Women Leaders in Cannabis Face a Turning Point—What We Do Next Matters

One of the reasons I love working in the cannabis industry is its diversity. So many of the entrepreneurs and leaders of these fast-moving companies are people of color and women. Their prominent roles have occurred at a higher rate than in other industries. In fact, approximately 37% of executives in the cannabis industry are female, compared to just 21% of executives when you look at all U.S. businesses, according to a Marijuana Business Daily survey.

It’s encouraging to see a high proportion of women among the players at the top. From starting their own cultivating business or leading the charge at a cannabis dispensary, different faces and a mix of sharply talented people have propelled this industry forward.

Yet it’s troubling to think that positive development could go in the other direction. I sense we are at an inflection point now that the industry is growing so fast, with big money rolling in and the potential for more of the gender imbalance that exists at other industries to take hold. With the power women have earned in the burgeoning cannabis market, we should give them our full support, continue to strive for gender equity, and ensure that the best skills and talents—regardless of gender—stay at the top. To thrive, this growing industry needs to retain a strong mix of diverse voices and skillsets.

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About five years ago, when I first got involved in the cannabis industry, I had no preconceived notions as to who would be participating in it. I thought maybe I’d see the usual suspects I had come to know during my years of working with fast-moving companies around Silicon Valley. I had grown accustomed to seeing an imbalance between genders for most of my working career, from my start as an engineer in aerospace (a very male-dominated sector) through my involvement in high tech operations, marketing and sales, and, now, professional services.

The imbalances other industries have do not currently exist at the same level in cannabis—and that’s to the cannabis companies’ benefit. I’m a firm believer that if the feminine and masculine energy on this planet were more balanced, we would be better off in all kinds of ways. In business, this combination can lead to more thoughtful innovations, smarter strategies, better understanding of what customers want, and improved functioning of business teams. This is what can make a company great.

As I get to know more canna companies, their unique open-mindedness and willingness to work with many different kinds of people stand out—it’s a beautiful thing. In fact, many women have “found their place” in cannabis after moving from senior positions at other industries, bringing their expertise and tremendous skills to what they rightly view as an extraordinary opportunity.

But once the big money starts pouring in, and more (and bigger) investors begin to invest in cannabis companies, the playing field for women leaders is threatening to shift downward.

Cannabis’ Capital Issue

It takes money—and a lot of it—to start a cannabis company. Expect to need hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to get one going. Capital is critical if you want to grow and scale a cannabis business.

Unfortunately, it’s well documented that women have a harder time accessing capital than men. For instance, in 2018, just 2.2% of venture capital went to female founders. That’s close to $3 billion spread among female-founded companies compared to the total $130 billion total in VC funds invested, according to Pitchbook and All Raise figures. We can certainly do better than that.

Even when they do get their hands on much-needed capital, women-owned businesses often get less funding and fewer resources than their male counterparts, according to a Marijuana Business Daily report. As the report says:

“Investors able to provide the amount of funding that cannabis businesses need to get off the ground are, generally speaking, white males. Whether consciously or unconsciously, white male investors tend to fund businesses run and led by people who look like them—putting women and racial minorities at a disadvantage.”

What Is Needed Now

The destiny of female leaders in the cannabis industry is not predetermined—it is still an industry in its initial high growth phase. Just as many companies have come up with new products, new technologies, and new ways of reaching customers in this exciting market, we, too, can be creative in ensuring that this industry doesn’t end up resembling others. Look at this changing tide as an alarm bell to act. Now is the time.

If we can change the conversation—loudly—and look for ways to create more balance, we might be able to achieve true gender equality in our lifetime. Why shouldn’t it happen here, in a rapidly evolving industry that’s already known for not conforming to traditional norms? It’s the perfect moment in a fast-moving industry to forge a new path. But this won’t happen unless everyone changes the conversation and their attitudes.

So, let’s continue to all support women in business. Women, keep boldly moving forward and embrace the opportunities you see. Don’t let anyone take it away. Network with each other and promote each others’ businesses. Share your stories about the successes at the companies you lead. I call on all women in the industry to be outspoken about this issue and not to watch it pass us by, leaving us to scratch our heads wondering how this happened years from now.

As vice president, Maureen Ryan leads the business development functions at Kukuza Associates. She spearheaded Kukuza’s parent company’s (RoseRyan) 2014 entrance into the cannabis marketplace and developed our finance solution to address the common pain points across cannabis companies. Before joining RoseRyan in 2000, Maureen worked in a variety of roles with Nortel Networks, Quantum Corp. and General Dynamics. Maureen holds a BS in aeronautics from San Jose State University and an MBA from San Diego State University.