The cannabis industry has been considered a “haven for female entrepreneurs and members of other marginalized groups” with an “impressive” 36% of female executives in 2015, which has since diminished to a still higher-than-average 27% in 2017, according to a recent survey.
Ashley Picillo first noticed this pattern when she set out to write Breaking The Grass Ceiling, which was initially conceived to showcase the most inspiring women in the cannabis industry, the interviews conducted also showcased similar undertones.
“I really, truly thought this book was going to be a biographical collection to highlight what women have accomplished, and I think it does do that,” Picillo said. “However, I think it’s really interesting that in the last 18 months, at least four or five of the women in the book have had distinctly similar stories of being ousted from things they built.”
“When cannabis started to take off... women had this window where some of the [challenges] that we face when launching businesses – in terms of competitors and the capital they have to bring to the table – were kept at bay because more traditional CEOs had some real concerns about the industry.”
As the cannabis industry becomes more mainstream and less stigmatized, more “traditional” CEOs and entrepreneurs (men) are realizing that this is a highly profitable business, and want in - edging out those who put the work in over the last decade.
“A number of the women explain in their stories that once their businesses reached a certain level, they started to hear from these male investors that they really weren’t equipped to take it to the next level,” says Picillo.
“I certainly understand that businesses reach a point where they need to change into new hands – which I think happens to both men and women when businesses grow beyond their expertise – but the way it’s happening now is much more aggressive, where these women who have done an enormous amount are now being told: ‘Thanks for playing, but your time is up. Let the guys come in and take it over from here.’”
An article published in Bloomberg suggests that there may be several culprits when it comes to the general decline of women in the cannabis industry.
The article notes the high costs required to become licensed, and what makes it even more difficult is that because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, most banks will not provide services, so those entrepreneurs who have more money in the first place, typically male, have an advantage.
And academic research indicates that bigwig investors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley), even when given identical business pitches by male and female entrepreneurs, tend to favor men.
Wanda James, the first black dispensary owner in Colorado, and one of the subjects of Picillo’s book, says it’s a “heartbreaking reality.”
“Nobody cared when the dispensaries owned by the women in Colorado who started this industry were worth $2 million. Nobody cared when they were worth $6 million. Nobody cared when they were worth $10 million. But now that they’re 15- or 20-million dollar companies, a lot of the board members – i.e. men – are saying, ‘you can’t handle it from here on in’,” commented James, who co-owns Simply Pure in Denver.
She hopes that this trend motivates women to push back.
“The issues [inherent to] the cannabis industry – saving babies, helping those who are incarcerated, protecting families, protecting teenagers – are classic women’s issues in an industry that is booming. We should own this.”
It’s not an uncommon idea that the cannabis industry is, in some ways, primed for female leadership and involvement.
The Executive director of Denver’s Marijuana Industry Groups and co-founder of Root Strategies Kristi Kelly notes parallels between the history of cannabis and the history of women and other marginalized groups.
In many cases, women, in particular, tend to come into the cannabis industry equipped with what could be considered the necessary prerequisites, Picillo adds.
These demographic shifts in the cannabis industry may depressing, but Picillo urges women to find power in this new challenge.