Among other things, many black women growing up in the 1950s and ’60s were instructed by their mothers to protect themselves, provide for themselves, and not rely on a shining prince to fight their battles. Ask questions, be prepared for the unexpected, and defend yourself.

‘Do for self’ was a fundamental commandment of African-American mother-love, circa 1950-70.

Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox and the only African American woman helming a Fortune 500 company, credits her mother, more than anyone else, for having helped her become a corporate star.  According to Burns, despite the financial and social challenges her mother faced—she was a single mother and their neighborhood was dicey—she fostered fortitude, self-reliance, and a spirit of inquiry in Burns and her siblings.

Last year Burns succeeded Ann Mulcahy, becoming the first woman to succeed a woman running a major company.  Burns and Mulcahy, who worked together for years, continue their professional association now that Mulcahy is chairman of Xerox.

The frankness that first brought Burns notice from her superiors propels her still.  Lofty titles aside, Burns drives her own car, shops for groceries—she’s married with two children—and remains unafraid to ask the tough questions. Plain-spoken, down-to-earth, and comfortable with power, she is a woman for our times. All the more reason, on this International Woman’s Day, to toss a few roses her way.

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