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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

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Cultivating a women-friendly industry

The rush of investment in the cannabis industry is known as the ‘green rush’.

It is also a male hare.

Hard numbers are lacking, but a quick look at virtually every industry event reveals that marijuana has the same diversity problem plaguing Silicon Valley and society at large.

The cannabis industry is at an interesting crossroads. As some serious female entrepreneurs start their own dispensaries and launch products such as Aunt Dolores’ famous edibles, the most visible female presence at cannabis conventions is often from the bubbly “booth babes in minimal attire.”

Women Grow is trying to change that.

Women Grow is a national cannabis networking group for women, founded in Denver by a former tech and cannabis entrepreneur. Now one of 22 coast-to-coast chapters, the local Bay Area chapter hosts monthly events that bring together female 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 than to 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 event in April, we learned that the cannabis world is a “boys club network” of social ties that create business opportunities from which women are largely excluded.

The April meeting at Oaksterdam University, on the other hand, was buzzing with enthusiastic entrepreneurship.

The women (and few men) exchanged business cards and sparked plenty of new ideas. A woman pitched a central distribution center for local pharmacies, while an investor sought out women-created businesses.

It felt revolutionary, except it shouldn’t be.

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

They are lawyers and represented cannabis clients, which led to Conley attending a cannabis conference in Las Vegas. There they met the founders of Women Grow, who quickly recruited Conley and later Malek to start a Bay Area division.

Women Grow does not only help with networking. It is a business seminar, but it is aimed specifically at women who are also trained 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 Aunt Dolores; Amanda Reiman, marijuana law and policy director of Policy Alliance; Phytology Wellness Director Aundre Speciale; National Cannabis Industry Board Member and Oaksterdam University Executive Chancellor Dale Sky Jones; dr. Lakisha Jenkins, president of the California Cannabis Industry Association; 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 are extremely outnumbered by a male-dominated corporate society in general, let alone cannabis alone.”

“You’re at an event and you’re talking to a girl, and you’re in touch with 15 other women you need to talk to,” she said. “It happens every time.”

But while Women Grow is a safe and supportive space, it can’t quite escape the man’s world.

During the April meeting, those present split 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 man showered each woman with questions instead of taking turns speaking, as we were instructed. His advice wavered on mansplaining, his friendly tone always hovering so subtly near condescension.

He may have been well-intentioned, friendly and smiling, but the effect was the same as if he had bad intentions: the women were silenced by a booming male voice.

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

“It’s usually more stealthy,” Malek said, “which I find more insidious because it’s a lot harder to fight.”

But as more women attend Women Grow, more women will grow stronger. That’s the future Malek and Conley are building, month after month, meeting after meeting.

“There is no shortage of strong business women,” Malek said. “We are taking the first step. There will be change.”

Photo by Gabrielle Lurie

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