Dr. King’s Legacy: An American Dream for All

By Karen Arena, vice president of Corporate Public Relations for Xerox

CEO Ursula Burns’ story is a story of the American Dream, and you’ve likely read it in this blog or in other publications.

A brief retelling: A black girl and her siblings, raised by a single mother in the housing projects on Manhattan’s lower East Side. Her mother instilled the values of character and education at an early age, and Ursula’s journey took her to a degree in mechanical engineering, an internship at Xerox, and currently chairman and CEO.

Xerox CEO Ursula Burns
“The difference between failure and success revolves around … the quality of your people and the amount of innovation that they can bring to market.” Ursula Burns, CEO, Xerox

“A generation ago, my story was unimaginable,” she said. “Most people thought that I had three strikes against me: I was poor — class, I was a woman — gender, and I was black — race. “Yet in the span of my life, the unimaginable has become accepted, and soon, I hope, it will be unremarkable.”

She told her story during an observance Dr. Martin Luther King day at the Cleveland Clinic on Friday. Her purpose was two-fold: Talk about her personal journey, and discuss how the U.S. can stay on the leading edge of innovation and technology.

Point No. 1: Leave No Child Behind

Ursula reflected on her mother’s generous example, her own hard work, the help she received from key people on her journey, as well as all that was achieved by the civil rights movement. She concluded that — without these people, their examples, and their hard work — she wouldn’t be where she is today. “Multiply that by the thousands of young women and people of color who have the innate talent to become an engineer or scientist, but lack the encouragement, foundation and help.

“Think of all the talent that is wasted. And think of all the talent that could be harnessed to have our nation remain on the leading edge of technology and innovation.”

Noting that college graduation rates in the U.S. have slipped from first in the world to 12th in a single generation, she concluded that America’s future depends upon us to “…get serious about leaving no child behind.”

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Point No. 2: The Difference Between Failure and Success

“At Xerox,” she pointed out, “we’ve learned that the difference between failure and success revolves around two connected ingredients – the quality of your people and the amount of innovation that they can bring to market … it’s [also] true for our country.

Ursula recognizes the improvements business and government have made in education. But she wondered why we don’t see the results on a massive scale.

“We need to identify programs that work, and stop all of the programs that don’t – even if they have your name on it, we should shut it down. There are hundreds of education programs [that work,]” she observed. “…We need to identify them, celebrate them, invest in them, copy them and scale them.”

Solution: Change the Equation

That’s the mission behind Change the Equation, an effort Ursula is leading, with several other business leaders, at the request of President Obama.

Change the Equation identifies education programs that work – like FIRST, the national robotics competition for high school students, and the National Academy Foundation’s Academies of Engineering.

These programs keep youngsters in school. They motivate them to go to college. They inspire them to careers in innovation. They try to make STEM cool for kids. And, they underscore the importance of education. Success for these programs depends upon people who get involved at schools, mentor children, and support their teachers.

“The future success of our country rests in large measure on the people, their brain power and the innovation that they can create,” Ursula said. “To quote Dr. King: ‘The difference between a dreamer and a visionary is that a dreamer has his eyes closed, and a visionary has his eyes open.’

“I urge all of us … to continue to keep our eyes wide open, and to help our country remain competitive, and make the dream of Dr. King a reality.”

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