Female Founders and Leaders Shaping the Cannabis Industry

By: | October 31, 2018 11:05 am

“The future of cannabis is female,” The New Yorker declared last January in a feature on how California is making cannabis a wellness industry. The article comments on how the cannabis industry is “unusually open to female entrepreneurs,” a trend we’ve seen in action as a growing number of women have made their mark by founding and/or operating some of the most beloved and influential cannabis brands in the business.

Entrepreneurs make their mark

One of the most influential women in the cannabis industry is Jane West, the CEO of Jane West and founder of Women Grow, a network with the purpose of educating, empowering, and inspiring women within the industry. “As moms, women are making 85 percent of consumer goods purchases for households,” West tells PopSugar. “We’re really the ones that are going to be deciding where, how, and in what form we start incorporating cannabis into our lives. So we’re really the best suited to create those products.”

Model and former Miss Iowa Jessica VerSteeg founded AuBox, a curated cannabis delivery service in San Francisco, and is the CEO of Paragon, a first-in-class blockchain platform built for the cannabis industry. Actress Lake Bell is involved with an upscale cannabis line hailed by The Times as the “Hermès of marijuana,” Beboe, founded by her husband Scott Campbell and former fashion executive Clement Kwan. Earlier this year, Gwyneth Paltrow teamed up with marijuana dispensary chain MedMen to create a specially curated Goop wall at its recreational boutique in Venice, California.

With women at the helm of brands and projects within the cannabis space, the outdated stigma is shed and cannabis begins to carve out a place in the consumer market as a health-minded wellness product. “As legalization expands, I’ve been excited by a lot of the companies popping up that are prioritizing good design and consumer-friendly products, many of which are owned by women,” Anja Charbonneau, founder and creative director of Broccoli magazine, tells Vogue.

Trailblazing cannabis business leaders

“If you think being a grower or dispensary owner is the only option, think again,” writes Myeisha Essex in her Essence piece highlighting black women in the cannabis industry. “There are non-plant-handling enterprises that can help you bloom where you’re planted. From chefs and real estate agents to security, law and PR firms, opportunities are sprouting up everywhere.” For black women, breaking into the cannabis business is especially arduous given the war on drugs’ disproportionate impact on black communities.

Wanda James, the first black woman to own a dispensary in Colorado, notes how black women in cannabis, in particular, are trailblazers. “We have to be,” she asserts. “We know the law, because we have to. We’ve got to change the stigma of who uses cannabis and why.” Dasheeda Dawson, the founder and CEO of MJM Strategy, a digital-focused strategic management specialized in rebranding the cannabis industry, echoes this sentiment. “The stigma is high for us because as women of color we’ve seen our dads, our brothers, our sons and our cousins targeted for this,” she explains. “We have to overcome that fear.”

Retirees find new careers in cannabis

Women of a certain age have been one of the most active demographics in the entrepreneurial set spurred by the changing landscape of cannabis legality. In May of 2017, The New York Times covered the trend of female retirees entering the cannabis space in “Women and Medical Marijuana: A New Growth Industry.” Then-62-year-old Jeanine Moss launched AnnaBis, a line of aroma-controlled handbags and clutches, in 2015, after quitting her marketing consultant job before undergoing hip-replacement surgery the prior year. She switched to medical cannabis after her prescribed pharmaceuticals left her feeling disoriented and woozy, then had the lightbulb moment that inspired her accessories line. “What other industry is growing so fast there’s the opportunity and low cost of entry?” Moss asks. “Entrenched opportunities already have their systems set up. This hasn’t been created yet.”

Because of the uncharted nature of the burgeoning cannabis industry, there’s no “built-in institutional bias against women of any age,” notes Nancy Whiteman, a co-owner of edibles company Wana Brands in Colorado. Whiteman, who is in her late 50s, goes on to point out that “in a lot of other industries, there are hundreds of years of history of who is successful and who is not, and there are glass ceilings to be broken.” In cannabis, there’s “no norm,” she observes. “Everyone is figuring it out together.”

Room to grow in corporate cannabis leadership

Despite the obstacles, women have been able to secure a larger share of leadership roles in cannabis than in other industries. The national average of women executives across all US businesses is approximately 23 percent, whereas, in the cannabis industry, women make up 27 percent. However, this number is a significant drop from just a couple of years ago when in 2015, 36 percent of cannabis business owners were female. The decrease has been attributed to further legalization and increasing social acceptance which has attracted entrepreneurs and investors from male-dominated mainstream businesses and executives from corporate America – where men occupy more than 75 percent of senior roles.

So while the cannabis industry promises potential gender parity, there is a lot of progress to be made. April Pride, founder of Seattle-based women’s cannabis lifestyle brand Van der Pop, describes the stigma that still faces women working in cannabis, especially moms. “We are seeing the numbers of women who are in decision-making positions slowly decreasing in the US as the legitimate money-making opportunities continue to rise,” warns Pride. “We should try to maintain the percentage of women who entered into the space. The trend is not a good one.”

Last month, there was only one woman among all listed executive teams and only three board members, something Amy T. Margolis points out in her aptly titled and to-the-point Forbes essay “The Top Cannabis Companies Are Dominated By Men. We Must Do Better.” “Because the industry’s legal market is brand new, cannabis companies have a unique opportunity to form and grow through gender-diverse boards, leading to more forward-thinking and inclusive corporate cultures, policy decisions, and a more progressive industry globally,” writes Margolis, a 17-year practicing attorney and founder of The Initiative, the world’s first business accelerator established to help female-founded cannabis businesses succeed and access funding. “Before the cannabis industry becomes another negative gender statistic, it’s time for businesses, large and small, to commit to gender equity in leadership, executive team development, and overall employment.”

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