Working in the family businesses since she was a tween, Sault Ste. Marie's Donna Hilsinger didn’t have a lot of time to think about what she wanted to be when she grew up, though she does remember pondering being a doctor at one point.
She also loved to sing, and did well at local music festivals, singing and playing piano. She believes that using her voice, both musically and in the community, has guided her path forward while she honed her work ethic, her attention to detail and customer service orientation, as well as giving back to the community.
Hard work was part of life, and at 10 years old she was cleaning tables in her family’s chicken franchise. She also remembers walking the Rotary parade route, selling chicken, collecting the money in her little apron, then donating all of the money to Rotary.
“It was the first time I saw how businesses can also give back to the community, and that stuck with me,” said Hilsinger, now a councillor for the City of Sault Ste. Marie.
She felt a responsibility to her family's businesses, and often joked that she went to the school of the Water Tower Inn.
At 12, she was working in housekeeping in the hotel, by 14 she was at the front desk, and at 16 she ran the restaurant for the summer. She worked every job in the hotel including learning all facets of entrepreneurship, guest service, accounting, supervising, and managing.
The Hilsinger family also owned Searchmont Ski Resort in the 1990s, and that meant everyone had to work even harder.
“I was working 40 hours a week on top of my studies in Grade 11 and 12,” said Hilsinger.
“It was great, but my friends would all be at camp and I’d be sweating in the kitchen in a chicken store, or working every job in the hotel. I always remembered the saying: ‘You can sleep when you’re dead’.”
Aside from hard work, Hilsinger thinks that the most important lessons she learned were about attention to detail and customer orientation.
“Every little thing matters. I have a passion for making things right for customers. I want people to walk away happy, feeling that they had a class ‘A’ experience.”
In 2003, Hilsinger returned to taking vocal lessons again, fuelling her passion for the arts.
As she sang in the community through musical theatre, she also began to find her voice in the community. In 2005, she became involved in the board of the Algoma Fall Festival and a number of community initiatives in health care, education, child welfare, LGBTQ, trail development, youth empowerment, and cancer gala dinners, among others.
“With every new challenge, I got braver to do things I hadn’t done before. I left the hotel’s daily operations in 2016, but not before attending a workshop that helped me to figure out my personal vision. It includes using my voice, contributing to my community, achieving a life balance, and continuing to improve physically and mentally, and supporting those around me in their growth as well.”
She is now the executive director of the Fall Festival, having grown it into a full multi-disciplinary festival over the years, was elected as a municipal councillor, and also teaches at Sault College.
Hilsinger was cagey about her future in politics, though did say she only was interested in municipal politics due to her deep-rooted love for the Sault and a desire to only live and work here.
Hilsinger has often found herself one of the only women in the room in business and community endeavours and had to learn to use her voice, to be heard, and to be respected. She believes that willingness to always put in the time helped with her credibility at any table.
Hilsinger’s hard work and attention to detail continues to be noticed, including earning her an Influential Women of Northern Ontario award in 2008, and the 2012 Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce Athena Award. But it was an email from a lifelong friend on International Women’s Day in 2021 that really touched her and gave her the confidence to keep going.
“A gentleman’s workplace had challenged him to write to a woman worthy of recognition. He validated the difficult decisions I’ve made, recognized that I fight to take the high road, am action-oriented, but that I also remove my ego from the equation and think things through. All awards are very validating, but I felt very reflected in this email.”
Despite her achievements and accolades, she doesn’t think of herself as being a success. Instead, she said there is a lot that she still wants to do in the community. Hilsinger quotes the saying, “You are allowed to be a masterpiece and a work in process at the same time.”
Women Leaders in Business is a series of monthly articles profiling women entrepreneurs and leaders who are making their mark in Northern Ontario and are contributing to the betterment of their community's and this region's economy.