Mary Burke: How losing big led her to Building Brave

By Kirsten Adshead/motherbility

“I remember looking down, I was in the car, I was just physically shaking. I’d never been more scared in my life.”

It was October 2013. The night before, Mary Burke had announced that she was running for governor, as a Democrat, hoping to unseat Scott Walker. And now she was at Milwaukee Cathedral Square Park, facing her first press conference. The cameras, the reporters … for a first-time statewide candidate, it was unnerving.

“And I remember taking 10 deep breaths, and opening up the car door and walking up that sidewalk just focused on projecting confidence,” Burke recently told motherbility. “But in my mind all I was thinking was, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?'”

Burke’s confidence that day was feigned.

A funny thing happened, however, over the following 13 months: She gained confidence, for real.

She eventually lost the election, 46 percent to 52 percent.

But the experience of running became the foundation of her current endeavor: Building Brave, an app aimed at creating an online community to help women find confidence of their own, by building a network of support and offering a number of online activities.

Building Brave also is showcasing women through its “52 Brave Conversations” series, is offering Connect.Inspire.Empower workshops and is focusing on outreach by, among other things, hiring a series of “campus ambassadors”.

Burke recently sat down for an hour-long interview with motherbility, sharing everything from how she reacted to losing the election (wine and Barack Obama were involved), to her own insecurities, and whether she’ll run again for statewide office. (Some answers were edited for length.):

What is the goal of Building Brave?: “Our vision is to create a global, online community of 10 million women who are connecting, inspiring and empowering each other. We believe that women thrive when they have a community that sees their potential, that nudges them out of that comfort zone, that supports and encourages them and has their back. And the experience, the inspiration that drove this was my run for governor, and it was other people who saw the potential in me, who saw a governor in me before I saw it in myself.”

Why create Building Brave?: “I read a book in December 2014 called “The Confidence Code.” It talks about the role that confidence, our belief in ourselves, plays in our lives, compared to competence, which is our abilities, our actual abilities.

I read it, and I saw myself in so many examples. I’d had a successful business career, but I had not ever asked for a pay raise. In fact, I remember accepting pay cuts.

And I realized in running for governor that all the leadership positions I’ve had were because other people came to me and said, ‘Mary, you should do this, because you’d be really good.'”

I’ve talked to women who come to one of our events. I remember one woman who said to me afterwards, she said, ‘I’ve been on the fence for months about starting my own business, and I’m going to do it.’ And that was it. Another woman who had said, ‘Well, I was going to wait until my children were off in college. I really want to write a children’s book,’ and I just said, ‘Why wait? Of course, do it.’ But it was exposure to this concept of being brave, of being bold, of being yourself, and not letting what people are going to think about you hold you back.”

The day after she lost the election: I woke up the next morning, and that’s when I felt like I was hit by a truck. I had spent every moment of 13 months focused on just one thing — and not only had I come up short, but I let down hundreds of thousands of people.

And I knew I didn’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone. I could not face the world.  I have a cottage out in the country and so I thought, ‘That, I’m going there.’ It has 80 acres. You see no one. You can see no one for days.

On my way there, I went to the grocery store, and I was just hoping that no one would recognize me. And I had my hair in a pony tail, I had baseball cap pulled down. I’m in no makeup, sweatpants, sweatshirt. And the woman behind the meat counter, she took one look at me and said, ‘Oh my God! You’re Mary Burke! I voted for you! And then she was like (inhaled sharply), ‘I am so sorry!’

And I am not kidding you, tears just came bursting down my cheeks. It was streaming. It was like 13 months of emotion just came, like, uncontrollably came out. And I think I scared her half to death. Because she came running out from behind the meat counter, comes right up to me and says, ‘I have to give you a hug.’

And so I went out to the country. I just sat all day. All I could do was watch TV. I was just physically and emotionally drained, spent. I didn’t answer phone calls. I didn’t look at texts, emails, nothing. I had no interest. But it was about 5 o’clock, I’m like, you know? I think I deserve it. And I opened up a bottle of wine, and I went back to my TV watching.

And a couple of hours later, the phone rings. And I had no idea who it was, it was (a restricted number). And for the first time all day, decided to answer it. I have no idea why. Probably the wine, right? And a woman says, ‘Is this Mary Burke?’ And I said, “It is.” And she said, ‘The president would like to speak to you.”

And I was thinking, ‘Wow!’ And then I thought, ‘How much of that bottle have I drank?’ (laughs) Because after that meat counter thing, I’m like, ‘You’ve got to hold it together here, Mary. It’s the president.'”

From that to Building Brave: I realized I had to go back in. I had to face the world. And as I reflected on it, I realized that I had nothing to be ashamed of, that I took on a challenge that basically no one else was stepping up. … I did pretty well. We defied most people’s expectations. … And I thought, “OK, I can do this.’ So it really only took a day. But what made a tremendous difference is that reception that I got from people in the community.”

(After reading “The Confidence Code”, Burke contacted the author, who said no one was specifically addressing confidence for women. That led to more research, including strategy sessions with 100 women in the fall of 2015.)

They said, ‘Mary, we love the mission. But we don’t need another monthly meeting.’ … And so we backtracked, and what we came up with is to be a mobile app. And then we collaborate with organizations that are already reaching women and we can become their digital mobile platform. They can customize it with their content and their mission, as long as it aligns with ours. …

What we have heard over and over and over again is women love the idea of this community. And so when people say, ‘What is the value proposition?’ It is inspiration and connections and empowerment.

Will she run again for a statewide political office? (She continues to serve on the Madison school board.)I really wanted to be governor. I’ll be honest. But that’s the only thing.

After I lost, people were, like, ‘Well what about running for Senate, U.S. Senate?’ I was like, ‘No, no, none of that interests me.’ I wouldn’t want to go to Washington. I love Wisconsin. None of that interests me. It was really only being governor that had any appeal to me. And it had a lot of appeal. I love doing dairy breakfasts. I found my groove in just getting out there and talking to people. I would never have considered myself an extrovert… but I realize I really feel comfortable doing it.

And when people ask, ‘Are you going to run again?,’ I say, ‘No, I’ve found my passion. Building Brave. And I really believe that this is what I was called to do. But recently I said, ‘Well, when we meet the 10 million number, I might reconsider.” (laughs)

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