Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns on importance of STEM and joining Uber's board

She’s Uber's newest board member.

ByABC News
October 25, 2017, 4:32 PM
Ursula Burns, Xerox Corporation Chairwoman and CEO, speaks at The New York Times New Work Summit on March 1, 2016, in Half Moon Bay, Calif.
Ursula Burns, Xerox Corporation Chairwoman and CEO, speaks at The New York Times New Work Summit on March 1, 2016, in Half Moon Bay, Calif.
Kimberly White/Getty Images

— -- She’s Uber’s newest board member, was the first African-American woman to run a Fortune 500 company, and led President Barack Obama’s White House national program on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

So what does the Former Xerox CEO and Chair Ursula Burns believe is the key to her success?

Her engineering degree. She says it was "everything."

In a recent episode of ABC Radio’s “No Limits With Rebecca Jarvis,” Burns, who grew up in public housing on the lower east side of Manhattan with a single mother, says she earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Polytechnic Institute of NYU and a Master of Science in mechanical engineering from Columbia University due to its “earning power.”

“$22,000 with a B.S. degree was what you made as a chemical engineer at that time. And an English teacher was $11,000,” Burns told ABC News' chief business, technology and economics correspondent Rebecca Jarvis.

Burns says her degrees set her on a path to eventually becoming CEO. Without them, she says she doesn’t believe she ever would’ve been considered to run a technology company.

But the lack of diversity in STEM programs today is not just a matter of how high students can climb, according to Burns, it’s also a serious problem for the future of humanity.

“We have to feed seven to 10 billion people. We have to get them water that's potable and clean. We have to be able to move them around in some kind of reasonably efficient way. ... There is not one thing that I mentioned in all of the things that I just mentioned not one that you can solve without a good STEM team around it.”

What does Burns want to accomplish at Uber?

“My job as a board member is to make sure that we have the governance processes, the staffing model, the funding model, the oversight, and the grace to allow the license to operate,” she said.

Burns says that the “license to operate” means making sure people all over the world have access to Uber.

“[This] 'luxury' that has moved to a necessity has to continue to be available in the right way to citizens in the world,” said Burns.

Uber recently found out from Transport for London, London’s transport authority, that the company would not be receiving a new license after the current one expired on Sept. 30 of this year. The TfL found that Uber London Limited “is not fit and proper to hold a private hire operator license.”

“We have to have great employees, you have to work well in the communities that you’re in, you have to have reasonably good governance, you have to be reasonably transparent ... and good technologies,” Burns said.

Hear Ursula Burns’s full interview on "No Limits With Rebecca Jarvis," available on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music, Spotify, TuneIn and the ABC News app.