A woman’s world

During the first week of February, 1,300 women working in cannabis gathered at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver as the industry positions to be the first billion dollar industry led by women.

Modern feminism boils down to two main angles. The first is a movement driven by equality: equal pay, equal representation, equal access to power and position. The second seeks to elevate the status of roles commonly perceived as feminine, recognizing the value of caretaking in society and increased social stature.

Women who attempt to achieve both know how difficult that feat can be because achieving one tends to preclude the other. Either women step into traditionally male positions that are more demanding on their time and energy or they commit to more nurturing roles that disassociate them from money and power. Even if a woman is willing to go for it all, her efforts are likely stymied by an inflexible society that struggles to accommodate shifting gender roles.

The macro picture echos these individual struggles. No major industry in the U.S. is led by women, and no caretaking industry is even close to challenging the power or money in those typified by men. But, according to insiders, cannabis is poised to do both. Last week 1,300 women gathered at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver to celebrate and stoke that momentum at the second annual Women Grow Leadership Summit.

“This may be the first billion-dollar industry not dominated by men,” Sheri Orlowitz, founder of D.C.- based investing company Artemis, says to the theater full of women cannabis entrepreneurs. “But I want it to be the first billion-dollar industry led by women. We are not here to emulate men, our job is to lead like women.”

The data to verify this claim is hard to track down, mostly because the cannabis industry is still too young and irregular to know almost anything for sure. Nonetheless, pretty much everyone at the Women Grow Leadership Summit endorsed the claim. Sure, there are certain areas of the industry that are dominated by men; anecdotally women are underrepresented in the grow side of operations. Overall, women appear to be on par to lead the industry.

What makes this so remarkable is just how big and how explosive the cannabis industry is. A recent study by ArcView and New Frontier values the 2015 legal cannabis market at $5.4 billion and predicts that it will bring in $21.8 billion in annual revenue by 2020, making it one of the fastest growing markets in the country. That kind of rapid growth attracts a lot of capital and attention, and women are well-positioned to be the ones getting that money and leading that growth.

It is possible that this will change. The industry is so young that it is tenuous to use its demographic track record as an indication of its future, but the women at the core of the industry don’t think that is likely because women are emerging as more than just business leaders; they are playing crucial roles in the normalization of cannabis. Mothers, nurses, hostesses, community organizers and other roles traditionally perceived as feminine are helping to overcome decades of anti-marijuana propaganda and prejudice, crucial to the markets continued growth.

Boulder businesswoman Kendall Norris, founder and owner of Mason Jar Event Groups, is growing a successful cannabis event company. Her new business throws lavish parties for the A-list of the Colorado cannabis industry, and she has found social status therein, one never available to her in all her years of working in event planning for big corporations.

“I spent nearly my whole career in hospitality,” Norris says. “It is interesting for me to see that the hospitality space is predominantly women — in my experience it is probably 80 to 90 percent women at hospitality conferences and in hospitality careers. The interesting thing is that in the hospitality world it is hard to make a decent living. You can certainly make a living, but they tend to be lower paying jobs, even director positions.”

Norris is an example of a woman who is not only leading a business but proving the social value of hospitality. The mission of her company is not to make money or gains in equality for women — although she is doing both — it is to normalize cannabis use.

And as she does this, she is also seizing that opportunity to make money rather than providing the service for free.

Norris charges a lot of money to attend her events, just like Women Grow charges women to become a part of its community or attend its conferences, and charges even more to businesses who want access to that network. Putting a price tag on something society is used to getting for free comes with pushback and many people in the cannabis world like to chastise the cost that now comes with culture. Women Grow acknowledges that viewpoint and their retort couldn’t be more on message.

“Women Grow is proof that you can be purpose-driven and still be make a difference,” says Jazmin Hupp, CEO and co-founder of Women Grow. “There is a reason we are for-profit. It is time to stop being nonprofit angels and start being women who work for money.”

There is cause for some celebration as the cannabis industry is on track to do what has never been done before, to build a billion dollar industry led by women that simultaneously elevates their cultural roles. While this change might be welcome and celebrated, it can also be uncomfortable. But maybe that is a sign of progress.

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