Gender Equality at Xerox and MIT

Ursula Burns, CEO Xerox

By Sandra Kwak

Human capital is a crucial aspect of the triple bottom line that is surprisingly often omitted from business conversations about sustainability. In refreshing contrast, the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington DC hosted two powerful women on February 29, 2012 – Xerox Chairman and CEO, Ursula Burns, and MIT President, Dr. Susan Hockfield, – who delivered keynote speeches and sat down for a fireside chat touching upon the necessary social changes that must accompany the clean technology revolution.

Ursula Burns began her career at Xerox as an intern 30 years ago. She now sits on the presidential economic advisory board in addition to being the first African-American woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Growing up in the projects of New York, Burns said she had three strikes against her: gender, color and being poor (at the time). Burns implored Americans not to be complacent and not to hide impatience, rather, embrace a healthy feeling of frustration. “My impatience stems from the desire to provide everyone in the world with the opportunities that I have had,” said Burns, dropping a Melinda Gates quote, “The world is getting better but not fast enough.”

Frustration and action are necessary ingredients in Burns’s recipe for an equal and just world.  “We need to push children hard, have high expectations, even if their parents are not around,” she said. The formula is simple, expect and inspect for greatness. Burns called for “a society where more people can participate on a higher level.”

Drawing upon her leadership in energy research at MIT, Susan Hockfield stressed the need to graduate students with the skills to create breakthrough clean technology. “Students need to work with industry experts so that they are not ‘speaking two different languages’ when they enter the field,” she said, urging the US to increase the capacity of our human capital, and to bring domestic manufacturing back. “Some people call it industry policy, we should just call it national policy,” she reasoned.

Dismissing recent hype of a clean tech bubble, Hockfield heralded the job creation that new technology markets in renewables, efficiency and will bring. Tracking VC investment and performance metrics, she states that although the industry has stumbled with the rest of the economy, “dollars are streaming back to the promise of clean tech.”

The selection of these prominent women from diverse backgrounds and their scheduling, preceding Bill Clinton on the stage of ARPA-E, was the mark of a well-balanced triple bottom line conference. Their insight expanded viewers vision through periphery and possibility. It is only with such intentionality that we will create higher standards for humanity and rise together to meet those expectations.

Sandra Kwak is a guest writer for Triple Pundit. She is Co-Founder and President of energy efficiency company, Powerzoa.

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One response

  1. Including these women was great, but ARPA-E only has 3 women on its leadership team of 23. In addition, there were very few women in attendance and only 2 women per day as keynote speakers (in the main hall), compared to 9 men (some of whom appeared more than once), and only 16% of the speakers overall at the Summit were women. There’s a long, long, long way to walk the talk.

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