(Social Justice)

These Women Are Changing The Face Of The Modern Cannabis Entrepreneur

Meet the new leaders in legal weed.

By Prinita Thevarajah
Courtesy of Nikki Fullove/Kristine Condon

Despite its enticing sandalwood scented, millennial pink packaging, the trillion dollar American wellness industry has historically been complicit in the systemic oppression and exploitation of people of color. The burgeoning cannabis industry is no different, particularly for women of color in the cannabis space. The global uprising throughout the pandemic brought with it a renewed perspective about how institutions accumulate power and profit through the labor and ideas of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Whether it is the selling of overpriced turmeric lattes with spices unethically sourced from parts of India, the burning of over harvested white sage, or limiting venture capital for cannabis entrepreneurs of color, the colonization, commodification, and consumption of healing is antithetical to a holistic lifestyle.

With an estimated growth rate of 14%, the marijuana industry grew from $24.6 billion in 2020 to $33.1 billion in 2021. Yet in 2019, according to a report by Marijuana Business Daily, only one in five cannabis businesses were owned by minorities. In an industry dominated by white males, there exists a disparity wherein people of color have been disproportionately targeted by the state for consuming, possessing, and selling cannabis, a ramification of the war on drugs. These same communities have been shut out of the industry with impossibly high economic barriers to entering the business, and most American states bar anyone with a criminal record from participating in the sector. Considering that most of the modern economic system was built around the concept of racial capitalism, it’s not surprising to see that the institution of cannabis is no different.

In order to fully understand the systemic inequalities that exist within the cannabis industry, a gendered perspective must be taken. In 2015, Marijuana Business Daily reported that roughly 36% of all C-Suite positions in the American cannabis industry were occupied by women, well above the global average of 25% or less. However in two years, the number fell from 36% to 27%. The industry is becoming a boys club, not exempt from systemic sexual harassment towards women. Furthermore, a lack of funding for women-led companies has left many women leaving the industry entirely.

For women of color in the cannabis industry, the intersections of race, class, and gender present additional barriers to growth. And as therapeutic consumption of the plant is slowly legalized across America, it is necessary to center those who have fought the hardest to bring weed to the forefront while still not earning equal access to the rapidly expanding market.

Running the pro-liberation, anti-colonial wellness platform Studio Ānanda and being engaged daily with practitioners of alternative healing modalities means that I regularly witness exactly how the heteropatriarchal capitalist system works against individual and collective consciousness. I was honored to speak with women of color in the industry to better understand what diversity in the industry looks like, and how to consciously consume cannabis as a substance that has been steeped in decades of inequality.

Women In Cannabis: The Historical Treatment Of People Of Color

The discussion around equity in the cannabis sector cannot begin without first acknowledging the First Nations people who have been on the forefront of cannabis reform for decades. From ancient Taoists in China to the depiction of Lord Shiva in India, before cannabis was commodified as a substance, Indigenous populations used the plant for its healing properties for centuries, and Indigenous women around the world have paved the road to cannabis reform for decades.

Cheryl Maurice is a Saskatchewan Dene woman and the CEO of Digital Buffalo, a consulting company that helps to train Indigenous peoples within the Canadian cannabis industry. When comparing the medicinal legalization of cannabis in Canada to the commodification of tobacco, another revered Indigenous plant, Maurice alludes to the corporate-washing of cannabis, stressing the difference between the for-profit realm and those who approach the plant with holistic healing intentions. As she explains, “For us as Indigenous people, it’s a living spirit and we talk to it. You have to be in love with it, and grow with it. We have this traditional practice where we do ceremony and we put the seed under our tongue and that seed goes specifically with your DNA. There’s a lot of knowledge from our people that is connected to Mother Earth.”

Yogi Maharaj, the founder of Luv Kush Co — a wellness and lifestyle community reshaping the face of cannabis in Desi communities — emphasizes how her experience as a South Asian woman in the cannabis industry has led her to “reflect more deeply on my history and the fabricated ‘diversity’ of the American workplace.” She continues, stating that, “We’ve been conditioned to deny everything that is a part of our culture: our accents, our food, our ‘cult-ish’ religions,” a colonialist attitude now seeping into the cannabis industry. Maharaj also points to the farce of diversity protocols in the industry, stating that, “We’re hired for ‘diversity’ but our voices are silenced and our work goes unnoticed. We’re encouraged to perform acts of whiteness out of respect for ‘professionalism,’” stressing that her voice often goes unnoticed despite her expertise in the area.

Speaking about the tokenization of people of color (which happens far too often in the cannabis sector) Mary Pryor, co-founder of Cannaclusive, referenced clients who have tried to “use their association with us as a ‘look at our Black friends’ type of play.” Similar to Maharaj, Pryor reveals that her own qualifications have been dismissed in the industry, despite founding one of the most successful marketing and advocacy agencies in the cannabis sector.

Women In Cannabis: Breaking Down Barriers

Since the war on drugs has disproportionately targeted Black and brown communities, that means that people of color in the industry often have to go above and beyond to prove themselves, especially when it comes to accessing capital. It’s even harder for female entrepreneurs in the sector, with investors often overlooking women as potential business leaders.

Kassia Graham of Cannaclusive emphasizes the backlash many women of color feel within corporate cannabis, and not just from white men, but their female peers as well. As she explains, “White men can't uphold these systems of oppression without white women; even if they are oppressing them, too. We want to remind white folks to pass the mic and to stop trying to pick our talented and knowledgeable brains.”

This type of systemic racism unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, extends past the corporate world and can be traced to the center of the North American education system. Pointing to the historical miseducation around cannabis consumption, Sarah Michel, CEO of CannaCultureConnect, feels both “amazed and disappointed in how much knowledge around cannabis and healing has been kept from us” like the endocannabinoid system, the biological system all humans have that processes cannabis. You won’t find any mention of it in the average 7th grade textbook, even in 2021.

Says Michel, “If more people knew that the cannabinoids in weed directly interact with our CB1, CB2 receptors for example, then why need Big Pharma? America has this thing where they villainize anything that goes against capitalist interest. Cannabis is one of those things.”

Hope is not lost for the future of the cannabis industry, however, as it is women of color who are making strides to ensure that equitable structures and systems are firmly in place. Black, Indigenous, and women of color have already fought to call out systemic inequality and racism and spur action to change it in every area of modern life — it only makes sense that the cannabis sector is next.

Women In Cannabis: What Comes Next?

Ensuring equal access in every sector of the cannabis industry is not a shift that will happen overnight, but these women are already taking tangible steps to reshape this industry for 2021 and beyond.

Khadijah Adams, the Chair of the Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Committee of the National Cannabis Industry Association (she also sits on the board of a range of American cannabis collectives committed to diversifying the sector) feels undeterred by the multiple white men who have challenged her credentials throughout her career. Adams began working with the NCIA in 2014 to create foundations that ensure diversity goes beyond representation and is activated “in different realms and all realms of the cannabis space.” She is committed to diversifying the sector through her projects with the NCIA, and is currently putting together workshops for social equity applicants in Arizona that connect entrepreneurs with industry leaders, preparing them for the industry.

Antuanette Gomez, CEO of Canadian sexual health company Pleasure Peaks, is striving to make cannabis a larger part of the women’s health conversation, and hopefully establish a more nuanced approach to healing that will help women (and Black women in particular) get their needs met by the medical community. Combining her experience as a holistic nutritionist and tantra and ganja yoga practitioner, Gomez’s work promotes cannabis as a medicine with exponential sexual health benefits. As she says, “It’s important for us as a brand and a company to educate people on all of the different ways they can heal. One size does not fit all, especially with sexuality and cannabis.”

But the call for cannabis equality extends even beyond the medical and corporate landscapes, to the social facets that continue to shape modern culture, like mainstream media. EstroHaze is one such platform that is providing entertaining and enlightening content for the cannabis community. Understanding the power and responsibility that comes with being a Black woman in this industry, co-founder Sirita Wright explains that, “Our communities deserve to be exposed to all facets of the plant as it has tremendous healing power, along with economic power. Mainstream content has not fully explored the ways in which cannabis is part of one's lifestyle.”

While the cannabis industry is blossoming around the world, it is imperative to take note of who exactly is in charge and how the plant is aiding capitalist agendas. As Lauren Hawkins of Cannaclusive explains, “An ethical future for cannabis exists in an ethical economic future, an ethical political future, an ethical environmental future.” To start, consumers can look to Cannaclusive’s Accountability List, which tracks companies that are committed to promoting racial justice within the industry, since, at the end of the day, the onus for change is on cannabis users everywhere to support companies and founders who are doing the work to establish a more fair and equitable industry for all. “The consumer has to understand the power of their choices,” stresses Cannaclusive’s Mary Pryor. “Shop and support brands that are aware and making changes to give and offer ownership and opportunities to Black, Indigenous and communities of color.”

With these women leading the charge, the future looks bright for the 21st century’s most fledgling industry — as long as impassioned cannabis users, women and men, help to keep it that way.