Women and the Cannabis Industry

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CannibisIn a climate of race and gender storms, much of it driven by political discourse, a quiet one is brewing in the emerging cannabis industry, which recorded $6 billion in sales during 2015. According to the most current data from ArcView Market Research, those sales represent a $4 billion increase from two years earlier and are expected to reach $6.7 billion in 2016, reaching $22 billion by 2020.

Women Grow, a national networking and educational organization for cannabis industry leaders with chapters in 40 cities, contends that women have the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to shape this nascent industry. The industry “represents women’s interests, addresses women’s needs and is inclusive and representative of the colors and sexes of our population,” the group says.

Women Grow’s monthly networking events attract a broad and diverse group of cannabis entrepreneurs, as well as those interested in the industry from various perspectives. 

For the Black community, the outlook for women in the industry is welcome news at a time when initiatives originally intended to level the playing field for Blacks in securing supplier contracts and professional jobs across all major U.S. industries appear to be succumbing to much broader “diversity and inclusion” trends.

According to a survey by Marijuana Business Daily, women hold 36 percent of leadership positions in the cannabis industry, while the average for all U.S. companies is 22 percent. Jasmin Hupp, former-CEO and co-founder of Women Grow, argues that the health and wellness sector is the first market in which women can dominate as business leaders and innovators.

Twenty-four U.S. states now have some form of medical marijuana legislation on their books. The expectation is that this number soon will begin to increase. As this market increases for medicinal and recreational use, women, who account for 85 percent of all consumer purchases and 93 percent of over-the-counter pharmaceutical purchases in the U.S., are best positioned to influence what happens over the long term.  

Black professionals are already organized in the healthcare industry under advocacy, professional support, capacity building, networking and community activism groups, such as the National Medical Association (representing physicians) and the National Association of Healthcare Professionals. Whether this pro-active organizing will be extended to the multi-billion-dollar cannabis industry, with its huge jobs and entrepreneurial potential, remains to be seen. 

Not surprisingly, Black women have already begun to stake a claim in the industry. As reported by American Express OPEN in its “2015 State Of Women-Owned Business Report, Black women business owners outpace all other startups at six times the national average rate.

Even so, the presence of Black women at Women Grow networking sessions in New York City remains small, compared to that of their white counterparts. I spoke with three who attend those sessions.     

Stacie Weldon, owner/director of a mobile case-management and counseling enterprise, is taking a studied approach to identify her own point of entry into the industry. With experience providing individual and group therapy, including hospice counseling where she saw the positive effects of cannabis in end-of-life care, Stacie believes she has a place in this nascent industry.

“I have always wanted to invest in pharmaceuticals and medical marijuana has peeked my interest, there are just so many options to explore in this exciting growing industry,” she admits.

In April 2015, Selena Cuffe, president and CEO of national wine importer Heritage Link Brands L.L.C. and a partner in a South African vineyard, plunged into the cannabis world with the establishment of Heritage Therapeutics. Along with her husband, Khary, these two Ivy League-educated entrepreneurs have invested time, sweat, and more than $20,000 in the industry after a careful analysis gave them their ideal entry point – providing solutions to medical and recreational consumers along the supply chain, from cultivation to consumption.

As a former marketing executive with Procter & Gamble and a seasoned entrepreneur in the beverage industry with 90 percent of their operation in business-to-business transactions, Cuffe chose to use the B2B model for their cannabis venture.

“By the grace of God, my husband and I are able to live our commitment to equality and diversity in the beverage and cannabis industries as we create jobs and wealth,” she says. 

Gia Morón, a former Goldman Sachs executive, has already positioned herself to be a factor and leader in the industry. As the CEO of GVM Communications, she is the public relations chair for the New York chapter of Women Grow.

“I am committed to educating our community on opportunities and ensuring that we have a voice in the development of this growing industry,” Morón declares. “I decided to expand my business model and practice to include the cannabis industry.”

Operating in any new industry requires careful examination and analysis. The highly regulated, risky, and still controversial cannabis industry is no exception. However, opportunities abound from cultivation to the consumption for those willing to invest the time and resources to achieve its mush anticipated high rewards. As one expert said recently, “the cream is coming to the top.”

The hope is that Blacks will be a substantial part of the cream.

(Fritz-Earle McLymont is a co-founder of the National Minority Business Council Inc., managing partner of the international business development strategists McLymont Kunda & Co., and CEO of Brittonearth Energy Inc. He covered the June 2016 Cannabis Expo for The Network Journal, and frequently attends the Women Grow monthly events in New York City.)