PhillyInc: Xerox exec calls for business to help schools

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During a science fair at the White House , President Obama looks over a robot that plays soccer that was built by students from Blue Bell, Pa. In September, Obama announced the launch of Change the Equation, a CEO-led nonprofit group aimed at making measurable improvements in students' math, science, and engineering skills.

   Ursula M. Burns could be considered the unexpected face of technology in America.

   She is the chairman and chief executive of a company that once was a verb meaning "to copy," like Google today means "to search."

   When was the last time you heard anyone say they'd Xeroxed something?

   Oh, Xerox is still around, selling and leasing copy machines. But with the rise of the developing world and the Internet revolution, Xerox is now a very different company, with nearly half of its $22 billion annual revenue coming from technology services, such as data-center outsourcing and electronic benefits-transfer programs.

   Hearing Burns tell the story of her rise from mechanical-engineer-

ing intern with Xerox Corp. to chief executive officer as of July 2009, I realized she could be a better technology messenger than the billionaire founders behind Microsoft, Apple, and even Google.

   The problem is that the message that America needs to produce more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers isn't catchy enough to persuade students to pursue those professions.

   Burns, the first African American female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, gave what she admitted was a stump speech to a small audience at Girard College, the private boarding school in North Philadelphia, an event organized by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

   Her example is inspiring. But listening to her make the case for the business community to redouble its efforts to encourage and fund science, technology, engineering, and math (known by the shorthand term STEM) curriculum in schools was also very frustrating.

   Because we've heard all this before.

   We heard it as recently as September, when President Obama announced the launch of Change the Equation, a CEO-led nonprofit group bent on making measurable improvement in students gaining STEM skills. Xerox is a founding member of Change the Equation.

   Burns, 52, acknowledged that Philadelphia appears to be better than most areas in terms of having business involvement with education. Of nearly 100 corporate supporters of Change the Equation, about a dozen have operations in the Philadelphia area, including Comcast Corp., DuPont Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., and Merck & Co. Inc.

   "You guys are off to a really good start," she said. "Unfortunately, it's just not enough."

   In many respects, Burns was preaching to a choir that, from its questions, was hungry for answers. And Burns admitted she had few, and none were easy.

   Simply put, business needs to be more actively involved in the educational well-being of its communi-

ties, Burns said. Most bene-

ficial would be providing mentors to young students.

   As important as corpor-

ate monetary support is, it's the human capital and skills businesses have that schools could really use. Existing nonprofit organiza-

tions such as FIRST (robotics competitions) and National Academy Foundation (schools within schools) are two groups Burns has been involved with for years.

   But in answering ques-

tions from those in atten-

dance, she seemed to mix her messages. One minute, she was dismissive of evidence-based educational programs, which have measured the effectiveness of various teaching techniques. Rather, she said, communities needed to adopt programs that are proven to make an impact. Proven how? With evidence?

   Viewing herself very much as a product of an educational system that worked years ago, Burns said that the country had lost sight of what matters. Yet she also admitted that the world and families are different today from when she was growing up "very, very poor" on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

   Burns said she cried watching the documentary Waiting for 'Superman' and its depiction of wasted chances and opportunities. The CEO in her sees U.S. schools as a business failing its crucial customer: the nation's children.

   Unlike the turnaround she was a part of at Xerox, I'm not sure I heard from her the strategic plan that will fix what ails education.


Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com. See his blog at www.phillyinc.biz.