Cultivating Women Leaders: A Conversation With A Cannabis Social Entrepreneur

Ron Strider

Well-Known Member
When it comes to leadership, women are on the verge of a collective evolution. By interviewing over 150 rising female leaders from a vast range of backgrounds, experiences, and industries, I have uncovered six common pillars of leadership that propel women forward and upward, personally and professionally. They are: Owning Her Purpose; Owning Her Voice; Owning Her Emotions; Owning Her Feedback; Owning Her Conversations; and Owning Her Evolution. Each Forbes article I write will feature the story of a woman who has leveraged one of these key pillars in her own journey and sharing the opportunity in how you can do the same.

My first job out of college was as a financial planner. It was a job I liked and did well and for which I was handsomely compensated. So how did I end up here, fifteen years later, writing this column? The answer is simple: I owned my purpose.

Often I find the women who truly own their purpose are the ones whose career evolutions are the most compelling—and Toronto native Melissa Rolston’s story is exhibit A in this regard. A photographer by training, Rolston stumbled rather accidentally into a completely unrelated field—health care—which then led her to work in still another, somewhat controversial industry: cannabis.

After working for a year in the cannabis industry, Rolston really zeroed in on patient care. She recalls with exquisite emotion the moment two years ago when the mother of a pediatric oncology patient with whom Rolston had been working for months called to tell her the child’s tumors had shrunk by half. “I remember hanging up the phone, closing my door, sitting down and sobbing—because I was just so truly and purely happy.”

The journey from illness to health—using holistic tools and resources including but not limited to medical marijuana—became Rolston’s life’s passion (I’ve neglected thus far to mention Rolston is just 24) and the springboard to her current venture, TeamMD. TeamMD, a virtual “full-spectrum” education company specializes in chronic pain and chronic degenerative disease management and aims to “redefine the patient care experience through education, compassion, and lifestyle choices.”

I have to say I was eager to uncover Rolston’s own personal secrets to succeeding as a young, female entrepreneur. Launching and sustaining a startup is challenging for even the most seasoned business veterans—so how does a twenty-something woman without professional training in the field overcome the extra obstacles of ageism, sexism and low expectations? Read on to find out how Rolston turned her evolution into a revolution for young women in the cannabis and medical education fields.

Tip #1. You never know when opportunity might strike – so get ready to run with it.

“I moved to Toronto to pursue photography. But while I was hustling print work I picked up a side job as an executive assistant to a gentleman who was starting up as a Licensed Producer which, if licensed, would distribute medical marijuana to patients. As we awaited licensing, we ended up starting one of the first patient acquisition clinics which focused on medical cannabis. I developed such personal connections with the patients, that when I was moved to a dispensary to help transition them to the new medical regime (MMPR at the time) I discovered a new passion which fed my soul.”

Once she discovered this passion for patient care and comfort, Rolston made the bold decision to put down her camera and switch gears to health care full-time. She found huge personal satisfaction in helping fill a void for patients who’d lacked access to the medicines they needed. Having tapped into that need in the marketplace, Rolston helped found a virtual medical clinic at the ripe old age of 23.

The biggest challenge Rolston encountered in the rapidly evolving marijuana industry—as Rolston says, “a cloudy, hazy industry where you don’t really know what’s going to happen, don’t know how the laws are going to change”—applies to many other industries, from digital currency to social media marketing to biotechnology. And the strategy is the same: Own your purpose—and your voice. Demand your worth. And be nimble—always ready to pivot when circumstances on the ground change.

Tip #2: Accept that ageism and sexism still exist (sigh) and power past them with smarts and savvy, accessible mentors.

“Literally about a month ago, I was sitting in a meeting and the person I was meeting with said, ‘aren’t you a little young to be doing what you’re doing?’ I smiled politely and said, ‘Yes, I’m young, but I’ve been fortunate to have incredible mentors whose knowledge I’ve absorbed and put into practical execution.’ It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. I just try not to let it faze me.’”

As rising young leaders in any industry, women face the double-whammy of ageism and sexism—and the combination can feel daunting. You can’t fight millions of years of human experience, but if you truly own your evolution, you can fight preconceptions with preparation, competence, and grit.

This isn't the first time I’ve said this, and it won’t be the last, but finding and keeping a mentor are critical to surpassing skepticism and doubt in any workplace or marketplace. A woman mentor is preferable—especially since they’ll have tricks and tips to share in dealing with good-old-boy environments, work-life balance, salary gaps, mansplaining and more—but believe me, I know how hard that can be when only 14% of executives are female.

For her part, Rolston has not only learned to overcome sexism herself, she’s tackling it head-on in her own industry. Rolston recently became co-Market Leader of the Toronto market of Women Grow, a network created to connect and nurture rising women cannabis leaders. The group holds regular networking events aimed at “putting diversity in the forefront,” says Rolston, “and making sure not just women are involved, but women and men of color. Everyone deserves leadership roles in the space if we’re going to move forward and evolve.”

A recent Women Grow event featured a panel of female corporate lawyers who talked about parallels between the corporate law and the cannabis industry, and how one can indeed power past “masculine energy” in the boardroom to be heard, respected and validated.

Tip #3: Assemble a team that fills any gaps in capacity.

“I always bring at least one member of my team to a meeting. That way, the potential client is aware that, regardless of my age, I have an amazing team standing behind me. And to be honest, I’ve noticed a huge improvement in the way that my meetings have developed, and how quickly I’ve been able to turn around deals.”

Rolston’s matter-of-fact observation that having older, more experienced colleagues attend big meetings helps close the deal completely rang true to me, as I had the same experience starting out as a young woman in the financial planning industry. Part of owning your voice is knowing when other, more experienced voices can amplify it.

One of the key strategies I was taught early on was to always bring a mentor to a big pitch or meeting—it not only shows the client or potential client that you have heavy-hitters behind you but that getting and keeping their business is a priority for your company.

Of course, bringing the big guns doesn't mean that you fade into the background. Closing a deal or re-upping an important customer will still require winning their trust, so another key part of owning your voice is displaying confidence in your own knowledge and talents—which will still be very important, not just to the meeting but to your ongoing development and success in your own role and company.

Tip #4: Network with organizations that will strengthen your brand.

“When Antuanette Gomez, Market Leader of the Toronto Chapter of Women Grow, asked me to co-run the market with her it was a huge step for me. When you're associated with such a largely respected brand has really helped accelerate my career.”

As many of you in various industries have already figured out, networking organizations are incredibly important not just to find your next job, but in helping you succeed at the job you’re doing now. If you’re not already plugged into a local group specializing in your field, you’re probably just a simple Google search away from finding like-minded women—and those elusive future mentors!—in your industry.

So get out there. Network. And, as Rolston says, “be unapologetically you. Never be afraid to introduce yourself. Most experts—especially those attending a conference or industry event—really appreciate a moment of genuine synergy.” Further, Rolston advises, “don't just talk to them about the industry. Let them ask you questions. They’ll appreciate the breath of fresh air and you’ll get a chance to impress with your enthusiasm and ideas.”

And to take another lesson from Rolston’s success, participating in the leadership of a major networking organization—joining a board or steering committee or even the team running a big event, which I’ve found is a great way to learn from organizational veterans—can catapult you that much further. Where the cannabis sector is concerned, Women Grow has recognized a unique moment in which women can help define and direct a whole new industry—on women’s terms and geared towards women’s success. “I’m so excited to see how this year rolls out,” says Rolston.

Tip #5: Never dwell.

“Keep moving forward, every single day. If you lose a deal, move on – there’s another one around the corner. Failure provides space for growth, the key to success.


News Moderator: Ron Strider 420 MAGAZINE ®
Full Article: Cultivating Women Leaders In A Growing Field: A Conversation With A Cannabis Social Entrepreneur
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