Women In Cannabis: 8 Founders On Breaking The Grass Ceiling

Solonje Burnett, Cofounder of Humble Bloom Photo: Humble Bloom

As demand for female representation in the workplace has increased in recent decades, many industries have continued to struggle to find gender parity, especially at the leadership level. Cannabis, however, has long been regarded as a sort of haven for women and in its early days, was home to impressive numbers of female executives in every facet of the market. In fact, according to a 2019 study, nearly 37% of executive-level positions in the field were held by women, a figure that puts to shame the 21% national average for other industries.

Several years into the legalization of marijuana in many parts of the United States and more widespread acceptance of cannabis as a consumer good, the once fertile landscape for women has been growing somewhat dry. As the marketplace continues to expand and its potential to make big money becomes even more apparent, large, corporate players have entered the space and have brought a return to gender discrimination along with. With the industry’s undeniable potential still far from fulfilled, eight leaders reflect on the challenges of being a woman in cannabis and why female representation and participation remains so crucial to the field.

Kate Miller, Cofounder and CEO of Miss Grass
“I first got involved in the cannabis space in 2008, when I worked as a medical cannabis budtender while attending university in California. I had already experienced benefits from this plant firsthand, and I was inspired to share that with others. It also felt like an exciting business opportunity to get involved in an industry that inevitably would be massive. It was a rare and perfect marriage of a deep personal passion and a business opportunity. That experience only strengthened my belief in this plant, as I saw so many patients transform their lives from it. Still, I was surrounded by weed products that only reinforced the lazy stoner stigma. There was nothing that represented the full power or history of the plant—and definitely nothing that represented the modern cannabis consumer. It was then that I bought the Miss Grass URL and planted the seed for what it would grow into a decade later.

“When I began pursuing Miss Grass full-time in 2017, the cannabis industry, compared to others, was over-indexed in female executives; and I thought, damn right! As it should. It is a female plant after all. I was, and still am, inspired by the idea of being a part of the first multi-billionaire dollar industry with women at the helm. But as the amount of capital poured into the industry increased over the past few years, the percentage of women in leadership positions decreased. The capital market, and its corresponding white-male dominated culture, seeped in.

“Being a woman, the gender minority in many industries, has its challenges. Many people, whether intentionally or unintentionally, do business with people they feel the most comfortable with, and share the most common characteristics with, which reinforces the ‘boys club’ mentality in business. That is also true when it comes to raising capital. Many investors stick to pattern-matching behavior and fund founders that they have backed in the past, which are mainly men. In 2020 only 2.3% of venture funding went to women-led startups. I’ve definitely felt it harder to break through as a woman in business, despite data showing that companies with women in leadership positions perform better.

“Cannabis has such opportunity and potential to shift the fabric of our society in so many ways. The legal industry is still in its infancy, which provides a greater opportunity to shake things up and instill good values and practices that will inspire the industry’s future—one that operates with a corporate conscience, that will inspire other industries to model after. Cannabis is a very politically charged plant and industry because its prohibition has really harmed and disenfranchised Black and brown communities. If done right, this plant’s legalization can and should repair the damages done and give those same people the ability to create generational wealth from it. This industry has the potential to provide a natural alternative to pain relief, stress management, and additional physical, emotional and spiritual healing to support mental health, addiction, and other ailments. It has the potential to support the end to our world’s opioid epidemic and potential to be the catalyst for the normalization of other plant-based medicines. This plant can inspire so much good. And for it to live to its greatest potential, the industry must be led by women leaders with feminine traits of compassion, collaboration, inclusiveness, and empathy.”

Nidhi Lucky Handa, Founder of LEUNE
“I started thinking about LEUNE about three years ago, and we launched six months later. I was drawn to the cannabis space as a consumer and inspired to start the brand because I didn’t see any brands that resonated or spoke to me nor my peer group. I loved (and still love) that there was an opportunity to think differently, solve for new possibilities and problems, and it’s still as exciting now as it was then.

“Being a woman of color in this space has certainly posed challenges, but that’s the reality of living in 2021 America. I have chosen to use adversity as fuel for growth and inspiration to catalyze change. I see the culture shifting everyday for the better, but there’s certainly a long way to go in respect to gender and racial equity. It’s imperative that this happens. We have a shot to build this industry in a fair and balanced way, to right historical wrongs and to set a standard moving forward. There’s still so much opportunity and space for brilliant minds—and even more opportunity for those of us who choose to lead with compassion and kindness.

“The momentum is strong right now and will continue to grow in my opinion. The number one shift is stigma. Folks are ready to celebrate this plant without shame and in the light of day, that’s a huge driver for change. As more states come online, conversations around use-case, brand, and positioning will continue to evolve and become more sophisticated.”

Kristi Palmer, Cofounder of Kiva Confections
“Living in the Bay Area in California, [my husband Scott and I] were aware of the shifting views on cannabis and its increasing accessibility and felt it could be an exciting space to be in. It was definitely risky, but at the same time, we had nothing to lose. Our first venture was a small cannabis grow in the backyard of my childhood house. Spoiler alert: it didn’t last long. But it did give us an appreciation of the art of growing and introduced us to the industry, as well as many shops that we would end up building long-term relationships with. We really loved the people we were meeting—they were passionate, knowledgeable, and really cared about the plant and those who used it. It was visiting these dispensaries that made us realize that there was a huge opportunity for edibles innovation. We knew that if we could create delicious, consistent, and beautifully-branded edibles that we would enjoy ourselves or share with our friends, they would be a huge hit. That’s when we began developing the Kiva brand and products.

“I don’t think of cannabis as a male-dominated industry—and that’s the beauty of it. Gender disparity is a huge issue in many industries. Cannabis, in comparison, feels remarkably balanced. In many ways, the industry is still in its infancy. I attribute its inclusiveness to the fact that so many people have fought so hard for more inclusiveness and social equity in the past few decades. While the company has had to deal with a lot of unique challenges being a cannabis business, I’m happy to say that my gender has not been a hindrance. I’m also pleased to share that over the years, I’ve only witnessed more women entering the space, bringing expertise from other fields, as well as a much-needed perspective and approach to business. Because cannabis is still in its infancy, it could easily be dominated by women leaders.

“Women are incredible. Everyday at Kiva, I’m inspired by our female employees’ passion, professionalism, and work ethic. They bring their whole selves to both their personal and professional responsibilities. We need their valuable perspective as leaders to ensure that cannabis, both from an industry perspective and a product perspective, continues to be accessible to diverse voices and their evolving need states. I am very passionate about women in particular trying cannabis because I’ve seen firsthand how it can positively impact women’s health, wellbeing, and their overall happiness.”

Brett Heyman, Founder of Flower by Edie Parker
“We first started thinking about cannabis through accessories. In our opinion, there was an opportunity for more options in the market. We assumed people would want to use, collect, and gift high quality, carefully considered cannabis accessories the way they did bar accessories. I think cannabis is incredibly difficult whether you are a male or a female. It’s still such a nascent industry in the legal market, and the constantly changing regulations, among other factors, have been challenging. Women should be leaders in every industry. I think we have proven ourselves to be at least as capable as our male peers. Cannabis is a consumer product, and women are 50% of the population.

“Most importantly, legalization will mean the end of racist enforcement of drug policies that disproportionately affect communities of color. Expungement for low-level cannabis offenses will be significant. As cannabis becomes more mainstream, our hope is that brands become more important. Right now we are working in a supply-constrained business, but once supply and demand becomes normalized, people will want to buy from brands they know and trust, brands that mean something to them, just like any other consumer product.”

Mary Pryor, Cofounder of Cannaclusive
“I received exposure to automotive design, electrical engineering, music, digital art, and marketing at an early age, and I realized that there was a pressing need for agencies that catered to culturally rich and niche audiences through digital and social marketing integration. It has been challenging to be respected as a woman of color within a large corporation or thriving industry. In the early days of corporate cannabis, there were women who held higher positions and status, however they were typically the wives of wealthy, Caucasian men. These women made it known, so it is harder to be heard and respected in higher positions and see more acceptance on all levels within the industry and community.

“Women make up the highest number of consumers purchasing within the U.S. So, it is important that the products sold reflect what we are looking for within this market. It is also important to have leaders within this industry to ensure these products will be seen on the shelves. I’m hoping that with the future of cannabis, especially as cannabis is made recreational, home growing will be available for anyone who is over 21 years of age. This way, we will truly free the plant but also free ourselves from being slaves to consumers when we can be students of gardening and what works for each person individually.”

Summer Frein, U.S. General Manager of Lord Jones and Happy Dance
“I joined the Lord Jones team in 2019 as its Head of Sales, and I was inspired by the brand’s rich heritage, which is often a rarity in an emerging category, and CBD’s ability to change people’s lives. It’s motivating to be part of a company with such a clear mission to normalize and destigmatize an industry and plant with such a dynamic history. I was also intrigued by the brand’s innovative partnerships and collaborations. Seeing how many ‘firsts’ the brand had achieved, like being the first CBD brand to launch at Sephora, in such a short period of time was especially compelling.

“When I came to Lord Jones, it was the first time I was in a workforce that was more heavily female-dominated. Women actually make up 66% of the company and 69% of the leadership team, which is incredibly empowering and, I think, a testament to how the industry has already evolved. It’s vitally important to have representation in any business. In order to make products and create campaigns that really resonate and feel authentic, and it’s important that all voices are heard. For example, our Happy Dance brand, which was cofounded by Kristen Bell, was both ideated and created with moms in mind. The notion of accessibility is what drives Kristen. She’s a busy mom. She wanted the brand to reflect the reality of motherhood and not the false reality that ‘mom marketing’ often conveys. As a working mom myself, I really resonated with this idea. We live in a world where the idea of ‘me time’ doesn’t always feel like a reality. We wanted this to be a brand that you knew was created by a woman—it’s meaningful and relatable.

“As the [cannabis] category grows and rules and regulations continue to evolve, providing consumers with CBD education and transparent manufacturing and quality assurance practices continues to be a top priority for us. Unfortunately, the category is still riddled with misinformation, which can make it tough for consumers to know who and what to trust. But Lord Jones remains dedicated to ensuring its products are third-party lab tested, backed by specific batch analysis lab reports with Certificates of Analysis, tested for heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, and microbial contaminants, and labeled transparently with the amount of CBD in the product.”

Catharine Dockery, Founder and General Partner of Vice Ventures
“Imagine being able to invest in an alcohol company in 1933 during Prohibition. While far fewer people currently consume cannabis than alcohol, the example does offer some sense of scale for what we’re looking at. The various legalizations of cannabis have combined to form one of the largest-ever transitions from black markets to regulated markets. The pure scale of the opportunity has really always both impressed and excited me. When I first started to become interested in the space, I’d been involved mostly in early-stage consumer businesses, and this area just seemed like such a blank canvas to build brands.

“One of the biggest challenges I deal with is the fact that my gender is constantly referenced. My male counterparts don’t get asked about what it’s like to be a male investor! I have the same goals as male investors and struggle with the same fundamental problem: finding the best early-stage opportunities. One of our founders of color recently recounted a similar struggle to be taken seriously on a stand-alone basis, trying to speak with a specific investor but repeatedly being referred to their fund’s Diversity & Inclusion investment team. We really need to make sure that efforts at inclusion don’t simply become another form of marginalization. I don’t mean the above to say that I’ve never felt judged or taken less seriously for my gender—my least favorite is being asked for an introduction to the General Partner when I am the founder and General Partner. All of that being said, I’ve definitely noticed a much bigger focus on removing biases over the past several years, and the majority of those changes have been incredibly positive.

“As an investor, I’m constantly trying to evaluate my biases inside the investment process. Nobody has the luxury of being able to fully shed their own point of view (though psychedelics have been shown to boost empathy). By nature, there’s a value to bringing in new perspectives, especially inside brand investing. Inside cannabis, I think it’s especially important that we specifically support diversity in leadership because of the suddenness of legalization. That’s much easier said than done but incredibly important because early winners often persist for a long time.”

Solonje Burnett, Cofounder of Humble Bloom
“I love weed, but it took time for me to get to that point. I grew up in a Christian Caribbean American household in Newton, Massachusetts, so the stigma was real—not oppressive but definitely not accepted. When I first thought about cannabis, we wanted to make a product, but that quickly shifted to community and education. Building bridges between communities through experience is something I’ve done for years. I live for connecting people to each other, themselves, and the world around them through a variety of access points, be it music, art, dance, food, wellbeing, or advocacy. Cannabis touches on everything from racial inequity and reparative justice to regenerative agriculture and access to medicine. [My cofounder] Danniel and I saw an opportunity to make an impact and influence this industry as it grows through education—creating conscious consumers or more generally, thoughtful humans who care.

“Like any industry, cannabis is deeply rooted in white supremacist patriarchal systems of oppression, misinformation, inequity, and division. There is certainly more conversation about the politics of race and injustice, which is positive, but when you look at those with real power, they are committed to the preservation of imbalance leaning into scarcity and competition over abundance, equality, and collaboration. And I cannot just look at this through the gender lens. I’m an intersectional being – racism, colorism, and featurism factor into the challenges we face. We are historically underfunded, ignored, disrespected, and silenced. This is magnified when you are a melanated woman. Both white men and women tend to block our path to advancement. Remember, 55% of white women voted for Trump in 2020. It’s the oppressed oppressor mentality driving them to identify and utilize their whiteness over their womanhood excluding us from opportunities. As Black women, we are rarely invited to participate. On the flip side, so many of the womxn (as well as a few male co-conspirators) lead by doing in this present moment. These individuals are small business owners, investors, journalists, farmers, healers, educators, and so much more. They’ve listened, supported, welcomed and helped me on this entrepreneurial journey. I am fortunate to have found an incredibly progressive, action-oriented, and thoughtful community within the cannabis industry.

“Cannabis touches all, from medicine and beauty to agriculture and social justice. My vision is that we use the power we have from being connected to all to create radial change for sustainable innovative futures that are equitable, fair, reparative, and regenerative. It’s high time to include women in this industry as it rapidly expands. Investors and corporations should take note. Gender diversity and inclusivity is not about feeling good; it’s about being profitable and sustainable. We are more highly educated, outnumbering our male counterparts with achieving bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and we make up about half the workforce. Studies have shown that female leadership leads to higher employee satisfaction and retention. Teams feel valued, respected and heard. Using a more feminine approach, leading with listening and connection, translates to more innovation, productivity, non-linear and non-hierarchical decision making, and better products.

“But we know that we cannot rely on a male-dominated and masculine-centered industry to get us to where we need to be with equity. Women have to lead by doing. We have to start our own businesses and lift others as we climb. There is space for all of us. It’s time to shift the narrative, decolonize our mindsets and work in ways that flip the culture. Build each other up, share speaking and press opportunities, talk about your experiences with investors, share your deck, invite each other to networking events, do whatever you can to disrupt the status quo that has oppressed us all. This industry has the opportunity to lead by example. We can craft an industry that shifts and dissolves prohibitive social constructs. We can bake gender and social equity, fairness, inclusion, responsibility, innovation, and sustainability into its core. Let’s lead with the idea that biodiversity is health.”