and then Senior Vice President of Strategic Services in 2000. Her climb up the corporate ladder continued when she added President of the Document Systems Solutions Group to her already extensive list of job titles in 2001.

In April 2007, Ms. Burns was named president of Xerox, expanding her leadership role to also include the company’s IT organization, corporate strategy, human resources, corporate marketing and global accounts. At that time, she was also elected a member of the company’s Board of Directors. She was named Chief Executive Officer in July 2009 and took on the role of chairman of the company on May 20, 2010.

President Obama and Ursula Burns

Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

But, it isn’t all about business for Ms. Burns, she is also a philanthropist and advocate. Through programs such as President Obama’s Change the Equation initiative, she’s encouraging more young women and minorities to pursue careers in math and science. She also provides leadership counsel to community, educational and non-profit organizations including FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), National Academy Foundation, MIT, University of Rochester, and the U.S. Olympic Committee, among others.

In November of 2009 Ms. Burns was named by President Barack Obama to help lead the White House national program on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and was appointed vice chair of the President’s Export Council in March 2010.

Ms. Burns attributes much of her success to her mother, “My mother would always remind me: ‘Where you are is not who you are.’ I grew up in a poor neighborhood in New York City. My mother saw education as the way up and out for her children. It didn’t take long for me to see the wisdom in her beliefs.”

Ursula Burns has made history, but more importantly she has made a difference. It is this that makes her a Woman You Should Know.