Burke’s Project Strikes Confidence in Young Women’s Hearts

By Candice Wagener | Photographed by Hillary Schave

How many of us have never asked for a pay raise? Or have used qualifiers in our language, such as “I’m sure you’ve already thought of this,” or stayed quiet in meetings because we don’t want to be perceived as “noisy?” Would it surprise you to know the average man applies for a job without even considering if he’s aligned with the qualifications listed? Would you?

Mary Burke, a successful business woman who attended Harvard Business School and was high up in the ranks at Trek, never asked for a pay raise. She never would have applied for a job where she didn’t meet almost all of the qualifications. Until she ran for governor of Wisconsin and read a book that threw her perceptions upside down, which helped her realize she was in a position to build a community of women empowering, encouraging and inspiring each other through her nonprofit, Building Brave.

Truth be told, Burke never had high aspirations of running for governor; in fact, she waited until the last minute to put her name in the race. Not that she wouldn’t have been honored to be elected. “Six generations of my family have lived in Wisconsin. I’m a big cheesehead and there’s nothing more I’d rather do than lead this state,” she says. She believed she was qualified but it had just never occurred to her to run—until she received continual messages from others, who believed in her competence and spurred her own confidence. That, combined with her belief in democracy and the fact that no one else was stepping up, led her on a life-changing journey.

“I didn’t know if I’d make it through a two-minute interview on camera without completely losing my voice,” admits Burke, who says the experience was often scary and uncomfortable.

Raised in a household where the message was she could do anything if she worked hard enough, Burke was extremely ambitious when she was young. Emulating her father, co-founder of Trek, she knew as early as 11 that she wanted to be a business woman. In high school, a teacher wrote in her yearbook “The CEO of IBM better watch out!” In business school, she was viewed as a leader. But then, Burke says, she started to pull back.

“You get out into the real world and women start to get more messages that say how you’re supposed to conform,” says Burke, who received feedback that, while she was doing a great job and people liked her, she was also very intense and should think about toning it down.

When she got into her 30s and was still unmarried without kids, she worried something was wrong with her because she didn’t fit into the “norm.” She started signing her name with a small “m” because it felt friendlier. By her 40s, she had lost her ambition and was satisfied with her staff position at Trek (high level, granted, but still a staff position) and was focusing her energies on being a scratch golfer and doing good work in the community. It took running for governor to shake up her self-perception.

“I had to go out there and act confident and be bold every day,” says Burke. “If I didn’t look and act like I believed I was the best person to lead this state forward, who else would believe me? All the things that you need to do are things generally women receive messages you shouldn’t do.”

Burke says it was the amazing community of people who lifted her up, saw her as governor before she saw it in herself, nudged her out of her comfort zone, and were still there to pick her up after losing the election, that became part of the inspiration for Building Brave.

“Confidence in yourself and your abilities is a super power but you don’t get there alone…for people to support me even in failing, even in having all those imperfections put out to the entire world, finally I could accept me with all my imperfections, so what I no longer do is let them define me, or hold me back.”

Then she picked up the book “The Confidence Code” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, and Building Brave came to fruition. Realizing every woman deserves a community that supports her belief in herself, to contrast the myriad messages “that sow doubt on a daily basis,” Burke held strategy sessions with over 100 different women, between Milwaukee and Madison. Every woman had a story to tell about confidence shaken. Every woman was interested in the grassroots idea Burke was proposing. But every woman was also not keen on another meeting.

Enter the Building Brave app, a social media platform that includes daily motivational widgets, various communities of support, and badges with activities to help women grow stronger and more confident. Burke partnered intentionally with local companies Filament Games for development of the app, and Ideas that Evoke for social media prowess. The goal of Building Brave is that the experience can be very personalized depending on where a woman is at. Right now, the focus is on college students and young professionals.

Kelly Ehlers, founder and president of Ideas That Evoke, jumped right in to help when Burke approached her in August 2015. “Knowing we wanted to be part of this movement that is so close to my heart and to our collective agency’s mission, we volunteered our time to help with initial naming, branding and startup pieces from a mission and marketing standpoint.” Ehlers also serves on the Building Brave board.

Ehlers says she has had to push herself throughout her career and has used similar tenets to those of Building Brave as a source of support. “Like any successful entrepreneur, taking a leap of faith and building my brave has been a big part of how I’ve grown Ideas That Evoke…I’m so hopeful that [Building Brave] will grow over the next 12 months significantly and really make a difference with young women.”

Building Brave app users will be inspired by motivational messages like “Admire someone else’s beauty without questioning your own,” and have direct access to resources that educate on topics like finding a mentor, networking and asking for a raise. Badges to be earned include “Building Support,” “Money Smarts” and “Dump Doubt,” all with different activities to help women become stronger in these areas. For instance, the “Building Support” badge has a “Drop and Give Us 3!” activity, which encourages users to think of three people they’re grateful for and drop them a text or email expressing their appreciation. There are even badges sponsored by Madison life coach Darcy Luoma and mindfulness teacher and author Mare Chapman.

Earning badges also earns points, which can be directed toward one of three organizations to win a $1,000 grant, the most recent recipient being Girls on the Run of South Central Wisconsin. Followers can also challenge each other to earn the same badge. That’s just one aspect of the community that Building Brave is hoping to create. Much like Facebook, the app has designated groups based around women in STEM, the workplace, college life and private groups, such as the UW-Madison Lean In Circle and the Madison Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta.

It’s just the start of what Burke dreams will eventually become a global online community of 10 million women who are connecting, inspiring and empowering each other. Yes, she’s aware that it might take her whole lifetime to get to that number, but that’s not going to stop her.

“I almost feel like I was meant to be at this place. All of the other things that have come in, the roads, running for governor, were all meant to get me right here,” says Burke. “There’s a real desire out there [for change]. We’re going to do it when we support each other. Building Brave is about creating [that] for every woman, helping to inspire and support her, so that whatever her beliefs, she feels she can advocate for them and believe in herself and that’s how I think we move the needle and make the world a better place for girls and women.”

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