(Editor’s note: This story is part of a recurring series of commentaries from professionals connected to the cannabis industry. Rosie Mattio is CEO of Mattio Communications in New York City. Emily Paxhia is co-founder and managing partner of Poseidon Asset Management in San Francisco.)
Cannabis is set to become a multibillion-dollar industry that will upend sectors spanning consumer packaged goods, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and wellness.
Unfortunately, the industry’s recent growth spurt has also exposed how mainstream workplace issues are seeping into the space, especially when it comes to gender parity.
A 2021 report published by the National Cannabis Industry Association and The Arcview Group found that only 8% of cannabis CEOs are women, a dismally low figure considering MJBizDaily’s 2019 findings that women represented under 37% of executive positions in the industry.
Even worse, in 2021, the percentage of women who hold executive positions, 22.1%, fell below the average recorded across the larger U.S. business landscape, 29.8%, according to MJBizDaily‘s 2021 report, “Women & Minorities in the Cannabis Industry.”
The problem statement is as clear as day: More women need to be in the room where industry decisions are being made.
Of course, this is easier said than done, especially for women who are still trying to get a foot in the door.
As two female executives who started their businesses in the first inning of the legal industry, we know how difficult it can be to build a network from scratch and identify the right opportunities in this increasingly complex field.
In our own professional experiences over the past decade, we’ve learned that being an open-minded and mission-driven leader will open more doors for you than you might think.
From Rosie’s perspective:
In my experience, one of the most frustrating obstacles women face in this industry happens before we even decide to take the leap.
Despite being 50% of the workforce, women are still criticized for prioritizing our careers, and the judgment only gets worse when you bring a Schedule I substance into the mix.
If you’re serious about pursuing this career path, be prepared to develop thick skin.
That means ignoring 100% of the unsolicited comments about how you choose to pursue your own career.
We all make our choices, and we choose what makes us the most passionate and fulfilled. Remember, we define what balance means in our lives.
For women who are just starting out, my greatest piece of advice is to show up in an intentional way.
Say yes to every opportunity that comes your way and show up early, often and bring something new to contribute.
Business is an exchange of contributions – be perceptive, find out what the outstanding needs are, and use your unique skill set to meet those needs.
Allow your contributions to become your main professional currency and build your personal brand around it.
Once you start making connections, it’s important to remember that the most intimidating opportunities may sometimes open exactly the right doors.
When I first established my cannabis agency, I had a newborn and recently moved to Seattle.
I heard there were cannabis tech meetups happening in the city and knew that was my ticket in.
Most of these events were at dingy bars, but I went to as many meetups as I could, drank the crappy house wine and often just sat at a table alone and listened to the speakers.
At one point, I decided to sponsor an event to get my name out there, which came with an offer to speak.
At the time, I knew very little about the industry and offered the slot to a guy who had already made a name for himself as a tech entrepreneur.
That person was very grateful for the opportunity, and after he gave an incredible talk about the future of data in the industry, we met up to discuss how I could bring my background in tech PR to build his new startup.
That stranger turned out to be Cy Scott, the founder of Leafly and Headset.
My agency has been representing Headset for six years now, and had I talked myself out of going to those initial meetups, I may not have the career I have today.
As a side note, one of the most rewarding, and fortuitous, parts about forging this relationship with Headset was meeting Emily Paxhia, an early investor in the company.
Emily is now one of my closest friends, colleagues, sounding boards and allies in the industry. Don’t overlook the opportunity to meet new friends throughout this journey.
From Emily’s perspective:
As a cannabis investor, I know how competitive it can be to get face time with the right people.
But before you adopt a win-at-all costs mentality, keep in mind that people in this industry can tell when you’re doing things for the wrong reasons.
If you’re trying to break in, be prepared to give in order to give, not to get.
You need to get a high out of putting people together and seeing where people can be synergistic.
The ability to show up for other people ultimately strengthens your own reputation as a trustworthy and reliable peer.
It’s not always about what something will do for me or my business, it’s about being purpose-driven and actually creating rooms for other people to be in.
In an emerging industry such as cannabis, the most valuable currency we have is our reputation.
This means being open to taking meetings with people who are also trying to learn from you, even if you don’t think of yourself as an industry expert quite yet.
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In 2018, I was speaking at an event when a former finance executive named Abner Kurtin kept trying to meet with me.
I was admittedly being a bit difficult to pin down but remembered my personal mantra to always take the meeting, so I agreed to meet him over dinner and started regularly talking about the MSO 2.0 that he wanted to build.
Abner had the vision to learn from the big MSOs who had emerged before and build his own company a bit differently.
A few months later, my company invested in his business, and he asked me to join the board of Ascend Wellness Holdings.
Watching a company grow from a seed of an idea to a $1.6 billion public company in three years exemplifies the importance of saying yes to any opportunity to be in the room.
As we enter the next inning of the regulated industry, it’s more important than ever to always take the meeting and build a peer network you can rely on.
This space is uncharted territory for everyone, and the greatest skill we can hone is how to determine where the opportunity lies in uncertainty.
What can the future of female entrepreneurship look like in cannabis?
As women, we often just have to work harder and smarter than our male counterparts.
So, when we are asked to show up at a dispensary grand opening at 2 a.m. on the Vegas strip, we bring our A-game and come prepared to build new connections.
And when you finally feel like you’ve made it into the room, don’t forget your responsibility to bring other women into the room with you.
Mention their names in conversations with industry stakeholders who are looking for their skills or offer to mentor them if you have the time – only a few minutes could have a tremendous impact on their career path.
We are at the inception of a brand-new industry – one that is fast-paced, hard and exhilarating.
At the same time, we are still fighting the same battle as many of our female peers in other industries and vying for equal representation in the C-suite.
Entering this space early enabled us to build our network and be in the room when it mattered most, but we would not have gotten to this point without our desire to build a truly next-generation industry that welcomes all skills and backgrounds.
It will take time, and plenty of patience, to earn a seat in the room where decisions are being made and concepts are being born.
Your greatest contribution in these rooms will be the insights you’ve gained along the way.
Women in the cannabis industry are writing history in real time, and there is nothing more empowering than watching new female entrepreneurs own their talents in this evolving space.
The previous installment of this series is available here.
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