In honor of International Women's Day, Civilized caught up with Mary Dimou, director of business development at Canopy Rivers, the largest cannabis-focused venture capital vehicle in the world. In collaboration with Canopy Growth, the two work to identify companies in the cannabis space looking for strategic financial and operating support.
Cannabis, however, is just one of Dimou's specialties. A nationally ranked athlete, doctoral student, agritech wizz, and master negotiator, Dimou uses her versatile skill set to her advantage, rendering her a competitive professional — among both women and men — in the field.
Her diverse experience has taught her how to hold her own, even in the face of adversity — and yes there's still adversity toward women in the workplace. But for Dimou, it's not a setback, so much as an opportunity to excel, and support other women along the way.
So tell me a little about your background.
I'm a nutritional scientist by training. Within that, my interests are primarily in nutritional biochemistry and genomics. I've been working in the innovation ecosystem for close to a decade in both private and public capital settings. My first real exposure into agriculture and business was finishing grad school. At the time, I had invented a Premier’s award-winning software to help ag-tech entrepreneurs move through the regulatory process. That technology was acquired by Canada’s top ag-tech accelerator with partnered venture fund, Bioenterprise. I ended up working as a senior analyst at the firm for a couple of years focused on life sciences and ag-tech investments. My expertise grew significantly in plant sciences and animal health, while I received quite a bit of exposure speaking internationally. I also served on a number of advisory boards. After working there for a couple of years, I joined our provincial government in their Strategic Intelligence Unit to work on foreign direct investment opportunities. But I started to miss entrepreneurship and VC [venture capital] and was offered an amazing opportunity in management at Ontario's largest funding platform — OCE Inc. During my time there, I helped them manage their seed fund. Through investment deal flow, I met the team at Canopy and joined as a director just over three months ago.
In my free time now, I am pursuing my doctorate focused on entrepreneurship and life sciences education. Motivating more women to become entrepreneurs with life science backgrounds is really important to me.
I also tutor high school science students in STEM classes, have been a speaker to promote Women in STEM, and have been a speaker on women in entrepreneurship.
Did you intend to get into cannabis?
In short, I hadn’t planned on a career in cannabis but was always very interested in agriculture, life sciences, and VC. It actually makes this industry such an incredible fit. My path to the cannabis industry was quite the journey. As I mentioned, my background is within life sciences and agriculture. I had always thought I would have been a researcher. I actually was very fond of the lab. In grad school, I had seen a major flaw with the regulatory system — archived documents, broken links — I wanted to fix that for researchers. Turns out there was a compelling business opportunity behind that, especially for entrepreneurs. The software, which won an award, gave me an opportunity to work in commercialization, and enabled me to have my first exposure to venture. My first exposure to cannabis was through our deal flow at the firm. At the same time, I ended up sitting on a few advisory panels, one of which was cannabis related —new regulations for both the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors, especially how cannabis would be managed. Approaching legalization here in Canada, my previous fund started seeing more and more innovative cannabis-related opportunities, from technology plays to pharmaceuticals. It was really exciting, so when I had the opportunity to join the team here, I took it. It was a pretty phenomenal opportunity in a sector that's taking off.
What's the substance of your day-to-day work?
As a director here on the deal team, the most important part of my role is meeting new companies, screening new technologies, and making investment decisions. Specifically, I'm working on sourcing new deal flow for the life sciences and health sciences. In one day, I can be sitting down with founders, speaking to other investors, collaborating on large academic outreach, and conducting due diligence — mostly financial and technical. I'm also on the road quite a bit, speaking at conferences or visiting sites. I think one of the very cool things about the sector is how fast it is changing, as a result no one day really looks the same. I love that.
What's the most exciting thing to invest in?
There are incredible opportunities in a variety of subsegments right now from brands to formulations. What excites me most are the great technologies used outside the cannabis sector that are finding their way into our vertical. These are technologies that have been proven effective in other sectors that show true safety and efficacy. Seeing those merge into the cannabis sector has been really promising. I think we're set for real production scale, some amazing new products, and I’m hoping we're going to start seeing some good clinical data coming up as well, which is pretty exciting. Good data will lead to some incredible applications in technology, crop inputs, and pharmaceutical sciences.
What's been the most challenging thing about working in cannabis, and do you have any predictions for the industry going forward?
The industry is still in its infancy. Most challenging for me is the jurisdictional barriers and stigma. I feel that the stigma still exists when I discuss opportunities with conservative international markets and industries. Although, I’m confident more clinical data will help this disintegrate. Honestly, the medical community is eager to see some results. There’s hundreds of clinical trials being conducted right now, and we’re bound to see unquestionable data supporting how it can truly help patients. That will break down some concerns jurisdictionally and ultimately get rid of stigmatization. I think that as jurisdictions start to see more positive outcomes from these trials, we'll notice those barriers to entry in different countries come down. I’m also predicting the movement of big industries like ag, food, and pharma to be key players down the road. There will be more opportunity and some great crossover for technologies.
Switching gears a little, what's it like being a woman in cannabis as compared to other industries?
I’ve been in male-dominated industries for the majority of my career — ag and finance. I’m used to being the only woman in the room during deal negotiations. Honestly though, cannabis has been the most progressive and welcoming industry I have ever worked in. There are a number of women in c-suite [executive] positions, opportunities for growth, and targeted efforts for consumer packaged goods (CPG) products for women. Saying that, I think there's definitely room for more of us to be involved and keep striving for management positions, especially in VC.
Have you ever faced adversity as a professional woman?
Towards the beginning of my career, it was more challenging than it had to be. I had been spoken to derogatorily, asked if I was an assistant, and more. I had to work very hard to gain respect to be seen as a professional, it wasn’t granted because I walked into the room with my colleagues unfortunately. I was often told how great I was doing as a woman in the industry rather than as a professional. I also remember receiving unsolicited advice from male counterparts at the beginning of my career surrounding my path to success: They explained that if I wanted to succeed, I needed to act like a man. I never really understood that.
As I progressed forward, I’ve been extremely lucky. Honestly, it’s much better now. I’m not facing it as frequently now as I did years ago, and when it does occur rarely, I’m able to move past it very quickly. I feel like my previous life in athletics really helped me hold my own. As I mentioned, this industry is really progressive, I’ve also been fortunate to develop my career in an extremely progressive city, Toronto. Now, at Canopy Rivers, I work in an extremely positive environment for women. Almost half of our team is women, which is incredible for VCs. I’m really proud of that.
Are you involved in any groups geared toward women in cannabis?
I'm involved in a women in VC group and provide mentorship to women in entrepreneurship. For women in VC, it’s a casual setting that speaks about opportunities for women in the industry and some key challenges. There’s been significant growth for women in entry-level positions in funds as analysts, but very few women reach the managing director level. As you progress up, you notice women drop off for a number of reasons. The group is directed at providing new opportunities for women in the field and providing them clearer paths to success. It’s also a great opportunity for younger members to meet mentors. It was challenging early on for me to find a female mentor in the space, as very few existed. I want to be able to shape the future of female representation in funds for the next generation.
What advice would you give to a woman looking to get into cannabis?
Get involved. Women should absolutely take a chance joining this industry. It's such an exciting industry, rapidly changing everyday. The perspectives and knowledge of women are extremely valued across the landscape. There’s a number of new segments on the way and there’s already a surge of new products targeted for women, especially for consumer packaged goods and natural health products. We could really use some more female scientists as well. I'm of the perspective that there are a lot of women in related research fields, like microbiology, biochemistry, and pharmacology, that would be excited to see the work and strides in our field. There are some great opportunities across research, I would encourage every woman that's interested in plants, animals, and health to get involved.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I guess maybe it would be appropriate to talk about how I was a nationally ranked athlete as I quickly mentioned my athletic career. Maybe that's why I could ignore the stigma [as a woman] — I was always training with the guys. Growing up, I was a nationally ranked kayaker and competed all over Canada and internationally. My coach was tough, incredible, but tough. He pushed me to my limits. I was with a very close knit team of primarily males and we supported each other's successes. That might be why I'm able to hold my own today.
Wow, I didn't see that coming. So how has kayaking mentally prepared you for the business world?
Kayaking is a unique sport. It's very much individual, but at the same time, there are team orientations, as well. In K1 [kayak 1] you have to be self-driven — it's your typical racing sport that way, and you're on your own persevering, beating your own time, racing your own race. But unlike swimming (I was a competitive swimmer for a number of years), in a kayak, you’re at the mercy of the weather. It helps you realize that even when you’ve done all you can do, things can be out of your control. That prepares you for the surprises. In team boats, four K1 athletes race together with slightly different techniques and stroke rates and have to adjust to one another. If you fail to do so, your whole kayak will lose control and you’ll tip over. I mean, those things [racing kayaks] really aren’t stable. It’s an amazing exercise in appreciating the strengths of your peers and working together. Actually, my top career performance was a fifth place finish at Nationals in a team boat, a K4 — team races were always my preference. I think my athletic career has trained me to be autonomous and driven on my own, but to really appreciate the importance of working with a team. I learned early on that real success is driven by a number of people together — it’s cliché, but four paddles are faster than one.