Meet Four Millennial Women Molding the Future of Cannabis
Legal weed, as told by young women investing skin in the game.
The women of my generation run the world. Or they certainly will in good time.
But do women really run the weed world? And what role can young people take to claim meaningful ownership in this social movement?
The legal cannabis industry has been envisioned as a means of subverting traditional power paradigms while creating new jobs and stimulating the broken economy. Estimated dollar amounts to be reaped from the plant in the coming decades always begin with a “B.”
A future where the legal-cannabis industry emerges as an example of inclusion and diversity is in plain sight. Realistically, this movement could become a business climate where minorities and underdogs, and anyone with enough ambition and charisma, can forge the path to success—with women leading the rush.
From the patio of an 85-year-old Mexican restaurant on the outskirts of Hollywood; over the phone from San Francisco and Denver; and speaking above the hum of construction at a cafe in East L.A.––a panel of millennial women investing skin and earning a living in the weed game, explore and discuss the legal marijuana movement’s complex and politicized past, present and future.
The KIND, in conversation with:
Brittany Confer - Director of Marketing at FORIA, maker of THC-infused sexual wellness and women’s health products. Los Angeles, California.
Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho - Attorney and cannabis activist, co-founder of Supernova, an organization for women of color in the cannabis industry. San Francisco, California.
Lily Catherine Colley -Former Marketing Coordinator for Dixie Brands, Director of Marketing & Operations Kalyx Development. Denver, Colorado.
Amanda Chicago Lewis - National Cannabis and Drugs Reporter, BuzzFeed. Los Angeles, California.
A Brave New World
Brittany Confer: If you can get past the initial fear of working in an industry where the rules are just being written, and realize that you’re paving the way, it can be empowering. I’ve been in this business for two years. And since everything is so new in the legal cannabis industry, my two years of experience is actually very valuable, and an extended period of time to be involved in the space.
Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho: The diverse life experience of the people that are involved is what really drew me to working in this industry. Someone who may not have pursued, or even been interested in pursuing, a high level of academic achievement is able to fully participate and grow a business, and learn about something as complex as cannabis.
Lily Catherine Colley: In my previous career paths, I felt as if I had my place, just not my purpose. Over the past few years, I’ve transitioned from the post-college confusion that everyone goes through, the feeling of: Where do I truly belong and what makes me tick? Personally, I’ve put my name and reputation on the line. After I decided I wanted to enter this space, I made sure to devote many hours each week––no matter what I was doing at the time––to learning about this industry. Where I am now, I’m really figuring out my expertise and ability to be activated in something I’m passionate about.
Brittany Confer: My mother is a pediatrician. She’s totally against cannabis, to this day. She hates my job. To not have her support can be frustrating. But all of the different challenges and scares and excitements have been amazing learning experiences. I have a part in empowering women and advancing female wellness. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better space for me to a part of. Though working in [this industry] isn’t without its faults and struggles. Those pretty much exist every step of the way.
"Mainstream media reports of women dominating the cannabis industry are overblown. And there is still a lot of sexism."
Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho: We hear reports about opportunity for women entering the industry. But entry and retention are two different things. Women entering the space should quickly identify people both inside and outside the industry that will support them. If I hadn’t met other attorneys with experience in the industry when I began working in it, after graduating from law school, I probably would have just applied for an in-house position with one of the tech companies here in the Bay Area. It is very important to create a support system and build a network quickly.
Amanda Chicago Lewis: There are a number of really awesome women in the cannabis industry that are killing it. But it’s definitely not equal. Mainstream media reports of women dominating the cannabis industry are overblown. Which speaks to the divide between the people that actually work in the industry, and those that are just talking around it. It’s definitely not a female-dominated space. And there is still a lot of sexism. What [this misinformation] really goes back to is that it’s very difficult to measure anything in this industry. If somebody puts out some statistic claiming to quantify the number of female executives in cannabis, that number almost certainly will not be correct. The formal data isn’t there. Do these statistics take into account each farmer? Or everyone that is making oil? It’s more of an educated estimate, with a high margin for error. It’s definitely not equal just yet.
Keeping Cannabis in Check
Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho: There are a number of ways to hold the industry accountable. Mandatory reporting on the makeup of cannabis businesses’ staff is one way to work toward this goal. This is very common in highly regulated industries, or in situations involving government contracts. Local jurisdictions are interested to see who is being awarded licenses, who the businesses are employing, and what benefits they’re offering employees.
Lily Catherine Colley: It’s the prerogative of everyone in this industry, particularly brands that are going to be monetizing, to be actively involved in the legalization efforts. The social benefits of cannabis and this movement are what brought me to the industry. We can end a lot of the ridiculous civil rights violations that lead to adverse effects on minorities and minority communities. We can save and repurpose incredible amounts of money for more beneficial means. The collateral sanctions that are triggered from even a marijuana possession charge can ruin lives: Removal from food stamps programs, losing the right to vote in certain states, being unable to adopt a child for a certain amount of time.
Lily Catherine Colley
Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho: Suddenly, everyone is discovering that [the cannabis industry] is not nearly as diverse as we’re often led to believe. We need to focus on all levels of business, and not only the people on the lowest point of the organization chart. Many law firms often talk about being diverse, but fail to hire minorities in leadership roles, or positions with opportunity for growth. The question is: What really works? Part of it comes from early-implemented programming. Also, it has to do with businesses hiring local, hiring women, and hiring people of color––and having some kind of scorecard, or means of accountability.
Cannabis could be one of the driving forces that end our current epidemic of opioid addiction.
Amanda Chicago Lewis: Since a lot of business in this industry is still based on close personal relationships, and because white men tend to want to help other white men, this is a system that can be very difficult to change. Traditional power structures will continue to exist based on “who knows who.” How I see it changing, though, is through legislation: If application fees were lower, and there were no drug-felony restrictions that bar people from participating in legal programs; and once cannabis gets re-scheduled, and banking becomes easier, and loans are made available, and the landscape is just less risky in general––is when, I think, we’ll see more people of color getting involved.
Brittany Confer: Activism takes an army. Nothing is accomplished [of this magnitude] without a lot of people working really hard. This “community effort” is what has gotten the cannabis legalization movement to where it is today, and what will continue to push it forward across the country. Cannabis could be one of the driving forces that end our current epidemic of opioid addiction. The industry can certainly be a place where diversity––women, people of color, minorities, everyone––gets a chance to succeed.
Legal Weed Woes
Amanda Chicago Lewis: These are the three biggest diversity-related issues facing the industry, right? Felony drug restrictions. High application fees. And the lack of banking. Every problem [in the cannabis industry] comes back to banking.
Brittany Confer: Banking is a struggle for every brand in this space, from the top to the bottom. And it shouldn’t be so difficult. It makes it hard to establish trust among consumers.
Tsion ‘Sunshine’ Lencho: There are many barriers to entry. Licensing fees and real estate are expensive. It’s not easy for anyone to get a commercial lease. In San Francisco, to open a dispensary, hopeful entrepreneurs must be willing to pay rent on a location before the city even has a planning commission meeting for the proposed location. I know someone that has been paying for a commercial space for more than a year, and their license is still pending.
"Whether change happens on a federal or state level, or via ballot initiative, there are infinite ways for it to take place."
Amanda Chicago Lewis: The barrier to entry, in terms of basic knowledge as to how the industry actually works, can be rather high. It’s sort of confusing, and there is a lot of euphemistic language specific to the industry that can trip up someone without experience in cannabis. In the past two or three years, a wave of people who smoke either never or only occasionally see this industry as a financial opportunity. A lot of them are going through some mid-life career change, and they want to get involved in cannabis.
Unfortunately they think the way to start that is to go to a conference. And there are so many conferences. But at most conferences, you’ll actually have to do a fair bit of walking around and really know who you’re dealing with to find someone, or a business, who actually touches the cannabis plant.
Brittany Confer: Even the language we use on social media has to differ when we’re trying to reach consumers in different states. In Colorado, I can’t even begin to go into how difficult of a process it was just to get product samples for media. I lived in the state for six weeks during FORIA’s Colorado launch, and I witnessed everyone in the cannabis community and legal industry trying so hard to follow the many rules, and stay compliant. So it will be interesting to see what happens in California this year.
Tsion ‘Sunshine’ Lencho: There are actually two staffing agencies I know of in the space, that are owned by women: THC Staffing Group, which was founded by cannabis activists Shaleen Title and Danielle Schumacher. And Gradujana, which is more akin to LinkedIn, and hopes to connect college graduates to management-level positions in the cannabis industry.
Lily Catherine Colley: Whether change happens on a federal or state level, or via ballot initiative, there are infinite ways for it to take place. From the legal standpoint, things just haven’t been decided yet. Activists and lobby groups and interest groups, and the people working to change the laws, are defining the future in a way that is so exciting, but truly fluid.
Amanda Chicago Lewis: There are so many “X Factors” [in the legalization movement]. I don’t think the Sean Parker-backed initiative is guaranteed to pass. There are a lot of questions as to what is going to happen; so I don’t know if I’m arrogant enough to make straight predictions on the future of the industry.
Amanda Chicago Lewis
Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho: Even if we aren’t seeing racial diversity in the formal economy, we’ll see more people from the informal economy moving into it––to the extent that we pass state and national legislation and regulations that encourage such participation. Right now, you’ll read about how “white” legal weed is, but that will change. Thankfully, most people I speak with in the industry are interested in drafting regulations for everyone to get a piece of the pie.
Amanda Chicago Lewis: If there is any lesson to be learned from the last 20 years in California, it’s the longer you let something fester without regulations, the harder it will be to implement order later on. When each municipality is given the power––as they have been––to add their own regulations, there are many aspects to this industry that states and localities just are not equipped to handle. There is also a huge information gap. Legislators often don’t really know what they’re talking about.
Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho: The intellectual property landscape in this industry will drastically change with new legislation, and legal adult-use markets. We have a tendency to demonize the concept of a “Starbucks of Weed,” though such a model is indicative of a consistent experience [for the consumer] everywhere they go. There is certainly room for that kind of business in this industry.
Brittany Confer: To expand nationally, the laws are confusing and difficult. Essentially, you have to license the brand, marketing materials, and process to new people. They then create the product in that state.
FORIA connected with a group of people in Washington who loved our product, and wanted to help us bring it into Washington, as we did in Colorado. After we hosted them, and had a great weekend of sharing ideas, and had them sign nondisclosure agreements, they returned home and started the project. Anyway, some problems arose. They go dark. A year later, we see a product launch––sexual enhancement oil–– in Washington. They essentially copy-and-pasted our entire brand.
We’ve gotten so much press that a lot of people think we’re bigger than we actually are. But we’ve only been around for two years. We currently sell only two products. We’re still a startup. So it’s discouraging when things such as that happen on the industry side, which is supposed to be part of the larger cannabis community.
Despite all of this, we’re still in a grassroots environment, serving a whole new generation and seeking to reach an entirely new consumer.
Lily Catherine Colley: From a truly business, organizational, high-level: Everything is being done for the first time. People have the opportunity to not be siphoned or pigeonholed into watered-down best practices.
Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho: Cannabis consumer demographics are skewing older. In the past, adult-use cannabis has generally had a following among younger groups of people. Now, as more people are noticing the progress in cannabis innovation––far more people in their thirties or older will explore cannabis as a way to enhance the quality of life. I see cannabis emerging as a means of treatment used in hospice care. As an alternative to opioids, it can get more and more people thinking about how we manage pain.
Amanda Chicago Lewis: I don’t think the face of the cannabis consumer is changing, but perhaps there is just more money now than previously, being put behind reaching a more mainstream consumer. More people have just become more public about it, though some probably still pretty reluctantly. It’s also hard to judge, living in California, where more people are very comfortable with cannabis. When I go back to New York, people are still very much in the cannabis closet.
Brittany Confer: When you have brands and companies entering the space for “the green rush”––the Wall Street people in suits that see it as the next billion-dollar industry––I’m hesitant to reach out to start a relationship. Of course, I have to think with a PR or business mind set. We are a brand, too. But I’m still more interested in serving the greater community, as opposed to the competition.