Leading the Way: African-American Trailblazers

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou and Muhammad Ali are icons. These African-American trailblazers have become household names and made history for their actions and accomplishments.

The nation would not be the country it is today if not for African-Americans, who have overcome adversity, challenged traditional thinking and made an impact on all people.

Following the civil rights movement, African-Americans began to make their marks in other ways – the private sector, public education and more. From becoming the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to exploring outer space as a NASA astronaut, several game-changers below represent just a few of today’s remarkable African-American leaders who have inspired innovation, progress and change.

Ursula Burns: Business Leader, CEO

In 2009, Ursula Burns became the first African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Burns first started at Xerox in 1980 as a summer intern through the company’s graduate engineering program for minorities. Upon graduating with a master’s degree in 1981, Burns was hired on and served in various roles including engineering and management before becoming the senior vice president of corporate strategic services in 2000. In 2007, she was named president of Xerox and two years later, became chairman and CEO. Burns is credited with transforming a copy and printing company into a digital business services center.

Raised in low-income housing projects of New York City, Burns excelled at math and dreamed of becoming an engineer. At the time, she didn’t think that was possible.

“Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor,” Burns shares in the women’s advocacy group’s “Lean In” blog.

However, Burns was driven to succeed, and at a young age, found education was key to her future success. “Dreams do come true, but not without the help of others, a good education, a strong work ethic and the courage to lean in.”

Winston Scott: NASA Astronaut, Educator

Former NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Navy pilot Winston Scott credits personal determination and advancement through education for his 25+ years in aviation and aeronautics. Scott earned his bachelor’s in music before entering Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School. There, he continued his higher education, earning an MS in Aeronautical Engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

During his time in the U.S. Navy, Scott logged 6,000+ hours of flight time in more than 25 different aircrafts before being selected to join NASA’s astronaut program in 1992. As a NASA astronaut, Scott served as a mission specialist on two space shuttle flights. Ultimately, logging more than 24 days in space – including 10 million miles and nearly 400 orbits of Earth.

Scott retired in 1999 and wanted to contribute to the legacy of space-oriented education, engineering and science. So, he became an aeronautics professor and has held many titles within higher education, including VP for Student Affairs and Associate Dean. Today, Scott continues advocating and supporting aviation education as the Senior Vice President for External Relations and Economic Development at Florida Tech.

Beverly Daniel Tatum: Psychologist, Author, Educator

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is widely recognized as a race relations expert and leader in higher education. Tatum is credited with sparking conversations about race in the classroom with the release of the critically acclaimed book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race” in 1997. Twenty years later, Dr. Tatum released, “Can We Talk about Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation,” which continues to fuel discussions about the role of discussing race relations in school.

“Twenty years ago, my goal in writing my book was to help others move beyond fear, anger and denial to a new understanding of what racism is, how it impacts all of us and ultimately what we can do about it,” Tatum said in a 2017 interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Tatum has spent more than 30 years working in higher education, serving as a professor of psychology and education, and later becoming president of Spelman College. During that time, Tatum released several books, became a thought leader and received numerous awards, including the American Psychology Association’s Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology.

Ime Archibong: Technology Leader, Pursuing Global Connectivity at Facebook

From IBM software engineer to top executive at the world’s largest social network, Ime Archibong is both a technology expert and strategic business partner. Archibong has become well-known within the technology community for his role as director of global product partnerships, where he leads a team focused on connecting businesses to products and initiatives such as the Facebook Messenger app and, which aims to connect more people around the world to the internet.

According to Archibong, there are 4.1 billion people around the world who are not connected to the internet. His team is working to improve connectivity and build partnerships that will provide overall internet access and access to Facebook.

“Some of these future platforms that we’re leaning into are truly going to unlock that value for people around the world, and change the way that we interact with each other, change the way that we interact with devices and actually change the way that devices connect with devices and actually change the way that devices connect with devices,” Archibong stated in a 2016 interview with CNBC.

Son of Nigerian immigrants, Archibong pursued a career in technology, double-majoring in electrical engineering and computer science at Yale before landing his first job as a software engineer for IBM. He soon realized he wanted to become more involved in the business side of things and went back to school, at Stanford, before joining Facebook.

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