From edibles entrepreneurs and growers to certification gurus and CEOs, women in the cannabis industry are coming together, speaking out and changing things for the better.
By Karli Petrovic
Even in 2015, there are many industries that are still considered boys clubs. While men continue to dominate top leadership positions across the board, the farming and agriculture industries have long lacked significant gender diversity.
There’s one segment of the market, however, that’s breaking the mold. The cannabis industry is brimming with savvy, innovative women who are invested in empowering their peers and leveling the playing field.
“Marijuana was a movement before it was an industry,” says Jaime Lewis, founder and executive chef of Mountain Medicine, a Colorado-based company that produces high-quality marijuana-infused products for medicinal and recreational use.
“The movement attracted a lot of women because of its compassionate side. I’m surrounded by so many women entrepreneurs who came to this industry because of the services we offer people. There are a lot of powerhouses.”
Lewis is one of them. In addition to her work with Mountain Medicine, she was a founding member and current chair of the Cannabis Business Alliance and is on the National Cannabis Industry board. Lewis has also helped lead the development of the Start Low, Go Slow campaign to educate consumers on how to responsibly use, store and enjoy edibles.
Lewis credits her strong personality for helping her thrive in an industry that’s still male dominated.
“I think it’s difficult for women in authoritative positions as a whole,” she says. ”I have not experienced bias, but I think that’s because I’m definitely an alpha female and demand respect from people. I don’t expect anyone to roll out the red carpet because I’m a woman, but I do expect the same respect I give to others.”
While many of the industry’s women have battled misconceptions or straight-out sexism, like Lewis, they’re tackling these issues head on. Autumn Karcey, for example, is a former medicinal cannabis cultivator and president of Cultivo, an engineering and design firm providing sustainable, cannabis-industry specific solutions. She also happens to be a 5-foot-4 blonde, who says she fights against preconceived notions on a daily basis.
“When I first got into this industry, we weren’t allowed to advertise — it was word of mouth for years,” Karcey explains. “My work stood for itself. You have to be three times smarter and more on-top of things than your male counterparts. Women excel in this industry and take it to a new level.”
Both Karcey’s experience and drive are indicative of the industry’s women as a whole. In fact, many women’s groups have formed not only to fight against things like the “models and marijuana” or “babes in bikinis” approach to advertising, but also to encourage women to bring their unique talents and build a better industry.
One such group is the NORML Women’s Alliance, an all-women offshoot of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws nonprofit. Dedicated to ending marijuana prohibition and enacting sensible cannabis reform since its inception in 2010, NORML Women’s Alliance has active participants in chapters across the country.
Danica Noble, an activist, lawyer and coordinator for NORML Women of Washington, says she was inspired to join the cause after hearing about women who had their children taken away for admitting to occasional recreational marijuana use. A mother herself, Noble connected with NORML Women’s Alliance’s mission to legalize marijuana to “protect our children, keep our neighborhoods safe and put people back to work.”
“Child protective services and family courts are not prepared to handle cases of responsible use,” says Noble, whose group has 25-30 active members, eight or nine core members who attend every meeting and a 300-name email list. “People are still losing their jobs. We have people in jail for low-level usage and no laws on the books.”
In order to combat these injustices, NORML Women of Washington have built somewhat of a popup education shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Wearing t-shirts and armed with a trusty sandwich board on the last Sunday of every month, the women are available to answer questions, educate and sign up new members who want to learn more.
“We come to where people are,” says Noble, who plans to expand the group’s reach with similar small-scale events across the state. “Women come together to share stories and get involved with outreach. Our group is a platform for political engagement. We want to make sure is a part of the policy decisions in the state.”
While NORML Women’s Alliance is working to actively change the current laws, the Marijuana Business Association Women’s Alliance tackles the professional side of things. MJBA’s President Morgan was inspired to found the group after two other women’s groups — Women of Washington and Women of Weed — encouraged her to start a separate group that would deal with female entrepreneurs and business leaders.
“It was a natural transition,” Morgan says. “I felt so much validation and encouragement every time we got together. I have a passion for business, and women have a passion for business. There’s so much more we can do, and it’s better if we talk it out amongst ourselves.”
The group certainly is resonating with women in the industry. Founded in 2014, the for-profit LLC has a mailing list of 500 members, and every woman who joins the MJBA automatically becomes a Women’s Alliance member. Morgan isn’t stopping there.
“I’d love to see it spread nationwide and get active on the local,” she says. “It’s the year of the women. We want to be paid and recognized as growers, leaders, educators and distributors.”
Another group with similar goals is Women Grow, a for-profit entity formed in 2014 to “empower the next generation of cannabis industry leaders” through webinars, programs and events. The group works on a chapter-based system that allows members to collaborate locally to meet their needs.
The other focus, says co-Founder and CEO Jazmin Hupp, was on creating an event that was inviting for women.
“We have 1,000 participants per month, but half of them had never been to an event,” she explains. “We wanted to welcome women to the industry with an event where the people looked like them, not men in suits or men who grow. What I heard from women who attended was that this event was invigorating. We needed to reassure women that there were people like them.”
Going forward, Women Grow is focused on expanding its events and national reach to get even more women in the room. Hupp says that the industry is changing rapidly and reaching somewhat of a tipping point.
“We’re really talking about whether the future is going to be consolidated or there will be more craft products and more producers,” she says, noting that more producers will allow for a healthier marketplace.
“We hope Women Grow can facilitate that change. If we want the best possible products for women and families, women need to be at leadership level of companies,” Hupp continues. “Women have an opportunity to come together and cooperate on the standards and regulations we want as an industry.”
One of the women who is leading the charge on industry standards is Maureen McNamara, a founding member of Women Grow and founder of Cannabis Trainers, a company that offers educational courses and solutions for marijuana industry professionals.
A training professional for more than 20 years, McNamara was teaching food safety courses in 2013 when she met someone who wasn’t a part of the typical hospitality industry crowd.
“I told her I wasn’t familiar with that restaurant, and she said, ‘Well, it’s not a restaurant … we make pot brownies,’” McNamara says with a laugh. “I said, ‘I’m so excited you’re here!’ That’s when I realized that professional marijuana-infused product manufacturers really wanted to do this with integrity and professionalism.”
In 2014, McNamara began Cannabis Trainers to offer food safety and responsible vendor programs specific to the cannabis industry. ServSafe is designed for edibles makers who want to ensure appropriate standards, especially when the health inspector pays a visit. Sell-SMaRT (safe marijuana retail training) is for vendors who want to sleep soundly knowing their business is protected from the risks of running a federally illegal business. The latter is the first program to be accepted in Colorado as an approved responsible vendor program and is customizable to meet the diverse standards of their state.
McNamara has also helped create webinars for Women Grow to educate women about getting involved.
“It’s exciting to be able to contribute to this industry,” McNamara says. “Everyone I’m crossing paths with is very supportive of welcoming women into the industry and encouraging women to be leaders. Allowing the industry to flourish with all levels of diversity is something I believe in.”
One way that women can help improve diversity is by helping others get their start in the industry. Diane Czarkowski and her husband Jay accomplish this through their consulting firm Canna Advisors. After selling their award-winning cultivation operation, Boulder Kind Care, in 2012, the couple was unsure how to proceed.
“Before we decided what our next play would be, we were solicited by a group in Connecticut to help them apply for one of four cultivation licenses,” explains Diane Czarkowski, who is a founding benefactor and supporter of Women Grow. “It was one of the first truly competitive licensing situations and we won. Almost in tandem, we began working in Massachusetts and won four licenses there as well. And so, our consulting firm was established.”
Today, Nevada and Illinois are on the list of license-acquiring success stories, and the couple is working with groups in Maryland, Hawaii and Guam. Through it all, Czarkowski looks to her female peers for support.
“I don’t think I would still be in this industry if it wasn’t for them,” she says. “The people in my network want this to not only be the next great American industry, but to also be a new kind of industry — one that is based on social responsibility, advocacy and taking care of people. Women are the decision-makers for health care and consumer decisions, so we are a natural fit to be involved in this industry.”
No matter how many women lead, innovate and support the cannabis industry, the biggest accomplishment isn’t likely to come in the form of a diversity statistic.
“I look forward to the day — and would invite it to be sooner than later — that the conversation about how any men or women are in the industry is irrelevant because it’s known there is balance and diversity,” McNamara says. “The question might shift from ‘What’s it like to be a female entrepreneur in this industry?’ to ‘What’s it like to be a leader in this industry?’ I look forward to the day when there’s no distinction or gender qualifier. That will be exciting.”