This story was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Marijuana Venture, on sale now online or at a store near you.
The Industry Veterans
Amy Poinsett and Jessica Billingsley
Co-founders | MJ Freeway | Denver, Colorado
Amy Poinsett and Jessica Billingsley have never put much stock in stereotypes that said women should not be in the corporate world or that they should stay away from the tech fields or any other garbage used to define gender roles.
But then, both had excellent role models. Poinsett’s mother was a high-level executive in the defense industry and Billingsley’s mother was the majority owner in her family’s construction business, running everything but the actual construction team.
It showed the two women who would go on to found MJ Freeway, the most prominent seed-to-sale tracker in the cannabis industry, that not only could they do anything, they should.
“I’m very fortunate that I have had some truly exceptional women as role models in my life, starting with my mom,” Poinsett says, adding that through her childhood she learned, “That’s what a woman’s job looks like in the corporate world.”
With that in mind, Poinsett and Billingsley both rose through the ranks of the male-dominated tech industry and started “two of the only women-owned tech companies in western Colorado,” as Poinsett puts it, before teaming up to form MJ Freeway, a company that is run a bit differently and owes at least some of its success to its female-led C-suite.
The women of MJ Freeway are not resting on their accomplishments, however.
2017 was a tumultuous year for the company. It began with a hacking attack in January that brought down the entire system, resulting in dozens of retailers being offline and having to close their doors for several days. In response, the company changed some practices, including a new hosting environment and more intense “penetration testing” on the database. Information from the attack was turned over to Colorado authorities and the investigation is still active.
The latter is causing some consternation among Evergreen State growers who, despite many complaints in the program’s early days, are familiar with the current system and worried about the transition. They’ve gone so far as to label the transition “Y502K,” a combination of the voter initiative number that legalized recreational use — I-502 — with “Y2K,” the common nomenclature for what was expected to be computer and programming difficulties when the calendar rolled over from 1999 to 2000.
“I have heard that!” Poinsett says when asked about the phrase. “Both we and our counterparts at the state are committed to making this transition as smooth as it can possibly be.”
The company is taking on additional support staff during the transition and has plans for extensive outreach and training efforts throughout Washington.
“We know people are feeling anxious so we’ll be doing a little tour around Washington for a meet-and-greet session,” Poinsett says.
Along with its seed-to-sale tracking software, MJ Freeway also offers data products that give users insights on how their business is performing, based on the company’s extensive data set compiled over the past seven years.
“We’ve been in the regulated cannabis business longer than most,” Poinsett says, “starting back before there was a regulated cannabis business.”
But the women of MJ Freeway are innovating more than just the product. When Poinsett, the CEO, and Billingsley, the COO, founded MJ Freeway in 2010, they installed a flexible, 30-hour work week aimed at women with families who needed more flexibility in their schedules.
It was something Poinsett started at her previous company after watching too many women drop out of the workforce due to a tech industry culture that routinely requires more than traditional 40-hour work weeks. That may be less of a problem for young men, the demographic that makes up the majority of the industry, but it can create tension for women who want to start a family, but do not want to abandon their careers.
Billingsley says at many tech companies, “the deck is stacked against you” in terms of sheer numbers, which creates a culture that is “very male” and not always welcoming to women.
“When you’re in a field that’s nine-to-one, male-to-female and you’re going to take maternity leave or pick up a kid from school … the culture around that is not there in most tech companies,” Billingsley says.
The flexible hours allowed MJ Freeway to hire the lead developer from Poinsett’s prior company, a woman who had family issues that prevented her from staying at the office for long hours, but whose skill was undeniable. Today, with her children older, the woman still works at MJ Freeway and her hours are back up to full time.
Not all of the company’s positions are suited for the 30-hour week and employees who choose that option may not use the time to take a second job, but it allows the company more leeway when seeking new employees in a highly competitive field.
“It’s a nice way to level the playing field,” Poinsett says, adding that the 30-hour week is also available to male employees. “We have always hired the best person for the job.”
Though Poinsett and Billingsley say their development team still skews a bit male, the rest of the company is split 50/50 between men and women, a fact they say gives them a leg up since research shows more diverse teams tend to approach problem-solving from multiple angles.
“We understand the value of different perspectives,” Billingsley says.
MJ Freeway’s origin stems from Billingsley’s investment in a medical marijuana company in Colorado in 2009. The business in which she invested was having trouble finding cannabis-specific software and approached her about the possibility of creating something.
Soon after, Billingsley and Poinsett were discussing the lack of software for marijuana businesses and saw the looming adult-use market as an opportunity.
“We really thought technology could help,” Poinsett says, adding with a laugh, “I rather famously said ‘How hard can it be?’”
Billingsley says being risk-averse is one of the stereotypes about women; there is a “cultural construct” that teaches girls, but not boys, to stay away from taking risks. However, if she and Poinsett bought into that, they would never have risen to run their own companies, let alone start an industry-leading cannabis company that made the Inc. 5000 list of the country’s fastest-growing private companies. MJ Freeway was No. 1,506 on the 2017 list released in August (other cannabis companies that made the ranking were Marijuana Business Daily, Your Green Contractor and Apeks Supercritical).
It’s something Billingsley emphasizes to young women and is trying to instill in her 10-year-old daughter: You have to take risks to get rewards.
“I can’t say that enough,” she says.
And it seems to be working. According to Inc. Magazine, Denver-based MJ Freeway generated $5.5 million in revenue in 2016 with a three-year growth rate of 270%. As of this publication, the company had 78 employees.
But even with that growth rate, there’s a high level of risk, both in the tech sector and the marijuana business. Being successful is about managing that risk, staying focused and believing in yourself and your business, even if at first you might be the only one, the MJ Freeway executives say. It’s a lesson the two successful corporate executives try to make sure young women know: Stereotypes and glass ceilings are meant to be broken, and risk — even in an industry that seems to be slanted against you — can lead to great reward.
“When we first started, there were very, very few women who were working in this industry,” Billingsley says, adding that it was MJ Freeway’s early jump into the cannabis space that helped set the company up for its current success. “It’s always the early movers that are going to have a head start.”[contextly_auto_sidebar]