Female Leaders in the Cannabis Sector

Stephen Andrews
09 Mar 2022

Compared to other sectors, Cannabis is considered to be a more inclusive industry for women. Being a relatively new industry, Cannabis appears less hampered by male-dominant established business structures, and it has a more significant percentage of women executives. Some sectors within the industry, such as cannabis product labs, even have above 50% of women executives. However, latest insights reveal that the overall representation of female CEOs in the sector has actually reached an all-time low.

Some of the most influential cannabis companies across the U.S. at the moment are led by women. Young women in their twenties also represent one of the most significant growing cohorts of cannabis consumers. 

In a recent interview for Forbes, Kristi Palmer, Cofounder of Kiva Confections acknowledges that "gender disparity is a huge issue in many industries," however, in Palmer's view, Cannabis "feels remarkably balanced." 

Palmer, the leader behind one of the most successful infused edibles brands, says: "In many ways, the industry is still in its infancy. I attribute its inclusiveness to the fact that so many people have fought so hard for more inclusiveness and social equity in the past few decades. While the company [Kiva Confections] has had to deal with a lot of unique challenges being a cannabis business, I'm happy to say that my gender has not been a hindrance. I'm also pleased to share that over the years, I've only witnessed more women entering the space, bringing expertise from other fields, as well as a much-needed perspective and approach to business."

Female leaders have significantly contributed to growing the budding market, which is estimated to hit a value of over $90 billion by 2026. However, even in this period of extraordinary growth, female leadership has dwindled to record lows. According to MjzBizDaily's 2021 Women & Minorities in the Cannabis Industry report, female executives representation is down to 22 percent. Just three years ago, this number was 36.8 percent, above the national average of 30 percent for mainstream businesses. 

The lower number of female leaders in the sector may be temporary. A correction in the balance hopefully follows. Nevertheless, the indications are that Cannabis has become an increasingly attractive territory for established business structures dominated by male CEOs. Question is, can they learn anything from their female counterparts? 

Fighting Different Fronts

Among the top 10 multi-state operators, only Trulieve is led by a female CEO. The Florida-headquartered company became the biggest and most profitable company in Oct. 2021 after completing its acquisition of Harvest Health & Recreation under the leadership of Kim Rivers. 

Rivers is part of Trulieve's founding team. She has mastered Truelieve's "hub" model, which played a vital role in the company's success in scaling in new markets. While Rivers is widely recognized for her business and legal experience, employees also admire her for being a hands-on leader. Exceptional as to solicit feedback from the staff on the ground and galvanize teams to work toward a common goal.

female leaders in the cannabis sector.

Rivers has recently discussed the rise of Trulieve in a podcast. She says:
"We got our start back in 2015 with our first license win the State of Florida. And I have had the pleasure of being not only CEO, but also Chairman of the Board and also Co-Founder and so, I've been along for the ride since we were at 10 employees, and we're just crossed the 9,000-employee threshold. And as I mentioned, we started in Florida and now of course, we're a true multi-state operator with 11 states and over 3.5 million square feet of cultivation and production and well over 160 stores."

Rivers said it's "been quite the journey" to make this achievement, and that "we have taken a bit of a different philosophical approach."

She adds: "We went very deep in Florida and it was very contrary to I guess the time if you will, when crooks were really in a land grab and the most common business plan was to go wide and shallow as opposed to more narrow and deep and we set out to build the company differently. And we wanted to prove out that really to have a total addressable market, you actually had to provide a true access in a market."

Female leaders are not only at the helms of successful cannabis companies, however. In places where low participant rates for women and minorities within the cannabis marketplace persist, its' female entrepreneurs themselves who contribute to closing the glaring gaps. 

One name is Amber Senter from California, whose recent remarks during a cannabis advocate rally at the state capitol echoed deeply across the community. "The craft cannabis industry here in California is in crisis and on the brink of collapse," she said. 

Senter is busy with building an ecosystem that helps equip business owners of color to become self-sufficient industry shareholders. Using her own ventures such as distribution platform MAKR House, SuperNova Women and Equity Works! Incubator, Senter has worked with Oakland lawmakers to activate statewide social equity programs for cannabis businesses. She has also mentored over a hundred aspiring entrepreneurs. 

Another name is Dina Rollman from Green Thumb Industries. The SVP of Government and Regulatory Affairs, Rollman helped develop Green Thumb's License Education Application Program or LEAP. The program supports Illinois applicants and is successfully tackling disparities in minority representation among cannabis businesses. 

A comforting thought is that this list goes on and on. Everywhere you look, you can find names, of women leaders, advocates and fighters who are genuinely invested to create a more inclusive and equal industry. 

Consumer shift 

Beyond female leadership and activism, Cannabis has seen a major shift among its consumers, too. A recent analysis has revealed that year-over-year sales for Gen Z women (those born after 1996) were the fastest-growing cohort for 2020. Headset data suggests that this group climbed remarkably at 151 percent. It's a piece of data that shatters every convention that men were once the most coveted cannabis consumer demographic. A nod that cohorts in the nascent industry are still in their formative years. 

Women also particularly appreciate how the cannabis sector has turned out. Cannabis flower, extracts, edibles, paraphernalia, and other products are nowadays sold in vibrant branded packaging and design. A real detachment from back alley marijuana advertised with offensive and aggressive imagery exploiting women's sexuality. 

As the women cohort among consumers becomes ever more established, it should be made clear that this is another place where future cannabis leaders can source their female power. 

Palmer's words are also encouraging: "Because cannabis is still in infancy, it could easily be dominated by women leaders."

Stephen Andrews