The former CEO of WellPoint and regular on Forbes’s annual lists of the most powerful women and people in the country, Braly has lain low since resigning in 2012. Now, through the lawyer’s new Indiana-based nonprofit—The Policy Circle, a network of living-room, book club–type forums for matters of public interest—Braly wants to put more women in power.
How did the Policy Circle come about?
When I was a CEO of a public company, I had the good fortune to be in places that related to public policy, and I noticed that women weren’t really well represented. I wanted to invite women to participate in public policy and give them a forum. Then I met Sylvie [Legere, of the American Enterprise Institute’s National Council], and she had this book club at her house. They were serious—they read books by economists and had in-depth debates and discussions. We looked for other organizations like that. A lot of them focused on social issues. We couldn’t find one that was substantive, where women could come and get some education; where they could practice using their voice, so they felt more confident about public policy—and then with that confidence, they could get involved.
Why steer clear of social issues?
We think that things like that are distracting and divisive.
Why are women underrepresented in public policy discussions?
I don’t think they’re being specifically excluded. But I don’t think these organizations that are involved in public policy are thinking, Let’s invite women. The other thing is that women don’t have the same level of confidence to go into a place where they want to feel prepared, educated, and ready.
Where did you find your confidence?
I always felt I had more confidence than I deserved. I worked hard, whether it was school or law or business, and when you succeed, that builds confidence.
Did you have a mentor?
I had a number of mentors throughout my career, and they weren’t always women. I always encourage women pursuing their careers to think about mentors in different capacities—a mentor in your career, a mentor from a family perspective. Seek out mentors for different reasons.
Do you feel obligated to be a mentor?
Getting to be in those forums with other CEOs, you realize the experience you’re having is somewhat unique. You want to figure out why there aren’t more women in the room and what can I do to help women get in that room. I always look at how scalable an idea is—how many women could it affect. You could be a one-on-one mentor, but I think the opportunity to scale and serve more women was always my goal.
It’s turning out to be more diverse than we had thought. We have career women, but we’ve also got women whose kids have gone to college and are just starting their careers.
Are there specific topics these circles are focusing on?
We’ve started with economic growth—we think it’s a good place to start. Or public education. The women have come ready to have that discussion. They’re involved and engaged. Then, ideally, they’ll come to a point where they say, “Okay, we’ve had this discussion. Now what are we going to do about it?”
What can they do about it?
As a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit], we can’t be engaged in political activity or lobbying. But we can encourage members to go out on their own. In Illinois, Legere’s group has had circle members run for town council and school board. We don’t necessarily think everyone is cut out for that. So we’ve put tools on the website like how to write a letter to the editor of your local paper, or notifying people of public events where policy is being discussed.
Sounds like things that might be useful for men as well as women.
We want a place where women feel invited to a safe place to have discussion and get engaged. But we specifically did not name it the Women’s Policy Circle. Men will also be liaisons, connecting us with other women who they think will want to be involved.
So what is the endgame?
Right now the hope is that we can grow across the state. We incorporated in Indiana in January 2015, and we’ve already got 500 members. When we introduce the ideas to these circles, the women are getting really excited and involved. And the ultimate goal really is that women will say: “I got more involved. I exercised my voice.”