Michelle Burris

Michelle Burris


The Mason Spirit: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of George Mason University

On the Move: Alumna's Strategy for Success Keeps the Big Picture in View

By Lynn Burke

Michelle Burris, B.S. Marketing '87, is making quite a name for herself. In November, the Seattle Times ran an article about her with the headline "Determination Pays Off: Corixa's CFO Draws in Investors against the Odds." Burris, the chief financial officer of biotech firm Corixa, was able to raise $45 million for the company in a time when the financial picture for such firms was rather bleak.

The article refers to her as being an intensely focused strategist. Burris says that she has always been intense, but as far as being a strategist, she considers that skill "the result of multiple and diverse subject-matter studies, as well as real-world experiences"—a definition that, in a way, reflects her career at George Mason. After two years as a full-time student, she began to work as a full-time research analyst at Cypress International, a defense marketing firm.

"That position propelled my education as well as my career," she says. "I was working full time, but, because of Mason's schedule, I was able to complete my undergrad work on time." She adds that one of George Mason's benefits is that it offers a high-quality education that is flexible enough to allow students to further develop their skills outside the classroom.

In the mid-1980s, she moved from Washington (the city) to Washington (the state) where she worked for Boeing, attending the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University to earn her M.B.A. in 1991. Then, from November 1994 through March 1995, Burris worked as a consultant for Corixa, which was just starting up, developing immunotherapeutics for treating autoimmune disease, cancer, and infectious diseases. In 1995, she became the company's controller and then moved up the ranks, serving as director of finance and administration, then vice president of finance and administration, and then vice president and chief financial officer. In January 2001, she was named senior vice president and chief financial officer.

"Corixa has about 400 employees at three sites (Seattle, San Francisco, and Hamilton, Mont.)," says Burris. "I oversee human resources, facilities and property management, information technology, corporate communications, the Montana site, treasury, finance, and accounting—basically, the company's infrastructure."

Burris has managed an initial public offering, has helped the company raise more than $200 million, and was key in the acquisition of four companies. Her success lies in her strategy—looking at the big picture. "Understanding a concept from multiple perspectives and prioritizing is 'strategy' by my definition," she says. "You have to be open minded, which should not be confused with lacking opinion. I think particularly in deal negotiations you have to be able to see the other players' perspective so you can make valid, strong arguments as to why your perspective is better!"

"You also need to be able to prioritize," she says. Along with her successful career, the big picture for Burris also includes home and family, which she considers one of her best accomplishments. She and her husband, Mike, have a daughter and a son. Involved in several nonprofit and education-based organizations, Burris also sits on the Dean's Executive Advisory Board for the Albers School of Business and Economics, the CFO Forum for the University of Washington, and the board of an organization for women entrepreneurs. She's also the science docent for her daughter's class.

"Understand that you can't win everything," says Burris. "Focus on those issues that are important and give on those that are less important. In negotiations, if both parties feel they have to give a little more than they would have liked but still feel the transaction makes sense, it is probably a good deal."