The Dartmouth College women’s basketball team showed all the signs of greatness in fall 1979. Sophomore center Gail Koziara had established herself as The Ivy League’s dominant inside scoring and rebounding threat. An athletic group of underclassmen upped the team’s speed and overall athleticism. Two of the team’s guards who were sidelined by knee injuries during the previous season were now healthy. And the Big Green had a selfless group of juniors and seniors who understood their roles coming off the bench.
Behind Koziara, a 6-foot-2 center who earned the first of three straight Ivy League Player of the Year honors that year, Dartmouth (16-9 overall, 9-1 in league play) won the first of four consecutive Ivy League championships.
Today Koziara, who now goes by her married name, Gail Koziara Boudreaux, is a top executive in the healthcare industry. She says what she remembers most about that championship season was how the upperclassmen, who had been forced to accept back-up roles, came off the bench to make key plays during important moments.
“What I learned from that team is how important it is to get people into the right role, make sure they understand their role as it relates to the team and then support them so they complement their teammates,” she said. “It’s the same in business. Even if you have an incredibly talented individual, if they don’t buy into the team concept and are not willing to play their role, then you have to swap them out. Everyone isn’t a shooter.”
The importance of piecing together role players began on Dartmouth’s basketball court and stuck with Boudreaux throughout a business career that led her to the highest ranks of corporate America, including mentions in Fortune magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Women in American Business” and Forbes magazine’s ``100 Most Powerful Women in the World’’ lists.
It was quite a climb for the kid from Chicopee, Massachusetts, who grew up in a very close Polish family. Her mother, a homemaker, and father, a machinist, lived just a few blocks from the kids’ grandparents and other relatives who would celebrate the holidays together.
Back then, it was normal for kids to ride their bikes to the park and organize pick-up baseball games. Gail would follow her older brother to the park, where she would get her first taste of athletic competition and what it took to play with the big boys.
“I’ve hired a lot of athletes, and what I love about them is that they are willing to take risks, take on challenges, and the good ones understand their role. The best skill they bring right out of school is the ability to follow, to take guidance, to learn new things and to be part of a bigger project or team.”
``The beautiful thing about the playground is that it’s all about the talent,’’ Boudreaux says. ``You can either play and you are accepted, or you can’t, and you get booted off.’’
Boudreaux didn’t have any great desire to enter business until her senior year at Dartmouth when she landed a summer internship at Aetna. After spending a year playing basketball overseas, Boudreaux returned to the U.S. and was one of five people accepted in the insurance company’s management training program.
Her star rose quickly. Boudreaux started at Aetna in 1983 and had ascended to senior vice president of group insurance when she left in 2002 to become president of BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois. After four years there, she left to become executive vice president of external operations at Healthcare Services Corporation in 2006, before joining UnitedHealthcare in 2008 as its executive vice president.
Nearly three decades after that first Ivy League championship, Boudreaux was named executive vice president of UnitedHealthcare, the No. 1 health insurer in the U.S., with 60,000 employees and $120 billion in annual revenue. By then, she was married to retired healthcare executive Terry Boudreaux and was the mother of two boys. Her youngest, Evan, is now a freshman standout on the Dartmouth men’s basketball team.
It was a difficult time in the industry, she said. The U.S. was still reeling from the economic recession, the healthcare industry was going through significant challenges, the company had gone through a recent downgrade by Wall Street analysts and Boudreaux needed to restructure her management team.
She consolidated six national regions into four and focused the company on local markets, allowing it to react to competition more rapidly and to customize business solutions to the unique needs of the markets it served. It was no small accomplishment, and in 2011, she was promoted to chief executive officer.
It was a dynamic time for UnitedHealthcare as the industry continued to adapt to issues that included the Affordable Care Act and pressure to consolidate and get bigger. Boudreaux announced in late 2014 that she was stepping down from her CEO post and, a few months later, founded GKB Global Health, LLC, a healthcare strategy and business advisory firm. She also serves on the board of directors at Xcel Energy Inc., Zimmer Biomet Holdings Inc. and Novavax Inc.
But no matter how much professional success she’s had, Boudreaux has never wandered far from her athletic roots. The Dartmouth faithful wouldn’t let her forget even if she wanted.
Boudreaux still remains highly regarded at the school, where she owns school records for career scoring average (21.7 points per game) and total rebounds (1,635) plus 17 other records, including career field goal percentage (.511), rebounds in a game (30) and most points in a game (43, vs. Holy Cross in 1978).
A multisport athlete, the Massachusetts native also earned four Ivy League shot put titles as a member of Dartmouth’s track and field team and was an All-American her senior year. In 1999, she was named to The Ivy League’s 25-year anniversary team in basketball and Dartmouth College’s 25-year anniversary teams in basketball and track and field. And in 2003, she was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame and was one of six people nationally to receive the NCAA’s Silver Anniversary Award for outstanding professionalism and athletic achievement.
In a nod to the importance athletics had on her business career, Boudreaux’s family donated $2 million to endow the Dartmouth women’s basketball head coaching position this past fall.
Years after graduating from Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire, Boudreaux said much of her management philosophy that propelled her success in the business world started on the basketball court.
“I look at my sports career and see it as a foundational set of experiences that really guided my thinking, actions and behaviors,” Boudreaux said. “It’s something that is so embedded in me that it’s hard for me to think about leading in a different way than what I learned from playing sports my whole life.”