She Broke Barriers in Tech and Now Runs the Largest International Cannabis Women's Network
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Aliza Sherman has spent her career redefining the norms for women in technology and business at large. The Latina entrepreneur started Cybergrrl, Inc. as the first woman-owned, full-service internet company. She followed by founding Webgrrls International, the first global organization created to help women learn about -- and benefit from -- the internet. She's written 11 books about her experiences, including "cybergrrl! A Woman's Guide to the World Wide Web" and "The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout."
As part of this ongoing series, Sherman shared her advice, tips and insights as a cannabis entrepreneur out there doing business battle on a daily business. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
What brought you into the cannabis industry?
I initially began researching the cannabis industry as a way to expand my digital marketing business when I saw cannabis companies struggling to promote their products and services. The more I learned about cannabis -- especially the reasons why cannabis was banned in the first place and how I spent decades believing false information about the plant -- I discovered it could be personally beneficial to me for health and wellness reasons.
The more I immersed myself in the cannabis industry, the more I saw direct parallels to my years in the tech industry dating back to the early 1990s. Pioneering a new business within an emerging industry felt familiar to me, so I dove in and began producing content and building a community for women focused on cannabis for health and wellness.
Ellementa is an international network that is the bridge between cannabis, CBD and wellness companies and the women they want to reach: 35-plus who are seeking health and medicine alternatives to address a myriad of conditions. The company is run by three women formerly from the tech industry: Melissa Pierce, Ashley Kingsley and me.
Ellementa was born out of the belief that women would be instrumental in changing the conversations around cannabis. Women make the majority of the healthcare decisions and purchases in U.S. households, so they not only hold the key to their own care but often are involved in the care of their partners, children and even their parents and circle of friends.
I’ve been marketing products and services to women for years, so marketing cannabis and CBD to women -- particularly knowing they can improve people’s quality of life and even save lives -- makes my move from tech into cannabis incredibly meaningful and gratifying. I know that my business partners, Melissa and Ashley, feel the same.
What obstacles and challenges have you experienced while operating within this industry?
Because I chose to establish an ancillary cannabis business -- meaning we don’t “touch the plant” -- my company has faced fewer obstacles in the industry than those growing, manufacturing and selling cannabis. Our challenges are the basic startup ones: capitalization, growth, scaling.
One cannabis-specific challenge is the stigma and ignorance that makes it challenging to advertise and market cannabis and CBD, particularly on social networks or any media outlet that gets federal funding, like National Public Radio.
How have you overcome these obstacles?
We’re closing our first round of funding to address the growth and scaling issue. What we’re building is global in scope, so we must address the different legal landscapes: locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. We like to say Ellementa is legal anywhere free speech and educating women is legal. Even though we aren’t hampered by restrictive cannabis laws, we need to be aware of what is happening locally to properly inform women about which products they can and cannot obtain or use where they live.
In terms of the limitations of advertising and marketing options, particularly online, we’ve built a multi-pronged digital and offline network through Ellementa to reach women more directly than social media.
As a woman in cannabis, do you believe you're at an advantage or a disadvantage (or both)? Why?
I’ve found the cannabis industry to be incredibly welcoming to women and empowering for women. There’s a strong sentiment of “we’re in this thing together” among many of the cannabis entrepreneurs I know. Collaboration is key to succeeding in this industry.
Having experienced a great deal of sexism through the years in the tech industry, I feel like those barriers are less prevalent in the cannabis industry, although as more of those in power in other industries move into cannabis, I’m concerned they will bring old-school thinking into what currently feels very welcoming and open.
The old attitudes that hold women back in business are powerful and difficult to overcome. I’m hopeful that women -- particularly women of color -- will get a strong foothold in the cannabis industry before old attitudes negatively influence it.
Which of your achievements in this industry are you most proud of?
I love watching a vision become reality. A little over a year ago, I had an “aha!” moment when I realized women could benefit from access to better information about cannabis and CBD and the connections to other women who could bring this knowledge to them.
Since then, I’ve brought two smart women on board to help turn Ellementa into an active network of nearly 40 cities in North America where women organize monthly meetings to bring women, experts and brands together to share information about cannabis and CBD for health and wellness. We’re growing and proving our business model and the value of the network we’re building. We’re making a difference not only in our industry but in women’s lives.
What's your greatest lesson learned?
I’m learning so many lessons every day. More than anything, I’ve learned women are incredibly passionate about improving their lives and the lives of their loved ones. They're eager to connect with the products and services to help them do this. But more important, they are hungry for meaningful communities with like-minded women to engage in some of the most basic of human needs: connecting and belonging.
Which trait do you rely on most when making business decisions? Why is this useful for you?
I rely most on honesty, which leads to transparency. Being truthful and open is the only way to do business -- and the best way to live. Being in the cannabis industry often means facing stigma, ignorance, fear and even some anger from those who do not understand what cannabis is and does.
Operating openly, both within our company and with partners and stakeholders as well as consumers, makes a huge difference when dealing with something as misunderstood and controversial as cannabis. By being completely open, it is easier to build trust. Gaining trust means less friction when transacting business. Our industry needs honesty and transparency to help overcome the limiting misperceptions about what we do and can help us normalize cannabis more quickly.