Why Women Founders Are Ruling Legal Marijuana

Why Women Founders Are Ruling Legal Marijuana

High-powered expats from corporate America are flocking to cannabis startups.

By Maria Aspan, Senior editor, Inc.@mariaaspan

It's a gray, sleety night in Denver, but Jane West's hotel room balcony is thick with sweet, pungent bong smoke. Sushi and edamame are spread across the hot tub cover, and I'm getting a neck massage. Dahlia Mertens, the founder of marijuana-infused-lotion maker Mary Jane's Medicinals, dips her hands back into her salve and tells me I should rub it in the middle of my forehead--"on your third eye."

This is where the cool ladies of weed hang out--inhaling, dancing, drinking, but also swapping their products and plotting the next steps in their businesses. It's all presided over by West, a pseudonym for the early marijuana entrepreneur who got fired from her events-planner day job in 2014 for vaping on television. She went on to start the Women Grow networking group, which now counts 1,500 monthly attendees around the country and has gathered about 800 of them in Denver for its annual two-day summit.

There's some evidence that women are finding it easier to break into cannabis than other sectors of corporate America. One 2015 survey of 630 marijuana professionals found that women held leadership roles in 36 percent of those businesses, compared with 22 percent of U.S. companies generally, according to the trade publication Marijuana Business Daily, an Inc. 500 company that was co-founded by two women--Cassandra Farrington and Anne Holland. "I hit that glass ceiling at 100 miles an hour," Farrington, a former Citigroup employee, says. "There's no question this is a huge area for entrepreneurship, and there are so many women fed up with the corporate arena" who find marijuana more appealing.

Aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs at Women Grow. CREDIT: Christian Purdie

Like Farrington, many of the women already running marijuana-focused businesses have extensive--and seemingly boring--résumés at banks, hedge funds, law firms, consultancies, insurance giants, and other traditional, highly regulated corporations. They not only know how to cut through the red tape--they welcome it. "I just got up one morning and read all the Colorado rules," shrugs Peggy Moore, who spent 33 years working for United Health Group before becoming the CEO of Denver-based pot bakery Love's Oven. "After dealing with all of the insurance industry's regulations, it wasn't that complicated."

Some of the Women Grow members are closer to the hippie or legalization-activist end of the spectrum, and its events tend to draw more early-stage or aspirational entrepreneurs. Many of the conference's talks are motivational rather than practical, filled with a rhetoric that's familiar to anyone who's spent time at any sort of women's empowerment conference.

But gatherings like these also seem to bridge the gap between the established professionals like Nancy Whiteman--who says, "I'm a business owner who's a woman, but that's not my priority"--and the entrepreneurs trying to break into what can still have the hostile boys-club feel of marijuana's rougher, less-legal days.

Sexism and casual misogyny abound, especially among male-dominated growers and at events. (The industry is still very white.) One edibles company incited a boycott after a November conference, when it decided that a bikini-clad woman covered in charcuterie would be the perfect centerpiece for a party. "There's not a single cannabis event that I can go to where I'm not being hit on by everyone," says Andi Bixel, the founder and CEO of infused ice cream maker Drip.

West, who has stepped back from running Women Grow to focus on getting her cannabis-container business off the ground, hopes that such stories don't dissuade interested female entrepreneurs. "The fact that this is all being discussed this early on gives me hope," she says.

After all, "If you were doing HR at Goldman Sachs, and you took time off to have kids, and now you want to do HR at a cannabis company--you have the skills," says Heather Molloy, who previously worked on Wall Street and is now an investor in and chief financial officer for West's company. "There's no reentry barrier" in marijuana, she says. Plus, "you don't even need to know how to code."

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