With recent legislative victories in the District of Columbia and Oregon, marijuana entrepreneurs and advocates are feeling confident, but they’re still aware that there is a long road ahead until full-on, joint-on-the-sidewalk legalization. Along with sweeping changes in how Americans view the sale of pot, the swift kick will have to come from someone inside. Namely, the growing legion of female marijuana entrepreneurs blazing a trail for other women to enter the industry.
The image of the stoner in popular culture has many faces (teenage and 40-something, granola-eating hippie, suburban kid of a yuppie household), but most of them are predominantly male and white. More recently, female tokers are taking the stage. Think of Michelle in Dazed and Confused, Melanie in Jackie Brown, Ali in Bully, Jane. F in Smiley Face, the girls of Broad City, Katja Blichfeld’s High Maintenance, and of course Nancy in Weeds. Earlier this year we saw the bold on-air resignation of Alaska Cannabis Club owner Charlo Greene. Despite the growing popcultural consensus that women light up too, the advertising within the industry remains geared toward straight men. Studies have shown that 9.6% of men smoke weed in the United States while only 5% of women do.
But smoking itself isn’t meant for one kind of individual and marketing is beginning to get that. Marijuana is being “rebranded” — that’s corporate speak — to become more of an everyday health item than something part of a larger lifestyle. Imagine: Marijuana is no longer an indulgence. It’s more like drinking red wine or eating dark chocolate, good for you in moderation and satisfying, too.
From cultivation to marketing the green, the women entering the marijuana industry have backgrounds that run the gamut — from Ivy League graduates working in corporate offices to liberal, West Coast advocates and professors, to blue collar women with experience working in the construction industry. Many are young professionals, but plenty of women with young children are starting to enter the business of legal weed.
The industry’s counter-culture ethos still hasn’t faded, however, and that’s encouraging for women, even if the industry is male-dominated, says Jennifer Beck, CEO and co-founder of Cannabase, a private connection portal for the legal cannabis industry.
“In tech, I felt pigeon-holed or reduced to only a marketing role, but this is a group that gravitates toward more personal liberty and breaking the rules. It’s not focused on status quo,” Beck says.
It’s clear there is a lot of money to be made in cultivating, marketing, and selling cannabis, all areas these new female entrepreneurs are taking advantage of. Then there’s also marijuana-infused catering businesses. One such example is Jane West, the founder of Edible Events, a catering company for private events and fundraisers for the legalized marijuana. She has been referred to as the ‘Martha Stewart of the Cannabis Industry.’
Without federal legalization of marijuana use, all of this new wealth and innovation rests on shaky ground, however. The national legal market could reach $10.2 billion in five years, according to Arcview Group, a San Francisco-based investing and market research firm.
Women in the pot-space face myriad challenges as they pioneer through a newly legal and heavily regulated industry. Large financial institutions are unwilling to lend to small-time marijuana businesses because the financial reward is too low in comparison to the risk of lending to a business selling Schedule I Narcotics.
“At the core of what we see in the marijuana industry is women are more risk averse… We see parallels to other small businesses, but there are more women stepping into investment roles than a few years ago,” says Jessica Billingsley, COO of MJ Freeway Business Solutions, a multi-million dollar software company for marijuana companies that has seen revenue double over the past year. “Being risk averse is a big part of it and you have to be at a certain part of your life to see it happen at all. With marijuana, women are waiting because it’s not safe yet.”
Indeed, there’s a lot of research on women’s supposed aversion to different kinds of risk-taking, especially when it comes to financial decisions. Several studies have found that while women tend to be more risk averse, some of these tendencies are socially ingrained. Female small business owners are also, unfortunately, still rare.
If men are the stereotypical smokers, then they’re also used to being the growers.
Most women in the marijuana industry tend to work in more ancillary areas, such as marketing and advertising for marijuana businesses and tech platforms to help connect businesses with each other and to monitor their own sales and activities, according to several women inside the cannabis business.
Cultivation seems to be the most male-dominated area of the fledgling legal industry. Unfortunately, companies that monitor the industry’s growth, such as Arcview, don’t keep records of women-owned businesses, but a spokeswoman says they may consider it.
“I’d guess less than 10 percent of women are sole owners of marijuana businesses,” says Toni Fox, the owner of 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, where the first legal sale of recreational marijuana took place. “The marijuana industry has been predominantly run by men since its conception like many other businesses.”
The reason behind that is fairly obvious. Men controlled the production and selling of marijuana ever since the drug became popular for in the early 20th century. With its recent legalization in some states, it makes sense that those who have the most experience would continue to have an advantage in the industry, creating an entrenched system men continue to control.
“It takes a special breed of [female entrepreneur] who thinks almost thinks like a man. Women tend to feel more comfortable in retail sales, so there are far less women on the cultivation side. There are very few women growers and even less female head cultivation growers,” Fox says. “Women may be more apprehensive to say they’re growers – we’re more living in fear of judgment of people’s opinions than men … You need to be a woman who doesn’t give a damn what other people think. I’m very proud of what I do.”
Brooke Gehring, managing partner of Patients Choice in Denver, says there is often a tension between cultivation and retail. Then you add the difficulty of being a female boss telling a mostly male team what to do, and you have an interesting set of challenges.
“On the cultivation side it is male-dominated, so you need people to respect that I want to be in this business and have people respect they are working for a woman,” Gehring says. “There is a clashing of two cultures. Legalization happened to bring corporate culture, and there are fundamental differences between the two cultures. There is a mentality that just because these people cultivated for years, they could grow a business.”
When longtime activist Salwa Ibrahim first applied for for a permit to operate a dispensary, the idea was all hers. “I didn’t have the confidence to do it on my own and there were a lot of prominent families applying for permits, but I had a mentor in town who said I should go for it. That gave me the confidence.” Ibrahim now operates Blum Oakland, a marijuana dispensary with her husband Martin Kaufman in Oakland, California.
“I’ve noticed more women as it becomes more mainstream, but you have to look at the past. People have been arrested,” Ibrahim points out, adding that social factors may push women to consider family welfare more than men. “Women have families. It’s not that men don’t have families, but women are in more of a position where they have to think about risk.”
Troy Slaten, a partner at the law firm Floyd, Skeren & Kelly, based in Beverly Hills, California, echoes that concern. Slaten says he has seen women practice more risk aversion, often for smart reasons. As a lawyer who advises medical marijuana entrepreneurs, he knows the danger of federal prosecution all too well.
The danger becomes clear when you look at the number of security guards some dispensaries have. Ibrahim says Blum Marijuana Dispensary has 12 or 13 guards.
Toni Fox admits that it has been difficult owning a successful marijuana business and having a family. After 14 years of marriage, she recently separated from her husband and is raising a four-year-old boy.
“I was pregnant when I found my first location for a center. What I’ve found is it’s impossible to have it all. My career has come at the expense of my marriage. It’s just too much. A lot of women in this business are choosing not to have children. It’s a challenge with any small business owner,” Fox says, adding that the amount of time dedicated to staying compliant with what she calls onerous regulations doesn’t help matters.
“It’s a constant struggle,” Fox says, because she often wonders if she’s not balancing her time well enough, as many working mothers do. “It’s different [in this business] because we’re open 24/7, and if I’m not here, it just doesn’t get done.”
Many female business owners I spoke to started marijuana businesses with their husbands, however, adding a different, special dynamic to the conversation on work-life balance. Jennifer Beck’s business began when both she and her husband left their tech jobs.
Beck’s husband, Chase Beck, is a developer, while Beck has an online marketing background. The couple decided to relocate to Europe. Chase proposed in the Rhine Valley and the couple decided to come back to the States in June 2013 where they would come up with a new product idea. They soon discovered a need for a product like Cannabase.
“I think Chase and I have been able to work together — in work and in marriage — because we balance each other out and have very complimentary skill sets,” says Beck. “When it comes to working together, the truth of the matter is that building a company is hard and exhausting, and it’s hard to always be exhausted. Finding downtime in this first year has been nearly impossible, and even though we’re together, 24/7 we miss each other a lot.
Do the Becks partake in their own product? “I treat smoking like drinking wine, with respect and balance, and never behind the wheel,” Beck says. “But I definitely think cannabis is great for relaxing at the end of a long day, and is a wonderful natural alternative to sleep aids or pain killers.”
Female marijuana entrepreneurs are owning the tech, marketing, and advertising space mainly because, well, they’re used to those positions.
“Some men have been doing this for 15 years and their families are just relieved they can do it legally. Women are coming from corporate backgrounds, so for a while they were afraid to get in,” Beck says of the stigma marijuana carries. “They are mostly doing work that isn’t stereotypically male.”
“I don’t think the cannabis industry gets enough credit for how enormously sensitive and inclusive it is,” Beck explains. “After all, the industry itself is an outcast in many ways — it’s a divisive topic that still scares a lot of people, and it’s federally illegal. Although being a young woman isn’t always an asset as a CEO, I feel lucky to be in an industry filled with so much energy and passion that nine times out of 10 my age and gender are irrelevant as soon as someone asks about Cannabase.”
Despite what some say is more social awareness, there is still plenty of misogyny in the industry, mainly through objectification of women in advertising, entrepreneurs say.
Jennifer DeFalco and Olivia Mannix, co-founders of Cannabrand, an advertising and marketing agency, say they have had to convince marijuana entrepreneurs to move their brand further into the mainstream by changing their messaging, and one of the ways they have is through broadening the advertising’s appeal.
“We’re beginning to see a shift in advertising, and with our clients we are trying to appeal to a broader demographic. We are targeting more of our advertising to appeal to the LGBT community, women, and baby boomers,” DeFalco says.
“Marketing within the cannabis industry traditionally targets 20-something and 30-something males, with magazines frequently objectifying women in their ads. That is alienating entire demographics with mega purchasing power,” Mannix says.
Whatever obstacles women face in the industry, Ibrahim says women have to strike while the iron is hot, lest they miss out on the opportunities.
“My piece of advice to women is now is the time,” she says. “The nice thing about this quasi-legal state is that while the laws are still forming, women can get in there. Women can influence change.”