Interviews with purpose-driven leaders who are dedicated to helping others and making a positive impact in the world.
May 25, 2021
Heather Wentler | Doyenne Group
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Heather Wendler and I am the executive director and co-founder of Doyenne Group. We work to create entrepreneurial ecosystems where women entrepreneurs from all backgrounds thrive.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I actually went to school to be a teacher. In college, I taught preschool and middle school, and I did one year of special education for an elementary school before realizing that as much as I love teaching, the traditional school setting was not really where I felt like I could be the best teacher. I had no business training but my husband is an entrepreneur and we were involved in the entrepreneurial community in Madison. I learned a lot from them to start my first business, Fractal. We did STEAM enrichment programming for school-aged kids.
I met my co-founder, Amy, in the spring of 2012 at an entrepreneurial event. Of the 130 people in the room, only 10 identified as female, including us. We were both lamenting that this is a huge problem within the Madison community, and it’s probably a problem across other communities. How are women being recognized for their businesses? How are they getting the services and support they need to be able to move their businesses forward? That was where Doyenne started. We stumbled across the word Doyenne. It was a dictionary.com word of the day and means “most prominent woman in her field” in French.
We wanted to see how Doyenne could be a conduit within the community but we were both still running businesses full time and neither of us wanted to leave our careers to do this work. We just wanted to be a voice and a resource for what’s happening. Then in 2014, the community came to us and said you need to build this out, you need to make this much bigger than what you had originally thought because this is what our community needs. That’s when I left teaching and came into Doyenne full-time as the executive director. Amy was still teaching at the liberal arts college. We started thinking about what programming to offer. How are we different from what’s already available? How do we actually serve the community and how do we meet the needs of the populations that we’re serving? That’s really what kept us going.
Our company just celebrated nine years at the end of 2019. Tragically, Amy passed away two years ago, she and her daughter were involved in a helicopter crash while on a family vacation. And so over the past year, we’ve been going through a pause and considering what do we stand for now? How do we do the work that we do? Does our mission statement still stick and meet the needs of what we originally set out to do?
We’re continuing to do programming, advocacy work, and support, but we’re going through a huge strategic remodel of the organization. For 2020, everybody was just trying to keep going day to day with COVID. Last fall we really started to have conversations around what does the next version of this organization look like? How do we reassess, knowing the needs of the community have changed?
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
As a heterosexual white woman who has been raised in middle-class America, I didn’t see how much other women, especially women of color or women from the LGBTQ community, were taken advantage of or just completely left out of conversations. Coming from teaching, women are the majority of leaders in the classroom. When I switched to the business world, I was literally slammed in the face with these disparities that we’re up against. Looking at the numbers, when we started thinking about how to build out the organization, Wisconsin ranked last in the country (in a four-way tie) for women in starting and leading businesses. We began to look at what policies are in place and what could be done about it. How can we serve as advocates, but then also create space for women where they’re going to be taken seriously and not discredited?
That’s where our three core strategies came about. The first is professional development, making sure we’re providing the tools and resources needed to be able to run your business the way you want to run your business. The second one is around closing the funding gap. Basically all types of dollars – whether an investment, loans, or grants – going into businesses are less for women-owned firms. Women are more likely to have lower rates because they can’t even get paid the same as male counterparts when they’re offering the same services within their businesses. We launched an evergreen fund to put dollars into the hands of women entrepreneurs. Our third pillar is around transforming the narrative. How do we do advocacy work to make sure that women are heard and seen? That’s really what motivates me.
The other part is that it’s really hard work. The culture has shifted, society has shifted greatly in the nine years since we launched Doyenne. Part of the rework strategy is thinking about what that means and how we meet the changing needs of the populations that we serve.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
Our programming is very much crafted so that it can become an individual experience. Maybe what you really need is support around figuring out your pricing model or your sales funnels. We can take that time within that program to work on that with you and create a strategy around that, instead of an overall venture strategic plan. It’s very much personalized and individualized but we do it in a cohort or community way.
You also feel like you’re not alone on this journey because I think so often you feel so siloed as a business owner. When we do our public events we highlight entrepreneurs and encourage them to tell their stories. The biotech companies and the brick and mortar companies are going to discover that even though their business sector is completely different, they may have the same pain points or same common experiences. They realize they’re not in this alone. They have a community rallying around to be able to make them feel like they can do this.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
The women we work with really inspire me. Even on my low days, when I just want to lay in bed, when I hear they went through this program that Doyenne offered and they’ve been able to hit goals faster than they thought, or we created an opportunity or made a connection for them, those stories are what really motivate me. There’s also getting feedback on how we fell short or how someone didn’t feel like things went well. Those also motivate me because there’s always work to be done, there are always ways we can improve as an organization. Being able to get that feedback and take it constructively and figure out how to move forward is also very vital to making sure that the organization stays viable and is creating impact.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
That’s hard because I don’t think that we’re going to hit gender parity within my lifetime, even if I live to be 100. For me, it’s making steps in the right direction. Looking at the feedback we’re getting, or the success stories that come out of women that are part of Doyenne, those all help measure the impact that we are able to move forward. Because of this coaching and training, we’ve had an impact on investors and providing statistics for women-owned firms, and we’re seeing more women at the table. There’s still a lot of decision-making only being done by certain populations. How do we change that? I can’t change it all, Doyenne can’t change it all, but I focus on how I can take steps to feel like we are making change happen.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
We’ve been very much focused for the past eight years on Madison and Wisconsin in general, and we’re starting to span out from there. We’re looking at how we can be seen across the country as an organization where women from all backgrounds will feel supported with ventures they’re trying to build.
Additionally, we’re looking at all of the systems that have been in place over the past seven years and what needs to be changed based on the new needs. COVID’s thrown a huge loop for everybody. The strategic plan we had going into 2020 was totally thrown in the air. Now we’re trying to look at the business world and the economy in a post-COVID world, but that’s hard because we don’t really know yet what it’s going to be like. How can we make changes but also stay viable? How do we meet the new needs of our target market and best support them as their businesses? For us, we want to make sure we have the skills and the knowledge to be able to help those entrepreneurs.
We spend a lot of time talking to the entrepreneurs just letting them know, whatever happens, you’re not a failure. I hate the word failure because I feel like everything is a learning lesson. I’ve had conversations with entrepreneurs discussing their new strategy and asking when that doesn’t work, what’s the new strategy? Then what does it look like to reach the point where you admit that you need to walk away? It’s really hard because you feel like you’re giving up on your baby. I think women feel it even more than our male counterparts because we know how much we’ve put ourselves into it. To walk away feels like a huge hit. But I encourage entrepreneurs to try and reflect back, look at how much has been learned, and how much has been overcome, then take that knowledge to whatever professional job or business they launch next.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAUSE AND/OR THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
One thing is, you are enough. So when people say you’re not the right person for this, that’s not always the truth. Rephrase it into your superpower doesn’t fill the role you’re trying to fill right now within your company. Are there other places that you can bring your superpower within your company? How can you find team members to fill those other gaps? These are some of our guiding principles. Another of our guiding principles is that vulnerability is not a weakness or a flaw. Asking for help is really, really hard but it’s something that we have to do to be able to figure out how to move forward.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?
I’ve had one for the past 18 months. It’s a Maya Angelou quote, “Every storm runs out of rain.” I think it helps put things into perspective. Some days I just want to curl up on my couch or want to walk away from this. But it also helps me realize and remember that there’s a lot of stuff that I myself and the organization have already been able to overcome. When I’m in those moments when it feels like there’s no way out of this rainstorm, there’s going to be a rainbow at some point. The storm is really hard but it’s going to teach you a lot. You’re going to be able to come out of this with a lot of learned experiences and ways to figure out what continuing forward will look like.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
There are lots of ways you can get involved with Doyenne. Host one of our webinars to talk about your area of expertise to support entrepreneurs. You can also volunteer as a coach. All of our organization’s members have opportunities to meet with people that go through Doyenne coaching training and meet with volunteer coaches to get expert support. We are a nonprofit, and we are fueled by donations and sponsorships. We want to keep our costs as low as possible for the entrepreneurs that we serve. People are welcome to reach out to me, or if you take a look at our website, there are a lot of opportunities to get involved in the organization. If you’re an entrepreneur I highly recommend you look at what Doyenne does to see if there are things that we can offer to help you move forward.
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