By Blair Lyonev
What would an industry led by women look like? The MJBA Women’s Alliance dares to ask.
Tattooed, buttoned-up, pencil-skirted, dreadlocked, twenty-something-to-seventy-something, wide-eyed, canny, high-octane, high-test, high-heeled, serene, essentially-oiled, blown out, crunchy, sleek, seasoned, demure, loud-mouthed, smart-assed, mothering, laughing, crying, drinking, pot-friendly women.
These are the women who assembled in a hotel conference room in the well-to-do Seattle ‘burb of Bellevue for the Marijuana Business Association’s (MJBA) Women’s Alliance gathering. They came to network and hear from guest speakers Diane Fornbacher – activist, writer and owner of the online magazine Ladybud, and Debbie Whitlock, an entrepreneur and financial coach who specializes in improving cash-flow for women-owned businesses. They, and other MJ luminaries, all spoke on the night’s theme, “The Power to Lead.”
The meeting came just two days after Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C voted to approve sweeping pro-pot initiatives. Shawn DeNae, founder of the Washington Bud Company, and the event’s Mistress of Ceremonies, opened with a meta-note on the evening’s agenda:
“We are pioneers. For the first time in history we are poised to lead an entire industry – and we are doing it with guts, tenacity and tears.”
Her statement summed up the flavor – and fervor – of the palpable collective desire in the room: to claim and capitalize on a brand new industry with a fresh, uniquely feminine brand of leadership.
Helmed by Morgan, the MJBA Women’s Alliance is a trade organization that hosts networking events to “support, educate, and connect” women trying to gain a foothold in the cannabis industry.
As a whole, the fledgling pot industry has had a galvanizing effect on the country: thousands are quitting their jobs and moving to newly legal states, pouring their savings into start-up ‘canna-businesses,’ risking potential jail time, wading through the nitty-gritty of intractable state laws, and riding out moratoriums, hoping that – once though the legislative mire – they will strike green gold.
Besides the allure it holds as a potential economic boon, the nascent MJ industry also represents a kind of hinterland for the enterprising ‘ganga-preneur,’ a place where personal values and ambition might blend to create a more whole, expansive, and human business model. Conversations around legalization inevitably reflect on this as a “historic moment,” one that invites – or even demands – a new ethos in the business sphere.
Guest speaker Debbie Whitlock invoked several pivotal points in female-led activism: the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 for women’s suffrage, the first meeting of the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 for lesbian civil rights, and the inaugural publishing of Ms. Magazine in 1971. She then asked the crowd, “Who here is ready to add your name to that list?”
The cannabis plant, its subtle, once-maligned capacities now in the process of being integrated into the public moral imagination, has become a metaphor of a greater cultural trend towards ‘authentic entrepreneurship’ by women – aka: using one’s natural gifts and powers to make an honest buck.
“Our lives dictate that we must get out of our comfort zones to evolve the species,” noted Diane Fornbacher in her talk. “And the cannabis movement is an excellent vehicle for that.”
As such, women are recognizing the ‘Green Rush’ as not only ripe for profit, but as a new and malleable industry that could be infused with more ‘feminine’ values of cooperation, sustainability, and inclusivity.
“The invitation for women in the cannabis industry is to come together,” Whitlock remarked. “Collaboration is key. There is no reward for soldiering on by yourself.”
Alliance member Aubrey Armes, a Seattle-based Life Coach and Human Resources professional, noted that in most business settings there is “A fear of being totally transparent. It is perceived as a weakness. But in my experience transparency can invest you with a kind of power.
“Inclusivity is simply the capacity to hold space for everyone. You’re allowing for people’s humanity – which means you’re also allowing for their greatness.”
Why Going ‘Small’ Means Big-Picture Gains
Fortune magazine recently revealed that, despite the fact that there are more women CEOs in big Fortune 500 companies now than at any other point in history, women still hold only 5.2 % of the their total number.
However, a report by The Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute, states that women are creating small businesses and new jobs at a rate that surpasses their male counterparts and greatly exceeds their current contribution to U.S. employment. The study forecasts that female-owned small businesses, currently comprising 16% of total U.S. employment, will generate 5 million new jobs in the United States by 2018 – a full third of the 15.3 million new jobs projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Also of note – they are achieving these numbers in large part without the more top-down, paternalistic style long practiced by the male-dominant business establishment. The evening’s first speaker, AC Braddock, CEO of Eden Labs, revealed that her company has grown 400 % in the last year – and has done so with a completely lateral structure.
“There is no hierarchy. Everyone works in teams. Sometimes it’s hard to get people to speak up. But I tell them, ‘I need to hear what you have to say.’”
One attendee, a consultant for a management software company that caters to the cannabis industry, reflected on how women bring invaluable assets to start ups that want to go the distance:
“Women are going to be listeners. We’re leading with passion and empathy, and that makes any business foundation stronger. When people feel protected they offer better ideas and there is more creativity. You can take more risks and the company as a whole evolves faster.”
In fact, these more sentient and relational attributes might provide the first inspiration – and push – to get a business off the ground.
Prior to the founding of Ladybud, Diane Fornbacher worked as a journalist but discovered that her values weren’t necessarily reflected in the publications she wrote for.
“I’m an artist, a feeler, a crier, a spiritual person. That’s where I’m coming from,” she said. “I didn’t see a lot of art, or testimonials in these magazines. There were no families represented, no in-depth journalism. And I was tired of filtering my ideas through other people.”
So she did her own thing. The result? A top ranked women’s lifestyle publication that covers all things cannabis – law, business, food, fashion, wellness – and family.
Some of the hurdles for women taking leadership roles in the cannabis – or any other industry – are internal. For decades women have witnessed and absorbed negative associations with holding power. Because of this, a woman might perceive total ownership and power as being potentially harmful, something that would cause them to neglect or abuse the people they love, to be abandoned should they eclipse their male partner, or be attacked as selfish or domineering – and therefore inherently lacking in ‘femininity.’ As a result, part of their psyche might resist claiming leadership.
“There has been a shift in how we perceive power,” says Debbie Whitlock. “The old male-dominated culture was about ‘power over.’ But for women, we don’t want ‘power over,’ we want ‘power to.’ Power to serve, to create, to move forward, to stay in or leave relationships.
“In all the years I’ve been a financial advisor, I would ask women why they weren’t leaving unhealthy relationships, and they would say, ‘I can’t afford to leave.’ Money made them feel like they were being held hostage. So it’s necessary for other women to stand up and say – it’s ok to have that kind of power, and we need to provide models for it.”
Diane Fornbacher spoke of how her early childhood experiences in an abusive home where she was “Told to be quiet, to not cry and not explain myself,” mirrored her experiences in the adult professional world. But it was these very experiences that provided the impetus for her to become an advocate and leader – someone who now seems hard-wired to kick up a stew.
“We are the redeemers; we’re giving birth to a new industry – reaffirming that we’re here for a reason,” she says. “I didn’t know I was a leader. I just knew that I was pissed off and needed to do something.”
It is this quality of resiliency that many of the women present at the event spoke of as most salient in women’s leadership – as inherently feminine.
“We are excellent problem solvers,” said one attendee, “And start-ups are nothing but problem solving. There’s so much tactical skill in launching, branding, and making a business successful.”
While the more receptive capacities to listen, to connect, to create space for other people’s gifts, to support body, environment, and family-friendly systems in a professional setting are important, it is their resourcefulness, tenacity, and ability to spot opportunity, to follow their instincts and vision – sometimes past prudence – that is the key to women’s success.
“Women are incredibly persistent,” says Whitlock. “We’re crafty. We find ways to keep things moving forward. And when things are going sideways, the bat signal goes up, and the community descends on us with pints of ice cream and glasses of wine! It’s a survival instinct. The cannabis industry is igniting a particular capacity in us. I’m overwhelmed by the passion I’ve seen.”
On the whole, the women offered a horizontal and profoundly engaged vision of leadership for the budding cannabis industry. They are standing on a threshold, a borderland between memory and imagination that could shape its direction and provide a template for other industries.
“What does leadership mean to me?” asked Diane Fornbacher in the conclusion of her talk. “It means agony. It means beauty. It means I fail but I know I tried. It means I’m not making a million bucks. But I can sleep at night.”