Female entrepreneurs have rushed into the CBD space, but the cannabis industry as a whole has room for more gender equity
Nearly a decade before the first U.S. states would legalize adult-use cannabis, Trista Okel recognized that reaching more women and getting them involved would be vital for the reform movement.
“Women helped to both start and end alcohol Prohibition, and the suffragette movement won the right to vote in the same 20-year period,” says Okel, the founder and CEO of Oregon-based Empower BodyCare. “I knew then that winning the hearts and minds of women would be key to legalization.”
Indeed, looking back at the stretch of time between 2010 and 2018, the percentage of women in favor of legalization has jumped dramatically. According to the Pew Research Center, only 38% of women supported the legalization of marijuana in 2010; by 2018, that number hit 56%. (Legalization support among men also rose considerably and, in fact, at an even steeper rate during that time frame, from 45% to 68%.) Gallup Polls show a similar trend, with research indicating that only 29% of women supported the legalization of marijuana in 2003.
The rising tide of national support has led to the boom of commercial cannabis. But where the marijuana industry has failed — with few women holding leadership positions in companies — the CBD category is breaking down the business norms of traditional American industry. Out of more than 40 CBD companies interviewed by Marijuana Venture this year, over half are owned by women or have women in top leadership roles, though that sample size is not necessarily representative of the entire industry.
“On the retail brand side of the industry there is definitely a huge female presence which is fantastic, but as you work your way down the supply chain, toward farming and processing, it is very much dominated by white men,” TONIC CEO Brittany Carbone says, “and that is a huge problem because all of these women-owned brands are still at the mercy of those rich, white men that control every other industry.”
Rising to the Challenge
In every industry, one of the biggest challenges for female entrepreneurs is raising capital. When it comes to fundraising, the glass ceiling is still very real.
“Starting a business is stressful and hard, especially when you do it all from your own pocket,” says Marvina Thomas, founder and CEO of 420 Skincare.
According to an article by Fortune magazine, female founders in 2018 received just 2.2% of venture capital funds in the U.S., based on data from PitchBook, a financial data firm in Seattle. Additionally, the average venture capital deal for men was nearly three times the size of those for women.
“To get more equity in both industries (marijuana and CBD), we’re going to have to resolve the funding piece,” Greenhouse Bliss founder Lisa Hundley says.
But despite the financial challenges and the barriers of breaking into traditionally male-dominated industries, the CBD space is loaded with entrepreneurial women. It means their companies are often bootstrapped, their stories inspirational and, for some women, their success tied directly to perseverance.
Hundley is a lawyer by trade and a Stage 4 ovarian cancer survivor who left her corporate job last year to launch the Georgia-based CBD company.
“It’s more than just a business for me,” she says. “It’s also about helping others, the underserved communities that need help. When you’re in pain and you’re on a bunch of medications, sometimes you just want sanity and peace of mind without the psychoactive parts of the medicine. CBD helps with that.”
Hundley’s background as an attorney gave her an advantage in a space that is complicated and controversial. But her work in gender equity as a chief diversity and inclusion officer edified her to the challenges women face in business.
“For me, I have the corporate background,” she says. “I’ve been groomed and trained by those I’m competing against in a different industry now. Funding is always a challenge. If you don’t have the education or experience, how many women can take the time off to do the deep dive into CBD or hemp?”
Gina Dubbé and Dr. Leslie Apgar were best friends living in suburbia when medical marijuana was legalized in Maryland. Dubbé had been a successful serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist; Apgar was a practicing OB-GYN who also owned a med spa.
They applied for — and received — a dispensary license, allowing them in 2017 to open Greenhouse Wellness, which became a springboard for their women-focused Blissiva brand.
“Through our work at Greenhouse Wellness, we noticed a lack of products that, in our opinion, felt safe and comfortable for women to use,” they say. “So, we had the idea to create Blissiva, a women’s cannabis line that creates products specifically for women.”
The Blissiva Balance vape pen has a 1:1 THC-to-CBD ratio, designed for women seeking relief from a variety of health challenges, including everyday stress and anxiety, endometriosis and menopause, among other ailments. Dubbé and Apgar are also in the process of developing high-THC and CBD-only formulations of the Blissiva pen.
“In addition to the unique health challenges women face, we also wanted to offer a product that felt discreet, safe and accessible to females juggling roles like caregiver, mother, professional and more,” they say. “We wanted to offer an experience that didn’t feel shameful or ‘fringe.’”
Marvina Thomas worked for years as a nurse before starting a sober-living home.
“I was part of a system that chose pills and opioids as a remedy,” she says. “I stepped away from that and founded (the) Start Living group home, a place where we help people who suffered from alcohol and opioid addictions to become sober and get back into the community.”
She says her husband and children have been her backbone throughout the process of her latest venture, 420 Skincare, an Arizona-based company that makes both CBD- and THC-infused body care products.
“Women in the CBD industry are much needed, as is the need for more diversity within the industry,” Thomas says. “I support and encourage both with open arms.”
Carbone and KB Essentials co-founder Brooke Brun started their companies to treat their own ailments. Carbone was looking for help with anxiety and mood disorders, but as a personal trainer and health coach, needed something without intoxicating effects; Brun had epilepsy and felt dragged down by side effects of pharmaceuticals.
Brun’s business partner, Katie Moodie, believes the number of women getting into the industry is a big reason CBD products have become more mainstream.
“I think that’s why we are where we are, because so many women feel like good and positive change can be made with a plant that was otherwise so stigmatized,” the KB Essentials co-founder says.
Colleen Keahey Lanier, executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, says the nonprofit organization’s membership has been exploding since the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill and the number of women on its board of directors has doubled to 40%. Lanier points to several women-led companies that are leaving their mark on the industry: Monica Campana and Megan Villa started Svnspace.com, an e-commerce platform that also provides much-needed education; Palmetto Harmony founder and CEO Janel Ralph has a state-of-the-art operation in South Carolina; Yuyo Botanics founders Christie Tarleton and Amanda Matsui launched a feminine brand that earned a celebrity endorsement from musician Kasey Musgraves; the mother-daughter team of Fran and Margaret MacKenzie have joined up with Liz McEvily to launch Eleven Acres, a wellness brand geared toward women; Annie Rouse started Anavii Market, a marketplace for verified CBD products; and Franny Tacy is “taking North Carolina by storm” with her vertically integrated hemp operation.
“I’m inspired by these stories, and I know there are many more to come,” Lanier says.
Breaking down the Barriers
While the legal cannabis landscape has often been touted as a “level playing field” for entrepreneurial men and women, the numbers tell a different story.
In 2015, Marijuana Business Daily reported that women held 36% of the industry’s leadership positions. Two years later, the same publication reported a back-slide: the number of female executives had fallen to 27% (still higher than the 23% held by women across all industries nationwide).
“There are amazing women in this industry, amazing women in this community,” Cannabis Basics founder and CEO Ah Warner says. “But I still don’t think we have even close to any kind of equality in this industry. We are far from it.”
Among the 10 biggest multi-state operators in the United States — including 4Front Ventures, Acreage Holdings, Cresco Labs, Curaleaf, Grassroots, Green Thumb Industries, Harvest Health & Recreation, iAnthus and MedMen Enterprises — only Florida-based Trulieve has a female CEO (Kim Winters).
Canadian giants Canopy Growth, Tilray, Aurora, Aphria and Cronos are all led by male CEOs, and 93% of boardroom positions of Canadian cannabis companies are held by men.
No matter what the headlines say — “Cannabis a wide-open space for female pioneers,” according to Forbes; “Women are dominating the legal weed market,” according to WikiLeaf — the marijuana business largely remains a good ol’ boys club.
“I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve gone into and been the only female, and then had half of the people in the meeting not even look up at me when I talk,” White Fox founder Scarlet Ravin says.
Ravin’s company produces three lines of cannabis products, including the White Fox Nectars brand of CBD tinctures and lotions. While the company doesn’t exclusively hire women, it is mostly women-run, Ravin says.
“Being in the cannabis industry for 10 years and having 80% of the people around me be men, it’s been really unique to surround myself by so many badass ladies,” she adds. “Every woman that works for our company has their own business, so we all co-collaborate and mentor each other and bring each other up.”
While the barriers to entry for a commercial-scale hemp farm or a compliant extraction facility can be monumental, launching a CBD brand can be accomplished with a much smaller capital investment, especially with all the white-labeling services available, Carbone says, adding that a $30,000 investment can be enough to start a CBD company. Others say it can be done for as little as $10,000, but typically requires closer to $100,000.
“Farming on the other hand requires a much larger investment, especially if you don’t already have the land,” Carbone says. “Even if you do have the land, it is labor- and capital-intensive to grow hemp in the horticultural manner for CBD production.”
Extraction facilities require even more capital — and have a tremendous amount of power over the entire CBD industry.
“They control what the farmer gets paid, how they get paid and when they get paid; they control the supply of bulk extracts to brands and quite often the supply of finished products through white-labeling services,” Carbone says. “And they are almost always run by middle-aged white men because these facilities require a huge capital investment and middle-aged white men are usually the ones with that kind of money.”