A mentor played a significant role in Angela Braly’s move from lawyer to becoming one of the highest-profile women in business in the United States, serving as chair, president and CEO of WellPoint (now Anthem), the largest health insurer based on membership.
A graduate of Southern Methodist University Law School, Braly was a young lawyer in St. Louis when a senior partner went on a weekend ski trip, leaving her as the sole lawyer to work on a tough negotiation for a client that was being sold to Blue Cross of Missouri. “That weekend the client saw that I was there to help them solve their problems, and the CEO for that client, a man named John O’Rourke, later became the CEO of Blue Cross, and he asked me to become the general counsel for Blue Cross of Missouri,” she said in a rare interview since leaving WellPoint in 2012.
Braly, 55, added via email, “At that time, Blue Cross was facing some very difficult legal challenges, and, frankly, nothing creates more opportunity for a lawyer than a complicated, intense, messy legal battle, particularly when the client has gotten into it before seeking your advice. Because I was able to help the client navigate through all of those legal challenges, when the company was sold to WellPoint, my mentor, John O’Rourke, was promoted, and he recommended me to become CEO of Blue Cross of Missouri.”
From there, the Dallas, Texas native moved on to WellPoint, where she worked in a variety of executive roles. She was CEO from 2007 to 2012.
During her tenure, WellPoint reached $60 billion in revenue and was the largest health insurer by membership with 34 million members, or 1 in 9 Americans, in 14 states. Forbes and Fortune named Braly as one of the “most powerful” women, ranking her as high as No. 4. She resigned under pressure from investors and after a controversial attempt in 2010 to raise rates in California by almost 40%, a move that helped fuel public support for the ACA.
WellPoint had many women in key roles, a reflection, Braly said, of the company rewarding people based on merit and, more generally, the large role women play in health care.
She said other women she encountered on the job served as role models: “While these women may not have been conscious of it, they did serve as mentors to me. Some were mentors in terms of how they managed their careers, and some were mentors in terms of how they managed their busy lives and that of their families.”
Health insurers and other businesses need to make a point of increasing women in the executive ranks. Braly said WellPoint had a review process that helped women move up and assume greater responsibility.
“When I was coming up the line within WellPoint, there was a process where managers discussed each person on their management team. They focused on each manager’s potential in the role and possible roles. One key in that process was that each person being reviewed was able to describe her or his goals and also roles that she or he would like to be considered for in the future. While women often don’t ask for roles or negotiate for pay in the way that men do, this process empowered a woman to declare her interest in advancing.”
Since leaving WellPoint, Braly has remained active in business leadership, serving on the boards of Brookfield Asset Management, ExxonMobil, Lowe’s, Procter & Gamble, and the Indiana Economic Development Corp. Braly, who has supported Republican and conservative causes, cofounded a nonpartisan organization known as the Policy Circle, a national grassroots network composed of small circles of women to discuss policy affecting the free enterprise system.