Heather Wentler: No Wrong Turn

Photo by Heather Wentler

Webster’s dictionary defines doyenne as a woman considered to be knowledgeable or uniquely skilled as a result of long experience in some field or endeavor. I’m not forcing clichés into the world’s most obscure wedding speech, just figuring out what doyenne means. It’s also the name of Heather Wentler’s organization focused on, per mission statement, unleashing and igniting the power and potential of women entrepreneurs to create entrepreneurial ecosystems where all women thrive.

Through more than coincidence, igniting and unleashing one’s potential speaks to Heather’s personal journey. Experience has since shaped her reality, but we’ll start with what she roadmapped beforehand.

When Heather was young, she knew who she wanted to be professionally, and opportunities that weren’t stepping stones to that end were questioned with prejudice. “I have a vivid memory of being in algebra class in high school and sitting there going ‘why do I need to learn this?’ The teacher, having this poster that had all of the concepts that we were learning in class relating to different jobs, she said, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

“I said, ‘I think I want to be a teacher.’

“And she was like, ‘Well that’s exactly why you need to learn this.’

“And I go, ‘Nope. I don’t want to be a math teacher. I want to be a social studies teacher, so what else you got?’

“Why should, beside the fact that you get to check a standards box, why should I have to learn this? And no one ever had a good answer for it. So part of why I wanted to become a teacher was so students wouldn’t feel the same way I did.”

Photograph provided by Heather Wentler

As fate tends to play it out, she did end up teaching math. Still, she had built up in her mind a way to teach that she believed would be better than what textbooks could provide outside a general outline in concept. Instead of studying geometry in the abstract, Heather took students to the basketball court. Instead of learning fractions through story problems, she brought the stories to life through brownie recipes. To the dismay of some students, those recipes were baked per their math, and Heather would discuss with them why the brownies didn’t turn out. She got a lot of pushback from the school.

Disenchanted with what she would be able accomplish in the classroom, Heather saw the door closing à la Indiana Jones, grabbing what she could before the door closed completely. It was her husband, Chris, founder of Sector 67, who showed her that what she thought was her path in life wasn’t set in stone. It was 2011 when Heather started her first business, Fractal. “I did S.T.E.A.M. enrichment programming for school-aged kids. It started as a partner program with MSCR for summer school, and then I also worked with the children’s museum. People kept saying, ‘Can we have more of it?’ ‘Are there ways for my kids to get involved with this other than summer-long programs?’” Soon, winter and spring-break camps involving 3-D modeling and printing became part of Fractal.

She found her role as educator best fit in supplementing and expanding on the basic skills students were learning in the classroom. “Just to see their eyes light up to be like, ‘I’m six, and I learned how to solder this week. Look, I have no burns on my hands.’” Kids were also becoming familiar with the role of failure as an instrumental part of the learning process. This was what that teacher so long ago was unable to communicate to Heather.

Photograph provided by Heather Wentler

The following year, Chris was one of the organizers for Startup Weekend in Madison, and he wanted Heather to come. “I was like, I don’t want to go to this. I’m already seeing that the entrepreneur scene in Madison was very male focused, and I didn’t want to be the only woman in the room again. I wasn’t going to go, but Chris called me and was like, ‘You gotta come meet this woman, Amy Gannon. She’s here, and she’s saying all the same things you’re saying about how there’s no women here.’” The two hit it off.

While Doyenne was becoming what it is today, Amy was a professor at Edgewood College, and Heather was continuing her work with Fractal while experimenting in other entrepreneurial endeavors, like Madison SOUP. In 2017, Amy left teaching, and Heather officially ended Fractal. They were all in on Doyenne. Tragically, the day after Christmas in 2019, Amy and her daughter were involved in a fatal helicopter crash in Hawaii. The following March, COVID-19 hit.

It is said that when it rains, it pours, but this was more like getting hit in the gut and then finding yourself caught off guard by the uppercut. “Amy was a huge supporter and believer in me. Losing her has been really, really hard, and trying to figure out…I know I have a really big Doyenne network that supports me…but I don’t have my sister anymore. My work wife.”

Though Amy’s loss still weighs heavy, after the somersaults and efforts to regain her balance, Heather seems to have landed on her feet. The impact of having Amy in her corner through the years pushes Doyenne’s success even today. As many moments as Heather finds her missing Amy, she finds ones where they’re still connected. She told me she just had a dance party with Amy in the office the other day, and “every single day, I’ll get an email, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I wish Amy was here to share this with her.’ We’d just be able to laugh about it or roll our eyes together about it.” Amy was also the filter for Heather’s snarky side.

We’re all capable of great things. Seriously, you can do darn near whatever you set your mind to, but it needs to be fueled by passion and regarded with humility. And most of us can’t do it alone. Without guidance and motivation, we’re victim to our own limitations and blind spots. Being reflective, always growing, these have served Heather better than inclined certainties. Listening to herself now means listening to all those voices that have been fundamental in developing her path—those who’ve never questioned her capabilities, pushing her to be the person she was always searching for.

Kyle Jacobson is lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson