Rosa Cazares doesn’t have a lot of time for sleep.
The 28-year-old CEO of La Mota, one of Oregon’s largest dispensary chains, spends just about every waking moment managing her stores and navigating the licensing process for future locations. Each week, she makes the rounds to all eight La Mota dispensaries to keep her finger on the racing pulse of the business. Six more locations are in various build-out stages around Oregon, and Cazares envisions herself running as many as 20 retail operations by May 2017.
“We go so fast,” she says. “My aspiration in life was to be a job creator. We employ about 70 people currently. By the end of next year, we’ll quadruple that.”
Like many in the booming industry, Cazares has set her eyes on building a national presence as more states legalize cannabis. But more than the company’s rapid growth, what sets La Mota apart from its competition is its employees, Cazares says.
Impact of Women
Fifty-five of La Mota’s employees are women — almost 80% of the company’s entire staff. Today, women make up more than half of America’s population, but they only account for 47% of the workforce, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet more and more, pioneers in the cannabis industry are finding new opportunities to buck that trend.
Although men still far outnumber women in executive roles across the nation, women are closing the gap in cannabis. A 2015 survey by Marijuana Business Daily found 36% of the leadership positions in legal marijuana belong to women, compared to 22% on average in other sectors. A year ago, Newsweek published a story about the likelihood of cannabis someday becoming the first billion-dollar industry dominated by women.
Leah Maurer, the co-chair of Women Grow’s Portland chapter, says she would love to see women lead the industry, and in many ways they already are.
“The cannabis industry has allowed a space that did not exist when other industries were emerging, simply because of the time and place we are in, currently, in terms of social justice and civil rights,” Maurer says.
In addition to her role with Women Grow, Maurer works as the branding and research manager for Yerba Buena, a Hillsboro-based cannabis producer where more than half of the employees are women. Like La Mota, Yerba Buena is poised for rapid growth as Oregon’s recreational cannabis system begins to take shape this fall, says Laura Rivero, the company’s operations manager. And also like La Mota, Yerba Buena is on a mission to make women leaders in the cannabis industry.
“Growers in particular have historically been predominantly male,” Rivero says. “But women have an innate nurturing tendency, so it makes perfect sense that women will go to great lengths to cultivate plants mindfully and with the utmost attention to detail.”
Since landing one of the first eight cultivation licenses in the state, Yerba Buena has already staked its claim to several other firsts in the early days of Oregon’s recreational cannabis industry, including the first business-to-business transaction within Metrc (the state’s seed-to-sale tracking program) and the first harvest of a recreational cannabis crop in Oregon.
Rivero ties much of the company’s success to its diverse staff led by intrepid women, and she praises La Mota for hiring so many.
“I think that women have every chance of showing what they are capable of in this industry and commanding a level of respect and equality that isn’t as attainable in other industries that have been held back by antiquated belief systems,” Rivero says.
Cazares says she can’t recall a time when she’s been treated differently for being a woman in the cannabis industry, but she’s often one of the only women attending some of the various public meetings where cannabis policy is being discussed.
“That’s very important to me,” Cazares says. “I feel like I was given the opportunity of a lifetime as a young woman in this business.”
Both Cazares and her husband Aaron Mitchell — who owns La Mota — were raised by single mothers. Cazares grew up in Tampa, Florida, and watched her mom work three jobs to raise her four children before leaving home at 14 to start a life of her own. She spent a decade in the real estate business remodeling homes — a skill she applies with each new dispensary she opens in Oregon.
“I became a very independent person,” Cazares says. “Whenever you are forced to do something like that, you grow up fast.”
Cazares sees her employees as another family. But she’s not running the show alone. Mitchell handles the company’s two indoor grows and three outdoor farms that support a variety of products, including edibles, CO2 cartridges, shatter and about 60-70% of the flower that can be found at La Mota. They also own a 60,000-square-foot warehouse with plans to expand their indoor growing and processing infrastructure for the wholesale market.
Cazares also receives a lot of help from her industrious assistant Ruby Ripstra, who joined La Mota as a budtender about a year ago and quickly worked her way up the ladder.
“The cannabis industry is kind of a scary place sometimes,” Ripstra says. “It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. And women need to have that space in the industry to show that we can do it too.”
Working in a cash-only business, the potential for robberies often crosses Ripstra’s mind. But she feels safe at La Mota, where security is tight and the budtenders are like family.
Foundation for Success
Cazares’ dedication to the industry earned her a spot on the Oregon Liquor Control Commission’s Technical Advisory Subcommittee, giving her a hand in the state’s rulemaking process.
Looking back on her childhood, Cazares attributes her ambitious approach to the business to those formative years watching her mother take on so much responsibility. She sees her dispensaries as economic engines, not just for the Portland metro area, but some of Oregon’s smallest cities, where jobs are harder to come by.
“When you watch your family struggle in so many aspects of life, you tend to learn a lot about business and finance,” Cazares says. “To live here is very expensive. For me, it really makes me very happy to see that I created so much security for a lot of the people throughout the entire state.”
Establishing a safe space for women is important, too, she says. But that isn’t exactly what Cazares set out to accomplish with La Mota — at least not consciously. As someone who calls the late Steve Jobs her hero, Cazares doesn’t consider herself a feminist so much as a savvy businesswoman. Even so, her employees say she’s built an environment where women feel empowered.
That’s what drew Andrea Durland into joining La Mota’s team of budtenders after checking out the Southeast Portland store a few months ago. La Mota has no tolerance for rude or disrespectful shoppers — a culture that isn’t easy to find because so many retail organizations embrace the philosophy that “the customer is always right.”
“I just love to see a place where women are encouraged to be themselves,” she says. “Our ideas are validated. This is really working for us.”