When Madison business leader Amy Gannon died in a December helicopter crash in Hawaii, her death raised questions about how the nonprofit she built would weather her loss.
For seven years, Gannon made up half of the leadership of Doyenne, which she founded with Heather Wentler in 2012 to provide coaching and professional development to women entrepreneurs in the Madison area. The organization has around 275 members across the state, Wentler said.
Doyenne’s influence extended beyond its own members. The organization has pushed for diversity in other local entrepreneurship initiatives, including the annual Forward Fest. Since 2016, Doyenne has managed the Evergreen Fund, which invests exclusively in startups run by women and people of color. To date, the fund has invested in more than 30 companies.
Wentler handled much of Doyenne’s behind-the-scenes work, but for many people, Gannon was the face, the person they’d connected with.
But Wentler wants to make one thing clear: Doyenne will go on.
“The celebration of Amy was to really pass the torch and also realize that (while) Amy's no longer physically with us, she's still always spiritually with us because Amy had such a huge impact on the community,” Wentler said. “But it also was a way to say we're not going anywhere and we’re still moving forward.”
Wentler said Gannon's memorial proved to be a celebration not just of her life, but of the organization she helped build.
“That was a beautiful moment at that event, to see the leaders ... that came out to say, ‘We got your back and we're not going anywhere.’”
It was an important reminder, Wentler said.
“We all are so head-down in the work that we sometimes forget to look up and see how many people are standing along with us," she said.
Doyenne owes its endurance to preparations the founders undertook last year. In January 2019, Wentler and Gannon added a third member to their team. Jasmine Timmons now directs Doyenne’s Madison and Milwaukee programs and together, the three set out to build a new version of Doyenne.
“A lot of the work that we did in 2019 was really making sure that Doyenne is sustainable without Amy being the pillar,” Timmons said. “As we're talking about this growth model, that's not sustainable to have your ecosystem built around a person.”
The trio designed new programs for Milwaukee and Madison, drafted a five-year plan for Doyenne’s expansion into five cities and restructured responsibilities between “headquarters” and the local programs.
“It feels so strange that she has transitioned as we're transitioning and have prepared for her transition,” Timmons said.
In March, Doyenne will launch Strategy Accelerator, designed to “help entrepreneurs develop a strong strategic foundation for their ventures.” The accelerator will expand on Doyenne’s two-day program, which Wentler calls “a flash in the pan,” to eight days spread over a few months. The pilot session of the accelerator is scheduled to run from March through June.
“We're trying to stay with our entrepreneurs over this journey ... to really help build it with them, and trying to also look at the entrepreneur more holistically,” Timmons said.
Startup accelerators have proliferated in Madison — among them, gbeta, just down the hall from Doyenne — but Wentler said this accelerator is designed for those who are balancing other commitments, not for those who are dropping everything to pursue an idea.
And Doyenne’s accelerator is geared toward a specific demographic: It’s open only to Doyenne members, and member companies must have at least one female founder.
The organization is also launching a growth-friendly website and is rolling out its Learning Lab, an online platform for professional development content curated by Doyenne, intended to help members build skills without having to wait for a future workshop.
When Doyenne turns eight this April, the organization will celebrate as it does each year, with a “birthday bash.” Details are forthcoming, but it’s clear that Gannon will be front of mind.
“She and I birthed this crazy baby,” Wentler said, “and it will continue to grow and flourish with Amy as part of it, even though she's not physically with us.”
Had this tragedy happened earlier in Doyenne’s development, it could have meant the end. “I don't know if we would have been able to continue,” Wentler said.
But, eight years in, Wentler said the organization now has the foundation to last.
“I don't feel like we're a startup anymore,” Wentler said. Though she takes pride in Doyenne’s agile approach, they’re no longer regularly iterating and rethinking.
“We're beyond that,” Wentler said. “We know what we do … so it's time to spread this across the land.”