Cultivating a woman-friendly industry

The stampede of investment into the cannabis industry is known as the “green rush.”

It’s also a man’s rush.

Hard numbers are lacking, but a quick glance around most any industry event reveals that marijuana has the same diversity issue plaguing Silicon Valley and society at large.

The cannabis industry is at an interesting crossroads. As some serious women entrepreneurs start their own dispensaries and launch products, like Auntie Dolores’ famed edibles, the most visible female presence at cannabis conventions is often from the bubbly “booth babes in minimal clothing.”

Women Grow is trying to change that.

Women Grow is a national women’s cannabis networking group, founded in Denver by a former tech worker and a cannabis entrepreneur. Now one of 22 chapters coast to coast, the local Bay Area chapter hosts monthly events that draw together women investors, dispensary owners, growers, legal experts and everyone in between.

“I think Women Grow is responding more to the role of women in the cannabis industry, rather than the treatment of women,” said attorney Shabnam Malek, co-director of the local Women Grow chapter. “But there is discrimination and a lack of women in the (cannabis) industry in the Bay Area.”

At Women Grow’s April event, we were told the cannabis world is a “boys club network” of social ties that beget business opportunities from which women are largely shut out.

By contrast, the April meeting at Oaksterdam University hummed with excited entrepreneurship.

The women (and few men) traded business cards and sparked new ideas aplenty. One woman pitched a central distribution center for local dispensaries, while an investor scoured for woman-created businesses.

It felt revolutionary, except that it shouldn’t be.

This collaborative commingling is exactly what Malek and local chapter co-founder Amanda Conley hope to see more of, they told me.

They are attorneys and represented cannabis clients, which led to Conley heading to a Las Vegas cannabis conference. It was there they met the founders of Women Grow, who quickly recruited Conley, and later Malek, to start a Bay Area chapter.

Women Grow doesn’t just aid in networking. It is a business seminar, but it specifically reaches out to women who are also educated in the art of business. Of which there are many.

Speakers at Women Grow range from pioneering activists to successful businesswomen. This includes Juliana Carella, founder of Auntie Dolores; Amanda Reiman, marijuana law and policy director of Policy Alliance; Phytologie Wellness dispensary director Aundre Speciale; National Cannabis Industry board member and Oaksterdam University Executive Chancellor Dale Sky Jones; Dr. Lakisha Jenkins, the California Cannabis Industry Association’s board president; Kyndra Miller, co-founder of NORML’s Women Alliance, and leading medical cannabis media consultant Gaynell Rogers.

“Women Grow is a fantastic network,” Karyn Wagner of the Paradigm Cannabis Group told us after the meeting. “We’re extremely outnumbered by a male-dominated business society in general, never mind just with cannabis.”

“You’re at an event and talking to one gal, and you’re connected to fifteen other women you need to talk to,” she said. “It happens every time.”

But though Women Grow is a safe and supportive space, it can’t entirely escape a man’s world.

At the April meeting, attendees broke into groups. And at least one group discussion was hijacked by a man. As the four men and five women spoke in round robin fashion, one fellow peppered each woman with questions instead of allowing them to speak in turn, as we were instructed. His advice teetered on mansplaining, his kind tone hovered ever-so-subtly near condescension.

He may have been truly well-meaning, genial, and smiling, but the effect was the same as if he had ill-intent: The women were silenced for a booming male voice.

Malek and Conley say this paternalism masked as friendly “help” is an example of how sexism in the cannabis industry, like society, is often less “in-your-face” than booth babes in bathing suits.

“It’s mostly more covert,” Malek said, “which I find more insidious because it’s a lot harder to combat.”

But as more women attend Women Grow, more women will be empowered. That’s the future Malek and Conley are building, month by month, meeting by meeting.

“There’s no shortage of strong businesswomen,” Malek said. “We’re making the first move. Change will happen.”

Photo by Gabrielle Lurie