Women of Cannabiz Tell All at Toronto's LiftExpo
Anyone deeply curious and passionate about cannabis in Canada (and the world) was at Lift & Co.'s Expo May 24-27 in Toronto, and I can tell you: the world hasn't seen anything like this before.
Never in history has a cannabis gathering invited everyone from those wearing Hawaiian shirts and weed paraphernalia to professionals and investors in thousand-dollar suits, and put them smack-dab in a startup culture of excitement and innovation.
Industry veterans who've been attending for years say they remember when the conference was just a big room that needed a lot of air freshener and saw a lot of Jamaican flags and Bob Marley apparel.
Despite it being my first time at the conference, I was on a mission. Not just to learn, but to explore how and where women were showing up in this industry. I was on the lookout to profile and peek into women's cannabusinesses and the experiences of women working in cannabis. Because we all want to know what it's like, don't we?
We all want to know if the "grass ceiling" is real in this unconventional industry, how to outgrow it, and what it takes.
I gotchu, girl.
Holly, Marketing Manager at Apollo Applied Research Inc.
Apollo is a medical cannabis research clinic that works with patients to help them understand, source, and consume medical cannabis responsibly through personalized treatments and evidence-based care. Apollo is a strong clinic and research organization with many women in leadership roles (with studies coming out on PTSD , and chronic pain and cannabis).
Why do you think the industry is good for women?
It's innovative by nature, so we have the opportunity to break a bunch of norms: not just those related to cannabis, but gender stereotypes as well. I know a lot of the women in the industry came from other industries and bring their personal, amazing insights to cannabis. We have the opportunity to forge our own path without it being set in stone, so we get to really be autonomous leaders here.
What are you most excited about with Apollo?
One of our research studies (on chronic pain) is in peer-review with a medical journal right now. When that comes out, we'll be able to confidently say X amount of people have been able to reduce the amount of opioids they're on by X amount BECAUSE of medical cannabis and Apollo's methodology. There's a lot of information in the industry, but it's all "may" and "might", so we’re excited to bring a little confirmation to the cannabis table.
Where do you want the industry to be in 5 years?
I'd really like to see the medical and recreational industry separated. Right now everything's very mish-mashed: most people don't even understand the industry in Canada. They don't know that dispensaries are illegal, that you need a prescription to access cannabis, and that the only legal suppliers of cannabis in Canada are Health Canada approved licensed producers.
If you’re looking for cannabis for medical purposes, you wouldn’t go to the OCS, because you wouldn't take medical advice from someone who works at LCBO, right? You're going to want to go to a doctor, get the medical advice you need, and get a personalized treatment plan.
What advice do you have for women getting into the industry?
Be fearless. I'm a firm believer that most people in the industry are just rolling with the punches and don't always know what they're doing because it's so new. The research and understanding of cannabis is constantly evolving, so you don't have to be the most knowledgeable or skilled. You just have to be curious, eager, adaptable, and passionate.
Brandy, Founder at Queens of Cannabis
Queens of Cannabis is a female-owned and -operated dispensary and delivery service in the GTA, which can also help you get a medical prescription (for free). It serves as a social structure for women who have been disabled or chronically ill and can't find traditional forms of employment, and has fundraisers for Sistering and the 519.
What inspired you to get into cannabis?
I worked for the federal government at the time that I was in a severe car accident, which severely damaged my neck and my spine. I went through the pharmaceutical gambit, was on eight pills a day, and was literally foaming on the insides and next to death. Finally, I was retired and found relief when I tried cannabis for the first time. It eased the chronic illness in my stomach. When I started taking cannabis exclusively, all the pharmaceutical's negative side effects went away, and my mental sharpness came back.
I realized I needed to let everyone know that this is actually medication because of the stigma I went through at work. There was no possibility of taking cannabis, especially back in 2008, but this is a healing medicine and I want to help people understand that through my story.
What are you most excited about?
The prospect of craft growers, as well as lounge licensing.
What concerns you?
More government controls on cannabis than on alcohol. Alcohol kills thousands. My friends have died because of drunk drivers, but I've never lost friends to cannabis. I'm concerned that the government is going to take a harsh stance on it when it's not a harsh product.
Ann, Founder at Erbanna
Erbanna creates cute accessories (like stash bags or vape cases) that keep your cannabis discrete while still looking fabulous and fashionable.
How did you get started in cannabis?
I was going to see a comedy show with my friends: we're all professional women in our 50s. We all decided we wanted to imbibe beforehand, and it was ridiculous. We were like teenagers... giggling and laughing... and then everything smelled: the car, our bags. I started to think, "There must be something to help with the smell now that we are starting to legalize.”
So I did a search, but didn't find anything on the internet. Flew to Colorado thinking maybe their stores would have something because they're cutting edge... but still NOTHING.
I thought that if I felt that way, other people must feel that way. There are too many women out there who consume to just leave that on the table.
Then, I started researching how we could make a really pretty bag, (not like a skunk sack which is 100% smell proof), but would have enough liners and zippers that if you have it in your purse or counter, it's not reeking. After that, I just started to create. I then turned to a friend who was familiar with manufacturing and we started. We have no middle men: we're the designers, we're the production, we're the manufacturing, we do it all.
What do you want to see in the industry?
We went from concept to business so quickly, which was incredible, but we wanted to break the current negative stereotypes about the women who consumed. There's so many different types of cannabis consumers: professionals, patients, artists.
I wanted to create a feel-good product for a feel-good product. You made this choice, you feel good about this choice, so you shouldn't be sneaking around with it. You should integrate it into your life in a way that fits, flatters, and helps you feel good about your choices. Because I felt good about MY choice.
Why do you think this industry is great for women to get into?
We make the majority of the care-taking and medical decisions for our families. Understanding the medical benefits of cannabis is big in making that decision - so it's important for women to be informed. But not only that, as businesswomen: it's a new industry and we can step in and have leadership positions, start a company, and be respected.
Cannabis has come from this surfer dude mentality to a respected business, and woman have had and should have a place in that.
Advice for women looking to get in?
There's a lot of really good networking in this industry: more so than I see in any other industry. We do a lot of collaborations. We talk to a lot of people. That sort of social business network is very beneficial here.
Myrna, CEO and Founder at Aqualitas
Aqualitas is a licensed producer from Atlantic Canada, who has a female CEO and majority-female leadership team, cultivates using a green aquaponics system (for less environmental impact), and is one of the few cannabis companies that have National Research Council grants and partnerships with universities. Aqualitas has also won an Innovacorp grant, a CleanTech energy award, and was highlighted by the Washington Institute of Environmental Law as having an excellent, green reputation (in an otherwise energy negative industry).
Why do you think this industry is great for women?
When you look at this industry, in particular from a medical side, and how many decisions are influenced by women either as consumers or caregivers, you start to see how important it is to have a presence in the industry. We're surprised how few women are in executive level positions. We're very proud to be doing that.
Also, if you look at women entrepreneurs, you can bring us to the bank even if we can't get the bank. The risk tolerance, how conservative and frugal women are, and how responsible they are with the money they have? Women historically do a lot with a little.
So I think that this is a really great time to be putting those transferable skills into the work we do in cannabis. So whether it's marketing and branding, or product development, or cultivation: you just have to say you're here and ready to learn. There's some amazing women cultivators in this industry who came from horticulture backgrounds. There's opportunities for women in capital and industry and finance and all the other ancillary markets that are popping up.
If you go to the grassroots communities and talk to the women, especially from the dispensary level, or health and beauty or topical products... the majority of the people I've spoken to who’ve had really great insight have been all women.
What inspired you to get into the industry?
I was a disabilities lawyer for most of my career and worked in the vulnerable services sector. I worked with employers and not-for-profit societies that work with people with intellectual, physical disabilities and also vulnerabilities like homelessness, addictions, spousal abuse, child abuse. From the disabilities side, I saw clients who get great benefits from the use of medical cannabis. I was very inspired by that.
And then, I thought it was a really natural extension to go into this industry. I saw it as an opportunity to bring advocacy to the table.
What are you most excited about?
I see Aqualitas as a real leader on the global stage. We've only had our license since January 2018 and we've had amazing traction in the international market already - Germany and Poland specifically.
When people come into this space and ask, "Which of these are good companies - not just economically, but good values, production standards, ethics, and approach?"
I want Aqualitas to be one of the first three names that come out of anyone's mouth when they talk about cannabis. I want people to say that that's who we are. And we're not a particularly promotional group of people. What I've found is that the best way we've been able to evolve our story is to tell it one person ats a time, exactly as I'm doing it with you right now.
That's been the best approach for us. We don't have the biggest booth or highest banner, but we're slow and steady and good at the core.
Sister Kate, Founder at Sisters of the Valley
Sisters of the Valley are a group of self-proclaimed non-denominational nuns that create CBD salves and tinctures as a spiritual organization built for the empowerment of women. The "order" was started by Sister Kate to erase the negative stigma around cannabis and create jobs for women who believe in its' healing powers. Their order grew from Sister Kate's anarchist activism in the Occupy movement (which began with her saying, "If pizza's a vegetable, I'm a nun.") Now, the order has 13 sisters, is operating in 6 countries, and brought in over $1.1M in its’ third year of operations.
What are you most excited about with the Sisters of the Valley?
Being in Canada and having a growing sisterhood here... because that's where all the grownups live. We have great demand for our product: our big problem is we sell out of everything. Essentially we could go from a a million dollars to $50M if we could just supply it.
Do you have any concerns about the industry?
It concerns me that there's so many people who don't understand that there's non-psychoactive cannabis. It concerns me that regulators are nuts, trying to regulate and tax a plant that they've demonized for 100+ years. It's like suddenly deciding the dandelion plant is heavily taxed - it's insane!
Advice for women?
Just start. Show up. Go to your local 420 club. If you want to learn to grow, hang with the growers. If you want to learn the laws, hang with the lawyers. But there's a 420 activist movement in every place in the planet - and I know that because those are our supporters and they've catapulted us to fame. Without them, nobody would have heard of us.
I tell women, get connected! Cause that's what I did. And don't be afraid to be that gap between the old black market and the new legal market.
Siobhan, CMO at Cannalife
Cannalife Botanicals is a female-owned and -operated health and beauty company that creates whole-plant medicinals and topicals from CBD and THC.
What got you started in cannabis?
I was disabled in a car accident and spent 10 years being put back together after having been a national athlete: a figure skater. I ended up in a wheelchair. During one of my major surgeries here in Toronto, I was having a really hard time with morphine. My doctor saw that I was in physical and emotional crisis, and asked me if I've ever tried cannabis. That was 25 years ago and I've been a cannabis advocate ever since.
What are you excited about with cannalife?
We make full- spectrum, whole plant medicine that uses plant alchemy: cannabis in collaboration with other amazing plants to get the optimal effect for patients. We're clear about what strain we're using, what our ingredients are, and test all of our products in a lab. I'm excited that we're able to help people with pain management in a really holistic way, and about introducing cannabis to the cannacurious and people who may still be fearful.
I'm also really excited about reducing the stigma of stoners and utilizing our brand to help facilitate the positive use of cannabis in a daily, active lifestyle. We collaborate with Flower & Freedom to put together snowshoeing, yoga, and all sorts of other events with them. It's been great to encourage people to use cannabis in their training and their everyday life.
Advice for women?
Reach out! Don't be scared. There are some amazing communities - my new favourite one to follow is #dopeladies. The more we have women like Miss D, Jamie Shaw, Amanda Siebert, and Barinder Rasode... the more women can stand out and be role models. Saying "I'm a mom, I'm a taxpayer, I'm a pretty helpful citizen in society" helps, because the more we can have open conversations about the true consumers, the better off we'll be.
Don't be shy: I'm talking about sexual health on a regular basis... and if you can't love yourself, how are you supposed to love somebody else?
Arina writes copy that gets double-takes for women’s businesses and cannabis brands. She uses persuasive emails and web copy to ensure her clients are always staying top of mind, happy of bank account, and joyful of working together. Pulling from her experience in marketing strategy, content creation, and social media planning, Arina brings her strategically creative background to her clients every day. Learn more at her website, wildgeesecreative.co.