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As The Cannabis Industry Goes Mainstream, Its Women-Friendly Nature Is Under Siege

Time and time again, the cannabis industry has been heralded as a haven for female entrepreneurs and members of other marginalized groups.

But a troubling new trend is on the rise; one that appears to show how the cannabis industry’s most pioneering women are being pushed aside as the market matures.

A recent survey found that the share of start-ups owned by women is on the decline. While women made up 36 percent of executives in cannabis-related companies two years ago, that figure shrank to 27 percent this year.

It’s a distressing pattern that Ashley Picillo first noticed when she set out to write her book, 'Breaking The Grass Ceiling'.

While the book was initially conceived as a catalog of sorts to showcase the cannabis industry’s most inspiring women, the interviews Picillo conducted with her subjects quickly adopted similarly sinister undertones.

Ashley Picillo

Ashley Picillo is the author of 'Breaking The Grass Ceiling' // Photo Ashley Picillo

“I really, truly thought this book was going to be a biographical collection to highlight what women [in cannabis] have accomplished, and I think it does do that,” Picillo tells Civilized. “However, I think it’s really interesting that in the last 18 months, at least four or five of the women in the book have had distinctly similar stories of being ousted from things they built.”

Picillo says what appears to be happening is that, as the cannabis industry sheds its stigma and creeps into the mainstream, North America’s more “traditional” entrepreneurs (read: men) are waking up to the realization that this is a highly profitable business.

“When cannabis started to take off... women had this window where some of the [challenges] that we face when launching businesses – in terms of competitors and the capital they have to bring to the table – were kept at bay because more traditional CEOs had some real concerns about the industry,” Picillo says.

Now, those “traditional CEOs” want in – and they’re doing whatever it takes to edge out those who have put in the work over the last decade.

“A number of the women explain in their stories that once their businesses reached a certain level, they started to hear from these male investors that they really weren’t equipped to take it to the next level,” says Picillo.

“I certainly understand that businesses reach a point where they need to change into new hands – which I think happens to both men and women when businesses grow beyond their expertise – but the way it’s happening now is much more aggressive, where these women who have done an enormous amount are now being told: ‘Thanks for playing, but your time is up. Let the guys come in and take it over from here.’”

A recent article published in Bloomberg suggests there may, in fact, be several culprits when it comes to the general decline of women in cannabis.

Chiefly, the article points to the steep costs associated with acquiring a license to grow, manufacture and/or sell cannabis products. Moreover, continued federal prohibition means it’s extremely difficult to acquire traditional banking services or financing for anything involving cannabis. These factors tend to give advantage to entrepreneurs with more money to start with, argues the Bloomberg article, and those entrepreneurs tend to be male.

The article also references recent academic research indicating that the kinds of big-money investors who are becoming increasingly interested in the cannabis industry – think Silicon Valley and Wall Street – tend to favor business pitches by male entrepreneurs over pitches by female entrepreneurs, even when the pitch is the same.

In a nutshell, it seems as though the cannabis industry’s move into the mainstream has left it vulnerable to a lot of the rampant misogyny that takes place in more traditional markets populated by more traditional entrepreneurs.

It’s a “heart-breaking” reality, says Colorado’s first black dispensary owner and one of the subjects of Picillo's book, Wanda James.

“Nobody cared when the dispensaries owned by the women in Colorado who started this industry were worth $2 million. Nobody cared when they were worth $6 million. Nobody cared when they were worth $10 million. But now that they’re 15- or 20-million dollar companies, a lot of the board members – i.e. men – are saying, ‘you can’t handle it from here on in’,” James, who co-owns Simply Pure in Denver, tells Civilized.

That said, it’s James’s hope that this rising trend will motivate women in the cannabis industry to push back.

Wanda James4

Wanda James is Colorado's first black dispensary owner // Photo - Ashley Picillo

“The issues [inherent to] the cannabis industry – saving babies, helping those who are incarcerated, protecting families, protecting teenagers – are classic women’s issues in an industry that is booming. We should own this.”

This idea that the cannabis industry is in some ways primed for female involvement and leadership is not an uncommon one.

Kristi Kelly, executive director of Denver’s Marijuana Industry Groups and co-founder of Root Strategies, believes there are some parallels to be noted when it comes to the history of cannabis and the history of women and other marginalized groups. 

“If we look at the issue of cannabis in and of itself and the history of discrimination – the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the plant and the way that has caused social harm – you can overlay that similar understanding and compassion for a number of underrepresented groups,” Kelly, who also appears in Picillo’s book, tells Civilized.

“The people that understand the actual change that we’re trying to affect on behalf of this plant are predisposed to... understand how that would naturally extend to other underrepresented populations.”

Kristi Kelly

Kristi Kelly is the executive director of Denver’s Marijuana Industry Groups and co-founder of Root Strategies // Photo Ashley Picillo

Picillo adds that, in many cases, women in particular tend to come into the cannabis industry equipped with what could be considered the necessary prerequisites.

“Something a number of the women [in the book] brought up is that women tend to be in control of household income and tend to be the ones making healthcare decisions for the family,” she says. “It makes sense, then, that women should be actively involved in the development of this medicine and the businesses that support this medicine getting into people’s hands, especially children.”

In observing this disconcerting shift in cannabis industry demographics, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the future, admits Picillo. However, she urges women to instead find power in this new challenge.

“This industry has very special roots and a very special story, and it’s important that we be aware of that as we continue growing so that we can stay true to those roots. But we need to be aware of the challenges women are facing so that we can prepare for them,” says Picillo.   

“As more traditional business people come into the space, women just need to be prepared to hold on, to support one another, and make sure that their paperwork – their operating agreements, their investor relation documents, etc. – is all completely buttoned up.

“We definitely don’t want to create fear or discouragement among women who want to venture into this space. This is still an accepting place for them; it’s just that, as it’s changing, we need to be aware of why it's changing.”


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