The Last Time Dr. Amy Gannon Ever Apologized

A tribute to an incredible mentor and friend

By Olivia Barrow

I once saw a tweet that said you can make any Wikipedia article sound dystopian if you put all the verbs in the past tense, for example, water. “Water was the world’s most abundant resource…”

Every time someone talks about Amy in the past tense I get that same feeling. A world that allows Dr. Amy Gannon to die in a freak helicopter accident at the age of 47 must be a dystopian nightmare.

Well it is, and Amy saw clearer than most what was broken in this world. And she knew it sure as hell wasn’t women.

Before meeting Amy, I had been trying to build a business around ghostwriting for so-called “thought leaders,” but I kept running into one consistent problem: The people with the money to pay me never had anything worthwhile to say (but oh did they think they did!).

Amy was different. Doyenne, the organization Amy co-founded with Heather Wentler, was different.

She saw what the world would look like if we started recognizing the brilliance in women — if we created entrepreneurial ecosystems where women could do entrepreneurship on their terms, bringing their whole selves to their ventures, and receive the same funding and support as men.

Amy’s message provoked lasting transformation in individuals and across communities.

She hated the metaphor of shattering a glass ceiling that’s so often used to represent women rising to an equal economic footing with men. “Calling it a glass ceiling presumes the building was built correctly. It wasn’t,” she said.

“The whole way we deploy capital and support entrepreneurs and decide what's worthy or not worthy, it's totally broken,” Amy said. “So let's rip that building down, let's build a new space together in a new building where there aren't glass ceilings.”

In future conversations, that whole spiel was shortened to, “We need to blow up the building!” and it’s that powerful image that sums up her legacy for me.

Amy was working to rebuild the. entire. economy.

She knew how toxic the current model of entrepreneurship is for all involved, and she had great compassion for the ways men suffer when they try to succeed in an entrepreneurial ecosystem defined by the masculine values of competition, domination, and selfishness, without the feminine values of collaboration, support, and selflessness to balance them out. She wanted to blow up the building for men’s benefit as much as for women’s.

She had a vision of an economy that perfectly balances feminine and masculine traits, and she knew the only way to build it was to start over.

In addition to her work at Doyenne, Amy was involved in a national organization called Startup Champions Network, a group of people trying to bring about greater economic prosperity for all by building inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems in cities all over the country. And Amy knew that unless women and people of color were at the center of that work, then the prosperity that came from those efforts would remain concentrated in white men.

A new economy, just like the old one. Why even bother?

So often, she’d encounter pushback from men in the network who didn’t understand why they were still talking about diversity and inclusion. “Can’t we get back to talking about building entrepreneurial ecosystems?” they’d ask.

Amy was relentless with her message: The work of building an entrepreneurial ecosystem STARTS with diversity and inclusion.

One of my favorite quotes of Amy’s came from her blog post on this subject, which captures the importance of diversity and inclusion so perfectly:

“There is a phrase I hear ALL THE TIME that makes my brain want to explode: ‘Women and people of color are welcome here.’...When I walk into a house that I helped design, build, and now live in, do you need to tell me I am welcome there? It’s my own damn house!"

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My last meeting with Amy was on Dec. 18. She was pissed off about a recent interaction with another dude who questioned the need for Doyenne’s existence, and she was ready to set the record straight.

This guy had confronted her after a Doyenne event in Milwaukee.

“I know what it’s like to be a woman in this world, I have a sister,” he said. “But doesn’t having women-focused events take away from Doyenne’s mission of making the ecosystem more inclusive?” 

Amy gave him a one-sentence answer and then walked away. I loved that about Amy — she had all the time in the world for her entrepreneurs, and no time for bullshit. She wasn’t afraid to offend people who refused to acknowledge that the system is built to eliminate more than half of the competition, lowering the bar until their mediocrity looks like exceptional talent.

When your plan involves blowing up a building — even if metaphorically — you’re going to make some people upset. Amy was willing to be the target of that anger if it meant building a better entrepreneurial ecosystem for all.

Want to know what Amy told that guy?

She said, “If every man who had a woman in his life was exempted from contributing to the patriarchy, we wouldn’t have a patriarchy."

Mic drop.

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When I think about a future without Amy, I selfishly mourn the loss of those electrifying one-on-one meetings.

When Amy met with you, she saw you in ways that no one else saw you. She never told you to change yourself, to mold yourself into something more acceptable to the world, to investors, or to potential customers.

She saw you as brilliant, daring, determined, more-than-capable, willing to work your ass off, and, so often, getting mired down in the crap the world was telling you about what an entrepreneur looks like, what you should be sacrificing, or what you should have already accomplished.

When you left a meeting with Amy, you felt like a new person. Not because she gave amazing pep talks (she did) or told you what you needed to do (she didn’t). She had this way of fundamentally changing the way you thought about yourself, your venture, or your customers — whatever had been blocking your path. And with that changed perspective, you could see your own way out of the mess.

You might have had a to-do list a mile long, but you once again had infinite energy to tackle it because you knew it was the right path.

But Amy also met with a lot of women who were questioning whether entrepreneurship was right for them. And she saw a lot of women self-selecting out of entrepreneurship, or out of leadership roles in their companies. And she knew that women are smart, savvy and bold, which leads us to carefully weigh the costs of every decision we make.

When we self-select out of opportunities, it’s often NOT because we don’t think we can do things, but because we do not think it’s worth it. We look at the endgame, and we don’t like what we see. We look at the people who are held up as the winners in the startup world and we’re honestly repulsed. We’re going to be in the company of the Travis Kalanicks, Jeff Bezoses, and Elon Musks of the world? No thank you.

And we know that, as women, the stakes are so much higher for us if we fail. “When a woman fails, the world says, ‘See, I told you,’” Amy said. “When a man fails, the world says, ‘Well, he’s building his resume.’"

Amy did not blame or shame women for hesitating to dive in, or opting out altogether. She always said, “You have to do what works for you.” But she was working to build a world where entrepreneurship would be the answer that worked for more women because the world needs our perspective. Whoever we are, whatever our family commitments are, whatever baggage we feel like we’re dragging around, the world needs women to build ventures with a global scale.

The world has been telling us the opposite since the day we were born. That’s why we needed Amy.

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Amy once told me, “I don’t want my tombstone to say, ‘Her kids’ socks were white and the pantry was organized.’"

I know for a fact that Amy’s pantry was not organized because Amy knew what mattered in life. And she lived by her rules. She spent time with her kids. She listened to audiobooks and watched films about what they were learning at school to be able to engage with their interests, and she took care of her own intellectual and creative needs by pursuing her career. If that meant the house stayed messy and she had to send the kids to school with store-bought cupcakes for a school dance, who cares?

I can’t think of a single meeting that she showed up to on-time, or ended on-time. Many months, she missed her revision deadline by a week and I had to send a gentle reminder that it was scheduled to publish in a few days.

She wasn’t perfect at all.

She was beautifully human, and that was so much better than perfect.

She had flaws and she knew every one of them, and while she was always working to grow and improve, she was also completely comfortable with the person she was. That kind of self-acceptance was incredible to see.

Amy told me a story about a moment she had while she was pregnant with her son Aaron. She had just gotten accepted into a Ph.D. program, but a lot of people were encouraging her to defer. She didn’t want to, because she was afraid she wouldn’t come back, and because, as she told me, “I would be a menace to my children if I didn’t have the outlet of work."

But these thoughts of others’ expectations on her as a mother were rolling around in her head one day as she was driving around town looking “big, round and preggo.” At a stoplight, she cranked the radio to sing and dance along to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll.” And if you knew Amy, you knew how free and fierce her dancing was, whether a thousand people were watching or none. In this case, a guy in the next lane was watching, and he gave her a weird look.

So she turned to her belly and said, “I am sorry you have me as a mother.”

Amy wasn’t apologizing because she thought she was going to be a bad mother, but because she knew she was going to break all the rules of parenting. She was going to say ‘F you’ to society’s expectations. And by playing by her own rules, she knew she was going to embarrass her kids again and again, but in that way that secretly makes them so, so proud.

I think that was the last time Dr. Amy Gannon ever apologized for who she was.