Business Sisters - Doreen Ashton Wagner

“Businesses can be looked at more organically: as a living, breathing extension of ourselves.”

That’s the dream, and the reality for Doreen, whose field work reveals no shortage of women who already look at business like this. Her mission is to learn from them, and to help build a sustainable ecosystem of knowledge sharing, real-life resources, and meaningful connections that serves the sisterhood of rural women entrepreneurs. 

Doreen has told the story of her own professional journey many times. In a nutshell, it goes like this: in 1998 she leaves corporate Toronto behind in search of a kinder, gentler life for herself, her husband, and their two-year-old daughter. They move home to North Glengarry, where Doreen and her husband start Greenfield Services inc., a consulting firm. Doreen dives into the consulting hustle and the sales and marketing while her husband handles things like payroll and payables; they both share equally in household and family responsibilities. Their business hits the ground running, which is great - except that for the next nineteen years, it outruns their dream for a kinder, gentler life. In 2016, Doreen finds herself utterly exhausted. Burnt out. They sell Greenfield to an employee. A year later, Doreen retires.

In retirement, she finds the time and space for a new preoccupation: a deep reflection on the why of her burnout. 

Her background in sales and marketing had been a traditional one in the sense that there was not much discussion about how women can create balance among their values, family, and business - there were not a lot of conversations about “the system” that normalizes those imbalances. Doreen’s entrance into a new phase that was - and still is - all about having those discussions and challenging those norms, marked the development of a central question: 

“Can we go in and try to dissect this and have a conversation round the reasons we go into business as women, and what are we telling ourselves, and how can we make ourselves more resilient?”

To explore these ideas in both theory and practice, Doreen launched two coinciding projects: a master’s degree, in which she turned that question into a qualitative research project; and a social enterprise called Business Sisters.In neither does Doreen wear the hat of the all-knowing expert. She’s not here to preach a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, her research sees her donning theoretical lenses of race, gender, and geography as she gathers data through interviews, seeking to better understand the rural entrepreneurial landscape and the women who traverse it. Ultimately, the women who participate in her research are sharing not only their stories of challenges and successes, but contributing to a pool of practical tools that they have used to integrate their identities, families, and personal values into entrepreneurial life.  

If the research is the pool, Business Sisters is the party - more literally, it is a social enterprise that invites rural women entrepreneurs to show up as their whole selves - no masquerading required - to participate in discussions, networking events, and learning opportunities. 

One of the pillars of Business Sisters is that it rejects the idea of perfection. Doreen has observed - and experienced - the pressure women entrepreneurs are under to appear “Instagram perfect.” In 2020, however, she saw those pressures come to a head. To her surprise, Doreen discovered that the overwhelming majority of her research participants were doing better through Covid. For some, it was in the financial sense: their business was already pandemic-ready in terms of selling online. 

For others, though, doing better meant finally having time to realign, to steer their ship back on the course they wanted to take, and to let go of things that were causing undue stress: whether it was a product they no longer wanted to sell, or a business philosophy that didn’t serve them. 

“In a pandemic, it’s no longer about hiding mistakes, it’s admitting that you’ve had to make changes - you’re not going to get it right the first time. It’s giving up on perfection, giving ourselves permission to be human.”