In our continuing celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re taking a look at three women whose business leadership shaped history.
America has a rich history of firsts. Among them are powerful women who were the first in their fields, all of whom became powerful forces in male-dominated fields. While some inherited their positions, including Anna Bissell, America’s first ever woman CEO, and Katharine Graham, America’s first female Fortune 500 CEO, others carved their own paths into leadership including Ursula Burns, America’s first African-American female Fortune 500 CEO. All of these women leaders continue to shape history as strong, courageous, and influential role models to girls and women everywhere.
Anna Bissell, America’s First Ever Woman CEO
Katharine Graham, America’s First Female Fortune 500 CEO
Katharine Graham (1917-2001) took over The Washington Post after her husband’s death and became America’s first female Fortune 500 CEO in 1972. Her interests in journalism were cultivated at an early age. She worked on the school newspaper at the prestigious college-preparatory school, the Madeira School, and during her summers away from the University of Chicago, she worked at The Washington Post, which was owned by her father, Eugene Meyer (1875-1959), who acquired it in 1933. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1938, she worked as a reporter for the San Francisco News and then joined the editorial staff of The Washington Post. Her father passed The Post’s CEO position down to her husband, Philip L. Graham (1915-1963) in 1948, and upon his death, Katharine ascended to power. She brought in skilled journalists to improve the quality of the paper and grew the publishing company’s reputation substantially. Under her leadership, The Post became one of the top newspapers in the country that was a trusted political source for presidents and other leaders around the world. She oversaw its publication during the period in which its coverage of the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. For more than two decades, Katharine built a publishing empire and quickly became the most powerful woman in publishing. She also became a role model for other women leaders in male dominated fields and spoke openly about these issues: “. . .the thing women must do to rise to power is to redefine their femininity. Once power was considered a masculine attribute. In fact, power has no sex.”
Ursula Burns, First African-American Female Fortune 500 CEO
Ursula Burns (born September 20, 1958) became America’s first African-American female CEO in July 2009. She was also the first woman CEO to succeed another woman CEO, Anne Mulcahy. Ursula started her career at Xerox in 1980 as a summer intern and after studying mechanical engineering at NYU and Columbia, she joined Xerox as a permanent employee in 1981. For over three decades, Ursula worked her way up from executive assistant to vice president for global manufacturing to her current position as the CEO at Xerox. Shortly after acquiring her position as CEO, she organized the $6.4 billion purchase of Affiliated Computer Services, the largest acquisition in Xerox history. Today, Xerox is the leader in diversified business process services and document technology business. Forbes has featured Ursula numerous times on their “100 most powerful women in the world” lists and she frequently credits her mother for her achievements, “I learned from my mother that if you have a chance to speak, you should speak. If you have an opinion, you should make it be known.”