Doyenne Group hoping to narrow entrepreneurial gender gap

You might say Amy Gannon was tired of seeing the same old faces at the entrepreneurial events she attended in the Greater Madison area – or rather, she was hoping to see a few more new faces sprinkled in with the old. As a professor in the School of Business at Madison’s Edgewood College, Gannon often works with aspiring entrepreneurs, and so she has a keen interest in networking opportunities and workshops designed to nurture the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. But she was witnessing a disturbing pattern at most of these get-togethers: Women were staying away in droves.

For Gannon, this raised a burning question. What could be done to tap into all this latent brainpower and entrepreneurial energy that was apparently staying on the sidelines? The answer she came up with: The Doyenne Group, an organization she founded in August 2012 with local businesswoman Heather Wentler to encourage women to develop as entrepreneurs and engage more fully in the local entrepreneurial community.

“We like to put up in the media the idea of the heroic dude, the guy who is carving out this new market, and the reality is that that’s not how it works.” – Amy Gannon, co-founder, The Doyenne Group

“Both of us kept going to entrepreneurial events, and we would talk to other women who had gone to these events, and we found that often there are only one or two women in the room,” said Gannon. “It’s hard when you’re one of the only women in the room, and it can get tiring when you’re the only ones there, and so we just don’t get access to other women entrepreneurs when they aren’t coming to the events.”

While the Doyenne Group is yet to mark its six-month anniversary, it’s hoping to make a big splash with its own entrepreneurial event that seeks to address some of the gender imbalances that – for whatever reason – are typically seen at more established events. On Feb. 9-10, the group will host a Design-a-thon for experienced and aspiring women entrepreneurs at Madison’s HotelRED.

The event will have three distinct components: First, participants will propose their business ideas to the entire group. After that, the group votes on their favorites. The attendees will then split into teams and work on the ideas that were selected.

“They will work on figuring out what it would take to take that idea and build it into a business,” said Gannon. “And so they might go out to the mall and question 50 people about what they think about that idea. They might do a survey on Facebook. They might build a website for the company to show people what it would look like.”

Finally, the ideas will be pitched to a panel of judges who will give the teams feedback and eventually select the idea they feel shows the most promise.

Throughout the process, participants will have access to experienced mentors in areas such as product development, customer identification, marketing, and developing a business pitch.

“People may say, ‘we need marketing help because we don’t really understand marketing; can you tell us how we can think about marketing this idea?’” said Gannon. “‘Or we need general coaching about the business model. We don’t really understand our revenue model. Can you help us?’ … So even if people don’t end up taking an idea forward – though we hope that many of them do – they will have learned, ‘oh, this is the way you start to think about it. These are the questions you need to ask yourself. This is how you would start to find the data that would support the idea or help the idea evolve or pivot or change.’”

Why just women?

Of course, the question remains. Why host an event exclusively for women rather than simply encouraging women to participate more fully in established entrepreneurial workshops?

According to Gannon, there are several reasons women aren’t attending these kinds of events, and it’s not simply a matter of sending out invitations and hoping they show up.

“I think there’s a whole variety of reasons when you think about it,” said Gannon. “I think when you talk to women, there’s a tendency, and I’m sort of generalizing here, but there’s a tendency for women to think, if the criteria for being prepared to engage in a certain event or activity is a 10, women will say, ‘okay, I have eight out of 10, so once I get to nine, I’ll go.’ Men, on the other hand, will say, ‘okay, there’s 10. I’m five out of 10. I’m good to go.’

“Women hold a much higher standard in terms of whether they think they’re prepared to show an idea, to pitch their business idea, to engage in some of these activities and bring their experience forward.”

Gannon said women also still encounter subtle forms of prejudice. While it’s not the world of Mad Men, Madison, Wis., circa 2013 is not necessarily a universally enlightened place.

“It’s 2013, but women still talk to us about it, and we’ve experienced it ourselves, really having our perspective somewhat dismissed and being condescended to, and it’s kind of exhausting, actually,” said Gannon. “There’s a layer there, and sometimes it doesn’t come up, sometimes it’s absent, sometimes it doesn’t come up intentionally. We’re not suggesting that every person who does that is doing that deliberately or intentionally – and sometimes it does come up intentionally – and we have to navigate that. So with an all-women’s event, it takes that layer of a gender condescension out of the equation.”


As an example of the kind of barriers women sometimes still encounter in the entrepreneurial arena, Gannon relates a story about a man who responded to the launch of the Doyenne Group with not a sneer or a snide remark, but with something arguably more deflating.

“We were talking to a young guy, and my co-founder was telling him about the Doyenne Group and how it’s for women entrepreneurs and how we’re going to get them excited and we’re going to build communities of women entrepreneurs, and he said, ‘oh, you should turn that into a dating service,’” said Gannon. “You’d want to believe he was just joking. He was not. His mind went to, ‘I’d love to date a young women entrepreneur.’ Okay, come on! That’s exactly why we’re doing an all-women thing.”

Tackling entrepreneurial myths

Of course, one enduring stereotype about women – whether true or not – is that they tend to be more cooperative in work environments, whereas men tend to be more competitive. That notion likely feeds into the prevailing mythos of the entrepreneur as a rugged (usually male) individualist. But the true picture of successful entrepreneurship is usually far more nuanced than that, says Gannon.

“We like to put up in the media the idea of the heroic dude, the guy who is carving out this new market, and the reality is that that’s not how it works,” said Gannon. “In reality, you have an idea, it evolves, you talk to other people about it, and in businesses, when it develops, it develops because a lot of people put their ideas and their time and their energy into it. I have a problem with how we sort of put this stereotype out there of the entrepreneur in people’s minds, because I don’t think it’s inclusive and I don’t think it’s reflective of what the real entrepreneurial process is like.”

Of course, while events like the Design-a-thon are good entry points for women who may be reluctant to attend other entrepreneurial workshops or networking events, according to Gannon, they shouldn’t stop there.

“We’re reaching out to women, but we don’t want them to just come to the all-women event,” said Gannon. “We want them to go to the all-women event and then [have that] be a conduit to encourage them to go to what typically end up being all-men events. … We can be useful to these other groups that are saying, ‘where are the women?’ It’s not intentional – they’re kind of at a loss and struggling with that – and so we’re trying to put something in place as an organization that gives them space where they don’t have to deal with all those challenges. We can take that element out of the picture, at least for part of the experience, and then encourage them to have the confidence to move forward.”

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