Women in cannabis should know their place… and according to these women, it’s at the front of the line and leading the way.
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Despite starting off on the right foot, the cannabis industry has proven to be no different than other industries in that it is difficult for women to get ahead. According to statistics from MJBiz from 2021, women owners make up just 19.9% of cannabis businesses, and a dismal 8% are CEOs. Likewise, women in leadership roles dropped more than 14% in just two years.
Yet, everyone agrees female leadership is essential for cannabis companies because it represents a significant portion of the growing consumer base. Women have always been responsible for most purchasing decisions for household goods and personal care products. In retail cannabis, women contribute 33% of total sales.
Having female leaders ensures that cannabis products meet the needs and expectations of the female consumer. More women in cannabis lead to a greater diversity of perspectives and ideas, resulting in better decision-making and more innovative product development.
WOMEN IN CANNABIS: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON CPG & PROHIBITION
Women have been a critical factor in influencing consumer product manufacturing and safety practices throughout history. For example, Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” highlighted the dangers of pesticides and helped launch the modern environmental movement against the deadly chemicals. Similarly, the tireless work of women’s health advocates led to the passage of the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, mandating safety profiling for consumer products before they could be sold.
More recently, woman-led consumer safety campaigns have focused on removing harmful chemicals from personal care products and adopting safer manufacturing practices in the CPG industry. Women have also been at the forefront of efforts to promote sustainability and reduce waste in many CPG companies – and let’s be honest, cannabis is just another CPG product.
As a regulated industry, cannabis isn’t much different than alcohol, and women played an essential role in ending alcohol prohibition, too. Many women worked tirelessly to organize, mobilize, and advocate for the repeal of the 18th Amendment and provided instrumental effort in paving the way for the eventual repeal of prohibition in 1933, marking a significant victory for women’s rights and social justice.
Today, the parallels are striking as women are forging forward to help make cannabis as mainstream as a glass of wine. Each year at Cannabis Tech, in recognition of Women’s History Month, we take a moment to highlight a few of the incredible women in cannabis and how they are forging their own path to success.
AT THE HELM: WOMEN IN CANNABIS
Female cannabis leaders do more than contribute a different perspective; they serve as role models and mentors for younger women in the industry, helping to cultivate the next generation of leaders in the future. So, as empowered women make their mark in this industry; they encourage others to do the same.
For this conversation, I asked the following five women in cannabis to answer 5 questions about their experiences in the cannabis industry and why the industry must do more to embrace a feminine perspective.
- Jessie Casner, Chief Marketing Officer at Flora Growth Corp.
- Mahja Sulemanjee Bortocek, Chief Executive Officer, High Haven Cannabis
- Ashley Wilde, Specialist – Communications & Public Affairs, High Tide Inc.
- Narmin Jarrous, Chief Development Officer at Exclusive Brands
- Eveline Dang, CEO of Paybotic Financial
BREAKING THE ICE
To start the conversation, I asked each woman to tell me very simply – “why are you here?” What is the best part of being a woman pioneering the cannabis industry?
Jarrous from Exclusive Brands eloquently responded, “I love that we’re in an industry where your work can shape so many lives – from increasing access to people’s medicine to social equity and community work. There are so many opportunities to make an impact.”
For Ashley Wilde and Jessie Casner, it’s all about the people. “People in cannabis are curious, passionate, and willing to impart years of information they’ve cultivated, for which I am deeply thankful,” Wilde stated.
Meanwhile, Casner believes, “We have some of the smartest, most creative, highly dynamic people working to build brands, solve problems, and move this incredible plant around the world.”
FOR BETTER OR WORSE?
With a budding industry like cannabis, almost everyone working in the industry has migrated from a former role. We asked our panel of leading women to explain how this industry is different from the industry they came from – for better or worse.
As the CEO of Paybotic Financial, Dang responded, “Vastly different. I came from the merchant services industry, primarily dealing with traditional low-risk merchants. The cannabis industry has opened my eyes on many different levels.”
Jessie Casner came to Flora Growth Corp and the cannabis industry from “a world of start-ups and sports,” and she said, “I see so much of the start-up mentality in this industry – the desire to make big, bold changes in the world, the ability for people wear multiple hats, this fundamental belief that despite headwinds our efforts will pay off.”
Bortocek, CEO of High Haven Cannabis, enthusiastically answered, “Nothing compares to the cannabis industry. The industry’s fast-paced ‘dog-year phenomenon’ is only playing catch up to the massive demand for cannabis. The industry truly is one of a kind when it comes to strategic thinking and operational excellence.”
WHAT’S YOUR MAJOR MOTIVATION?
No matter where you turn, in the cannabis industry, people are driven by passion. As the Editorial Director for a cannabis publication, I have interviewed hundreds of leaders in this space, and I have never heard someone say, “I’m just here for the money.”
Clearly, neither are these women, as I asked each of them to explain what motivates them to stay passionate about their work.
“What keeps me passionate is that we are laying the foundation and pioneering an industry that will long outlive me. Therefore, what we do now matters, and that is motivating,” Bortocek offered.
Coming from politics, Wilde from High Tide Inc. shared an interesting perspective by stating, “My former political boss used to say that we were ‘building the plane as we were flying it,’ and the fledgling Canadian cannabis industry is the same. I’ve met people bringing their experience across other sectors like oil and gas, agriculture, and even music production to build up this industry. It’s their passion, curiosity, and tenacity that inspires me.”
Narmin Jarrous also added a simple but poignant statement: “It’s really incredible to witness an industry in its infancy and work to shape it in an equitable way.”
Maybe one of the most consistent responses I received from the women in cannabis was that challenges almost always come with opportunities. While everyone agrees that funding continues to plague women, banking, taxes, and regulatory hurdles continue to plague the entire industry.
Yet, despite the apparent setbacks, everyone also saw an incredible amount of opportunities for success.
“I see an opportunity for women and women-identifying folks with experience in politics and government,” Wilde conveyed. “Women with experience in these worlds can be the advocates, bringing voices of the cannabis industry together and lifting the industry as a whole.”
“Challenges in every industry always come with opportunities on many fronts,” Dang added. She also suggests looking beyond the business aspects and embracing “opportunities to advocate for industry fellow business owners, exchange ideas and continue personal as well as professional growth, and more importantly, meet inspiring people and hear their stories.”
Jarrous also mentioned how vital mentors are for women in the industry. “Thankfully, there are some wonderful women in the industry creating opportunities for each other and sharing knowledge on how to overcome these hurdles.”
EMPOWERED WOMEN ENABLE OTHERS
Without question, women’s rights and steps toward equality have come incredible lengths over the last several decades. Today, women are stepping into their strength more than ever. So, in closing to our segment, I asked, “How has working in cannabis empowered you as a woman?”
“It’s definitely taught me how to stand up for myself. So many people in this industry (not unlike many others) will walk all over you given the opportunity,” Jarrous stated. “You must be your best advocate, strongest defender, and biggest fan.”
At the cross-section between fintech and the cannabis industry, Dang believes, “This is a very unique area where I’m able to cross paths with several lives whose backgrounds bring tremendous value to an ever-evolving industry and hopefully blaze a trail for other women out there with similar goals,” she concluded.
“I’m empowered by cannabis in so many ways.” Bortocek said, then jokingly added, “I’m fueled by THC! By that, I mean it motivates me! It gives me a thrill as an entrepreneur and equanimity as a consumer.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF GENDER DIVERSITY
Just as these five women in cannabis are helping shape the industry today, other women that embrace the cannabis industry will help the industry evolve in the future. Likewise, the importance of gender diversity and inclusion cannot be overstated, especially on International Women’s Day. Only through equal opportunities and representation can women fully participate and contribute to the success of cannabis businesses and organizations.
While the industry started ahead of the curve, much of that progress was lost in recent years. Cannabis must continue actively promoting gender diversity and inclusion, not just on International Women’s Day but every day.