Not long ago, the cannabis industry could take pride in the higher-than-usual percentage of C-suite positions occupied by women, with roughly 1-in-3 of these posts held by a woman. This number plummeted in just a couple of years, however, dropping from 36 percent in 2015 to 27 percent in 2017, according to a Marijuana Business Daily survey.
A recent Dope Magazine article looked into the causes of this and identified three main drivers behind the trend:
Deeply rooted social conceptions related to C-suite positions being better handled by men.
The migration of male executives from male-dominated industries into cannabis.
The fact that funding favors male-founded businesses.
Fortunately, many of the women who are in positions of power within the cannabis industry are fighting back, fiercely seeking to advance female representation in the industry. In an attempt to honor them, Benzinga is highlighting 20 women set to dominate the international cannabis space in 2019.
Establishing a fixed set of criteria wasn't easy. After experimenting with a few points-based systems, we decided to simply explain why each of the women on this list deserves to be on it.
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1. Dr. Raquel Peyraube
Most people in the North American cannabis industry focus almost solely on the U.S. and Canada. Seeking to take a different approach, the first woman on our list is Uruguay's Dr. Raquel Peyraube, an icon in Spanish-speaking countries.
Peyraube is a Uruguayan doctor who specializes in the endocannabinology and drug fields. She is founder and president of the Uruguayan Society of Endocannabinology, a board member of the International Association for Cannabinoid Medicines and a member of the International Cannabinoids Research Society. She also advises drug- and cannabis-related government organizations around the globe.
Peyraube is also a member of a group of experts working on public health recommendations for cannabis regulation coordinated by the O’Neill Institute at Georgetown University and the Washington Office for Latin America; and an active lecturer at many universities and governmental events.
When asked about the role of women in the cannabis industry, Peyraube told Benzinga:
“The participation of women in the legalization of cannabis and the development of the industry can give this story a differentiating twist: we may see more sensitive and humane policies that effectively take into account the ethical principles of public health and a less aggressive industry and business.”
2. Giadha Aguirre de Carcer
Giadha Aguirre de Carcer is founder and CEO of New Frontier Data, a leading cannabis data and analytics provider with information on more than 80 countries around the world.
Prior to joining the cannabis industry, Aguirre de Carcer worked in investment baking and advising and launched and operated several other successful data-driven businesses. Fluent in five languages, she earned an associate arts degree from Miami Dade Community College, a bachelor's degree in international relations and trade from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's in international security from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
“Many women entered the cannabis industry early on as we found ourselves with an opportunity to enter a marketplace without a glass ceiling or a ‘box’ to fit into — a true clean canvas where we could have a greater impact, faster than in other male-dominated sectors," Aguirre de Carcer told Benzinga.
"The challenge now lies in staying on top of the industry as the perceived risk to entry has decreased, and competitive pressure, especially from largely male new entrants, are more heightened than ever."
Disclosure: New Frontier Data is a Benzinga content partner.
3. Jessica Billingsley
Jessica Billingsley is set to become the first female CEO at a Nasdaq-traded cannabis company.
Billingsley is the CEO and co-founder of MJ Freeway, a cannabis technology company credited for inventing the seed-to-sale system that is now standard in the marijuana space. MJFreeway recently merged with MTech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: MTEC). The new public company will be renamed Akerna once the merger is complete.
Prior to MJ Freeway, Billingsley served as CEO and founder of Zoco, a technology services firm with clients across the U.S. She is featured on Inc. Magazine’s 2018 100 Female Founders list and holds a communications and computer science degree from the University of Georgia.
“The role of every individual in the coming future is to propel the industry forward and further contribute to its maturation and innovation. However, from a personal perspective, I believe women should examine how we can support each other in meaningful ways, regardless of the size of the gesture. That’s how change is magnified and sustained, as well as the key to empowerment,” Billingsley told Benzinga.
4. Tahira Rehmatullah
Tahira Rehmatullah was one of the guests on our show “Wonder Women of Weed” in 2018. She serves as chief financial officer at MTech Acquisition Corp., the Nasdaq-listed special-purpose acquisition company that recently announced the aforementioned merger with MJ Freeway.
Rehmatullah was previously a managing director at Hypur Ventures, where she managed portfolio companies and investment sourcing. She previously served on the board of Dope Media, a cannabis media company and portfolio company of Hypur Ventures.
The cannabis exec's resume also includes time as an investment manager at Privateer Holdings, which led to her serving as the general manager for Marley Natural, where she was responsible for the brand's launch and overseeing day-to-day operations. Her career began in Ernst & Young’s financial services advisory practice.
Rehmatullah earned her MBA from the Yale School of Management, where she was a Yale Entrepreneurial Institute Venture Creation Advisor. She holds a B.S. in finance and life sciences from Ohio State University, where she graduated magna cum laude and was a presidential scholar.
“Many women and minorities know how it feels to not be represented in a certain field of work, and I think we increasingly see that in cannabis. Because of that, we have to be the example that we wish we had. We have to be the role model for someone else, and through that, we can pay it forward and create lasting impact,” she told Benzinga.
5. Sara Gullickson
Sara Gullickson is another leading exec featured in our "Wonder Women of Weed" series.
Gullickson is the CEO of Item 9 Labs Corp (OTC: INLB), which specializes in the development and manufacturing of innovative cannabis products and proprietary delivery platforms. Along with her role at Item 9 Labs, Gullickson is the owner of Strive Wellness of Nevada, a 20,000-square-foot medical cannabis cultivation and processing facility, and the dispensary Strive Life of North Dakota.
Gullickson previously served as CEO and founder of Dispensary Permits, an international cannabis consulting firm that she established in 2010 at age 26. Dispensary Permits secured cannabis licenses across more than a dozen state markets and five countries. In 2018, Dispensary Permits and its assets were acquired by Item 9 Labs.
Commenting on female leadership, Gullickson said: “The female point of view is often undermined or undervalued. Sometimes, I think it is easy for women to operate behind the scenes because we wear so many hats in our day-to-day lives. However, we are needed at all of the big decision tables. Our approach is equally relevant and essential to the longevity of a project. Moving forward, it should be a priority to blend both the masculine and feminine perspective, not emphasize one over the other.”
6. Beth Stavola
Beth Stavola is the chief operating officer, president of U.S. operations and a board member at MPX Bioceutical Corp (OTC: MPXEF), a diversified cannabis company focused on the medical and adult use cannabis markets that recently announced plans to merge with iAnthus Capital Holdings Inc (OTC: ITHUF) in one of the largest deals in cannabis history.
Stavola holds the honor of being named as one of the leading medical cannabis entrepreneurs on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2014 by Congresswoman Dina Titus. She holds a bachelor's in finance and economics from Monmouth University and spent most of her career prior to cannabis on Wall Street at Jefferies.
“In the male-dominated cannabis industry, it’s refreshing to have women represented in C-suite positions, and I try to promote that wherever I can. If I’m able to help patients while elevating women in business, that’s my life’s passion brought to fruition,” Stavola told Benzinga.
7. Emily Paxhia
As the co-founder and managing partner of what is often considered the first long-short, cannabis-focused hedge fund in the world, Poseidon Asset Management, Emily Paxhia plays a multifaceted role in the cannabis industry and works as a board member, advisor and public speaker.
Paxhia helps to shape founders' pitch preparations and go-to-market strategies and product launches and advises on day-to-day business operations. She has dedicated time and energy to supporting policy groups and served on the Marijuana Policy Project's board. She also serves on Athletes for CARE's board.
With over 10 years of experience working as a consultant and researcher, Paxhia has become an expert at extracting actionable insights from research and applying them to make corporations function more efficiently and successfully. She also leverages this experience to engage in detailed market analysis for product-market fit and potential scalability.
She graduated from New York University with a master's in psychology in 2008 and from Skidmore College with a bachelor's in psychology in 2002.
When asked about the role of women in the industry, Paxhia told Benzinga:
“There are many dedicated and thoughtful women in cannabis and scores of talented women in other sectors who have valuable knowledge and experience to lend to the industry. I am excited about the potential to see women pivot into cannabis to help to build diverse and strategic teams. Women the world over should feel invited to participate in the shaping of an industry that's still very much in a malleable and impressionable stage. I also hold tremendous respect for my fellow male founders and executives in this industry. As visionaries to see cannabis as an opportunity, I have an expectation that they will (and should) see the wisdom in diverse hiring practices across their organizations.”
8. Mara Gordon
Ah, science ... something many of us don’t fully understand. Thank goodness there’s Mara Gordon.
Gordon specializes in the development of cannabis treatment protocols for seriously ill patients and is a global pioneer in medicinal cannabis. She is the chief research officer of GABY and co-founded both its subsidiary The Oil Plant and Aunt Zelda’s. The second business offers a product line with precisely measured potency and purity, allowing patients to dose to the milligramand unlocking the therapeutic potential of cannabis. Gordon is also the co-founder of Calla Spring Wellness and Zelda Therapeutics.
Previously, Gordon worked as a process engineer, helping Fortune 500 companies create intelligent software utilizing the Rational Unified Process. This experience has enabled her to take a detailed and scientific approach to medical cannabis. Her pioneering work in the field of medical cannabis was recently chronicled in the documentary “Weed the People” as well as “Mary Janes: Women of Weed.”
“The women of cannabis are the scientists, farmers, accountants, heavy equipment manufacturers and patients — you name it — that fill my professional and personal Rolodex. We have achieved excellence — and support one another in a way that I’ve witnessed nowhere else. If only the men who control most funding would see this as clearly,” she told Benzinga.
9. Cynthia Salarizadeh
Driving the news and setting the media agenda is not a trivial job. But this is what Cynthia Salarizadeh does almost every day.
Salarizadeh is a managing partner at KCSA Strategic Communications; the founder of newswire and entrepreneur tech suite Axiswire; the founder of the luxury brand House of Saka, which produces the world’s first cannabis-infused still and sparkling rose in Napa Valley; the co-founder of Green Market Media, parent to cannabis finance news publication Green Market Report; and co-founder of Industry Power Women.
In 2018, she was named one of the “100 Women in High Places” by High Times Magazine and featured on Dope Magazine as one of the “Outstanding Women Operating in Cannabis.” She received her degree from the University of Pennsylvania, a certificate in political journalism from Georgetown and researched with the Department of Defense at the National Defense University.
“The cannabis industry has provided a rare opportunity for women founders, CEOs and leadership. We were awarded a level playing field to make an impact in an industry without discrimination from the start, and collectively, we each took full advantage," Salarizadeh told Benzinga.
"However, that window has almost closed completely and our competitive advantage is almost gone, as institutional capital and the talent that was formerly restricted moves in. Now, women have to work harder than ever, and together with one another, to keep a hold on the percentage of ownership and leadership that we were able to build."
10. Jessica VerSteeg
While 2018 wasn't the easiest year for Jessica VerSteeg’s main cannabis enterprise ParagonCoin — the SEC went after it late in the year for failing to appropriately register the ICO — it’s also important to acknowledge the weight this woman carries.
VerSteeg is not only a cannabis entrepreneur, but also a disruptor of the cannabis, blockchain and cryptocurrency realm, as her ICO becomes the first compliant security token in the U.S. following a settlement with the SEC.
Prior to getting into cannabis, Jessica had a successful career as a fashion and print model for 10 years. After losing a loved one to an accidental painkiller overdose, she decided to dedicate her life to changing the perception of cannabis as an alternative medicine.
VerSteeg founded AuBox, an upscale medical marijuana delivery service that provided subscribers with a curated box of cannabis products on a monthly basis. After experiencing the lack of information available from seed to sale firsthand, she set out to develop a blockchain solution, which led to the start of Paragon in 2017.
Additionally, VerSteeg opened ParagonSpace, a co-working space for the cannabis industry which offers members operational support and guidance to help navigate the difficulties entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry face.
“The role of women in the cannabis space should be and will be just as important as a man's role in the space. Basic logic would say that any company or brand wanting to make products for both men and women would need both men and women to review the products in order to optimize the customer experience for both men and women by creating products that appeal to both of them," VerSteeg told Benzinga.
“This is a brand new legal market, but is it not a brand new industry, so while the industry may have been filled with more men because of the circumstances, that will be changing. Moving forward, the industry is starting to move past the idea that it belongs to men and is coming to terms with the new reality within the new legal industry where women are seen as equals.”
11. Dr. Chanda Macias
Chanda Macias took over as chairwoman of the networking organization Women Grow last year. She's also CEO and owner of the National Holistic Healing Center in Washington, D.C.
Macias has spent more than 15 years developing knowledge of how medical marijuana impacts patients. At Women Grow, Macias educates women, minority entrepreneurs and patients through her outreach platform with a national educational reach impacting over 50,000 people and patients. She is a member of Americans for Safe Access and fulfills numerous other roles in cannabis-related associations.
Macias holds a doctorate in cellular biology from Howard University and has extensively studied cancer, leading her to develop a model that helps understand how prostate cancer metastasizes to the bones. She earned her MBA from Rutgers University with a focus on supply chain management.
As a research scientist, Macias investigated oral diseases and possible treatment options at Colgate-Palmolive Company (NYSE: CL).
"Women have played an instrumental role in pushing the needle forward in cannabis,” she told Benzinga. “Our contributions and purchasing power have transformed the industry and are determining factors regarding the caliber of products and services that are now brought to market. So when asked what role do women play in this industry, [I say] we are the decision markers who are creating a better cannabis industry.”
12. Jodie Emery
Jodie Emery's name is synonymous with “grassroots activism." Another entrepreneur featured in Benzinga’s "Wonder Women of Weed," Jodie is focused on running her new hemp-themed café in Toronto, Jodie’s Joint.
Before becoming an entrepreneur, Emery was well-known for her cannabis and civil rights activism. She ran for office in Canada on more than one occasion, served as the editor for the groundbreaking magazine Cannabis Culture and has a web-based channel, Pot TV.
Emery, 34, is a real weed warrior, committed to civil liberties and safe access to medicine.
“What we have to remember is that women are so powerful when it comes to politics and commerce, because women do a lot of the spending and they also very much have power as mothers,” she told Benzinga last year, giving the example of alcohol prohibition, which “came into place because women were so vehemently against it. Whatever cause or movement women get behind will be very powerful," she said.
“We are loud and we are passionate, especially because we have been quiet for so long in our history. We are now ready to roar, and that’s happening a lot right now.”
13. Dr. Cristina Sanchez, OEDCM
Across the pond in Spain is Dr. Cristina Sanchez, an associate professor in biochemistry and molecular biology and vice-dean of research of the school of biology at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. For roughly 20 years, Dr. Sanchez has focused on studying cannabinoid signaling in the oncological context. Her scientific goal is to understand how cannabinoids produce antitumor responses and to transfer this information into the clinical setting.
Sanchez served as the scientific secretary for the Spanish Society for Cannabinoid Research, where she remains on the board of directors. She is also one of the founding members and the secretary of the Spanish Observatory on Medicinal Cannabis, a nonprofit organization aimed at promoting the regulation of medicinal cannabis in Spain; and a member of Zelda Therapeutics’ medical advisory board.
“Women are starting to become more visible and more important in all fields in our society, and cannabis is not an exception,” she told Benzinga. “In the preclinical research field, which is the one I belong to, the contribution of female Ph.D students, professors and researchers ... is absolutely crucial. The same applies to doctors guiding patients in the medical use of cannabis and to cannabis entrepreneurs that put the patients' well-being as their priority. To me, however, the most admirable women in the space are the mothers of sick kids that are fighting to have access to these therapeutic options. Their courage has been pivotal for the implementation of medicinal cannabis programs in many countries. Their courage has changed laws.”
14. Shaleen Title
Among state regulators, there’s probably no woman as notable as Shaleen Title, commissioner at the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. Often recognized among the most powerful women in Boston, she’s received numerous awards for her cannabis and social justice advocacy.
Before her appointment at the commission, Title co-authored the Massachusetts marijuana legalization referendum and consulted on cannabis regulations across the country. She is also among the founding board members of the Minority Cannabis Business Association and served on the national boards of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Marijuana Majority, the Cannabis Law and Family Alliance and the National Lawyers Guild. Title holds business, law and master's degrees from the University of Illinois.
“Given the false and sexist way that women were used as objects in the reefer madness era, it’s incumbent on us to speak up now and be honest about cannabis. Women have an important role to play in reducing the unnecessary, racism- and sexism-rooted stigma around cannabis,” she told Benzinga.
15. People’s Choice Award: Karson Humiston
Maybe Karson Humiston is so popular in the cannabis community because she’s helped a lot of people find jobs. Maybe she’s just impressive as an entrepreneur or as a person. No matter the reason, one thing is clear: a lot of women in the cannabis industry support Humiston view her as a businesswoman to watch in 2019.
Humiston is the founder and CEO of the largest staffing and recruiting agency in the cannabis industry, Vangst. After being turned away by career services at St. Lawrence University for inquiring about careers in the cannabis industry, Humiston decided to create a company that helps people secure careers in the fast-emerging industry.
Humiston, 26, now leads a team of over 70 people who have filled more than 7,000 positions to date. Recently, she and her team at Vangst launched Vangst GIGS, which they define as “a ‘Task Rabbit’ for cannabis that is mobile-friendly and gives candidates instant access to on-demand gigs."
“As a relatively new industry, cannabis offers so much opportunity for women to come in and make their own way — creating businesses, products and focusing on issues or causes they are passionate about,” she told Benzinga.
“Whether it’s creating a product to help someone with a medical condition, helping each other’s businesses thrive, or bringing the latest in tech innovation to the industry, ladies in the space are making a real difference and lasting impact. As the industry continues to expand, so too will the role of women as leaders in the space.”
As we went over our original nominees and those proposed by our readers, we came across a dazzling number of outstanding women in the cannabis space. This led us to add a section of honorable mentions, featuring exceptional women that came onto our radar in the last year; women who decided to go the independent or entrepreneurial route; and women who achieved great things despite their young age.
Entrepreneurship: Amy Margolis
Amy Margolis is a 17-year practicing attorney and founder of The Initiative, the world’s first business accelerator established to help female-founded cannabis businesses succeed and access funding.
Margolis advises businesses and investors on the deployment of capital, multijurisdictional growth, public offerings and all stages of business and corporate development. She's also founder of the Oregon Cannabis Association, one of the largest state cannabis trade groups in the U.S., and The Commune, a 4,000-square-foot event, office and boardroom space in Portland — the first cannabis-friendly gathering space of its kind. Margolis assisted several states with the rollout of adult-use cannabis legalization, testified at the Canadian Senate, and consults abroad with leaders shaping international cannabis laws.
Cuisine: Danielle Russell a.k.a. 'Deliciously Dee'
Danielle Russell, a.k.a. “Edible Dee” is the author of the cannabis cookbook "The Happy Chef," released in partnership with Cypress Hill’s B-Real. She has been featured on Neflix (NASDAQ: NFLX)’s original "Cooking On High," BREAL.TV, Snoop Dogg’s MERRYJANE and in High Times Magazine. Russell's edibles were the first to be distributed in Las Vegas. In addition, She is now consulting on brands in California, Nevada, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Costa Rica. Keep an eye out for her show in 2019.
Entertainment: Karen & Wendy Of 'The Marijuana Show'
Wendy Robbins and Karen Paull created "The Marijuana Show," often dubbed the “Shark Tank for the cannabis industry,” in 2014. The show, now in preproduction for season four, is seen by millions on Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN)’s Prime Video. In it, the two women coach contestants on how to pitch investors and support the ventures of the top contenders.
Robbins and Paull are serial ganjaprenreurs. They've created several companies, including Club Hemp, a recent joint venture with two of the show’s former contestants. Robbins is also a bestselling writer, author of the book “Why Marry a Millionaire? Just Be One!” and co-starred with Kelly Ripa on Discovery's "Homemade Millionaire" series.
Science: Samantha Watt
Samantha Watt, 27, was one of the first scientific team members of Canadian biotech company Avicanna. She now serves as the company's vice president of scientific affairs and has been involved in the development of several product lines that are in different stages of clinical trials.
Samantha has been published on several occasions and has led various conferences and presentations related to plant gene manipulation and cloning. She holds a degree in molecular biology and genetics and a master's in molecular and cellular biology from the University of Guelph.
Media: Debra Borchardt
Debra Borchardt is the co-founder and CEO of the cannabis financial news website Green Market Report, which debut in the second half of 2017, and a co-founder of the cannabis women’s executive networking group Industry Power Women.
Borchardt was covering the cannabis industry long before that, as she recognized early on that the legalization story would be the biggest business news item of the decade. As a senior producer and reporter at TheStreet.com, Borchardt was awarded by the American Society of Business Publication Editors in 2014 for best news video for “Guess Where People Want To Buy Pot.”
Borchardt began her career in the securities industry, serving as a vice president at Bear Stearns. She left Wall Street to earn a master's in business and economic reporting from New York University. At that point, she embarked on a career as a financial journalist and spent eight years at TheStreet, Inc. (NASDAQ: TST).
Keep an eye out for Borchardt's upcoming projects in 2019 as she prepares to launch Hemp Market Report and host the Green Market Summit in New York City and a Chicago summit.
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