10 Women Leaders of the Cannabis Industry Share Lessons on How to Succeed In the Industry
One cannabis founder explains, "It's a long game, and the ones that can withstand the turbulence will win."
The burgeoning cannabis and CBD industry has created many opportunities for women to become leaders in the new industry. Authority Magazine recently ran a series called “Meet the Women Leading The Cannabis Industry.”
We asked women leaders in cannabis to share ideas from their experience about how to thrive and what is needed to create greater gender balance in the industry. Among our interview questions we asked these leaders the following question: As a “cannabis insider,” if you had to advise someone about five non-intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say?
Here are 10 highlights from each leader's answer.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Kayla Clements (Founder and CEO of Luna Volta)
- Exercise flexibility. Move fast and embrace change. This industry is moving at light speed and you have to be nimble in all areas, from banking to merchant accounts to website hosts to packaging.
- Keep up with the changing laws and regulations. This goes with point one but because regulations are constantly changing, you need to know how these will affect where and how you can sell your products. This also is important to know what claims you can and cannot make as a company.
- Invest in education. The first thing I did before launching my company was to get certified in Cannabis Science. As a consumer, I had a lot of questions about the many components of cannabis, and as a brand, there should be, at the very least, a basic understanding of the science. This education prepares you to a. be able to source the right kind of product for your market (Full spectrum vs. Broad Spectrum vs. Isolate and WHY), b. be able to brand it appropriately, an c. be able to confidently share the science.
- Know your motivation. A brand is much more than just a pretty logo; you should no your "why." As someone who has helped craft brand identities for artists and brands, there is a process to building a truly recognizable brand. This includes defining your brand core values, mission, target market, and position all before creating the visual identity. Use these pre-established core values to help guide you.
- Test the market. The market is changing rapidly and it is important to test your product line with real people. See what concerns a consumer has and what products can you develop that are easy for them to understand and use.
Lolita Korneagay (Founder of Cansoom)
- To get media exposure, you need media exposure. I had to do a lot of interviews with very small publications and podcasts before I got the attention of bigger media outlets. It’s as though, bigger media outlets wouldn’t pay attention to me until the smaller media channels “discovered” me.
- To get investors, you need to make money first. For a very small group of people, it’s easy to secure funding with just an idea. But for the majority of founders, you need to prove that you have a viable product or service that makes actual money before you can get someone to invest in your business.
- Give information away for free, eventually people will pay for your prpduct or service. When you have a new product or service, you may have to do a lot of education that explains why your business is necessary. But once people understand your purpose, they’ll pay for your product or service if it solves their problem.
- Do everything yourself until you can’t do everything yourself. This is huge! Don’t hire a bunch of people to do everything for you without first trying to it the tasks yourself. This is beneficial because you’ll learn every aspect of your business first-hand and you’ll understand the value that someone will bring when you are ready to hire staff.
- Results are more important than credentials. Every one of your customers has a problem that you should be able to solve. Depending on the problem, the customer may be more interested in how you are going to solve their problem, rather than checking to see how many certifications you have or what school you went.
Jamie Evans (Founder of The Herb Somm)
- Networking is crucial. I wouldn’t be where I am today without networking. It’s so important to get out there, meet new people, and share your goals of where you aspire to be in this industry. You never know who you might meet or who might be able to help along the way.
- Be an activist. While the cannabis industry has made some fantastic progress, we still have a lot of work to do. If you want to honor this plant and the pioneers who have risked so much before us, be a part of the movement and fight for what you believe in.
- Support others. I’ve always believed that the cannabis industry is unique because, for the most part, this industry supports each other. If you’re thinking of coming into this space, remember that if you help and care for others, they will do the same for you.
- Collaborate. Some of my favorite projects that I’ve worked on have been the collaborations that I’ve done with chefs, edible companies, infused drink businesses, and more. By collaborating, you can work together to create unique programs that attract many different types of consumers. I believe this is the ultimate key to success in this industry.
- Build a community. One of the greatest things about cannabis is it brings people together. To be successful, build your community and cherish it.
Mel Faxon (Co-Founder of b. products)
- Stigmas matter more than you think. In the UK, you’re dealing with stigmas surrounding cannabis still being associated with illegality, general discussion around mental health, and the reluctance to take supplements in general. Overcoming one of those is difficult — tackling all three together is very hard! Get in front of consumers as much as you possibly can as early as you can so you can learn what barriers you need to overcome and help educate against the stigmas.
- Education is key. Going off of my first point, especially as most people still have no idea what CBD even stands for in London, creating content and providing information for consumers to feel fully informed is crucial.
- The culture here in the UK is different. A lot of what you read about in the US is the amazing community coming up around cannabis and how much change has happened in such a short time. We have a long way to go in the UK, and it’s up to founders, especially female founders, to create a network and support each other in the space.
- Network, network, network. Meet with as many people as you can as often as you can and grow your network. You never know what partnerships can come out of a simple LinkedIn introduction or the friend of a friend of a friend.
- Celebrate the small wins. It’s tough to be in this business! The lack of regulation in this relatively nascent industry that few people understand means you’ll have to fight every step of the way. It’s important to stop and congratulate yourself and your team whenever you hit a goal or get a good review. Recognizing the little wins makes dealing with the setbacks more tolerable.
Sarah Mirsini (Founder of MĀSK)
- Gain more experience. The more experience you have, the better you and your business will be. I got a mentor while I was learning, someone who could guide me and give me advice when I was stuck. I believe having a mentor is crucial if you want to grow in life.
- Read. Every article, every book. I spent hours upon hours reading about cannabis, essential oils, how the skin works, the industry. Self-education is a must.
- Talk to people in the industry. Get different views and perspective of things. The way you see one thing, someone else might have a completely different opinion on.
- Learning by doing. Try and fail. This is the only way! No one got successful overnight by knowing everything. Your business may be completely different in a year, and you might end up in a different place from where you started. Expand your mind and go with the flow.
- Attend as many events and networking opportunities as you can. You never know where a conversation can take you. I have met so many interesting people and gotten help from unexpected sources that I didn’t even know that I needed. I try to broaden my connections by not only attending events in this particular industry, but other ones as well.
Melissa Parker (Founder of Reed’s Remedies)
- CBD's legalization is a long way's coming. It will take the government a long time to make CBD truly legal. I started the company under the vague guidelines of the 2014 Farm Bill, which exposed me to risk. I patiently waited for the 2018 Farm Bill that was supposed to clear up the confusion and expand the legal sale of CBD. It only kind of did this and left distribution, banking, marketing, and selling CBD still not clearly legal. The CBD business community is still waiting for protection and clarification.
- Banking and merchant processing struggles will be inevitable. Even though hemp was removed from the controlled substance list, many hemp businesses are left without access to banking and merchant services. We were without merchant services for five months in 2019, and it caused a setback. Our banking is still limited, and fees are high.
- Commit sooner than later. I wish I would have been braver and jumped in the business back in 2015 rather than waiting for almost two years.
- Your friends and family will support you. Coming out of the “cannabis closet” wasn’t easy to do. I was afraid that my conservative friends and acquaintances would judge me or be unsupportive. I quickly realized that this was not the case, and some of my most reserved friends became my most loyal customers.
- Vultures in the cannabis industry exist. This industry has its fair share of charlatans. They pray on new and small business owners knowing that they face many unique challenges. They promise to give services and bring increased revenue. Luckily, I have learned to rely on instinct and never ignore a bad “gut feeling”. This innate skill has kept me from falling victim to these traps.
Whitney Beatty (Founder and CEO of Apothecarry Brands)
- Do your research. First of all the key to being able to be a successful entrepreneur is not necessarily to know everything, but to gain access to the people who can fill your knowledge gaps. In an industry that’s changing as quickly as the cannabis space is that can prove to be very difficult. There’s not long track records, case studies, and standard operating procedures. The rules change on an everyday basis and a lot of people don’t like to share information to keep their competitive advantage. You have to innovate and be nimble. I can’t tell you how many people of told me that they want to come into the cannabis space and become a grower, because that’s the only job that they can think of in the cannabis area. Now I can understand if you spent the last 15 years growing cannabis, but if you’ve never kept a fern alive in your life that is not what you should be quitting your 9-to-5 job to do. You should be looking at the cannabis industry as a whole and figuring out how your skills fit into what we’re doing here. If you’re an accountant please bring your accountant skills to the cannabis industry; if you are a marketer bring your marketing skills to the cannabis space. Don’t decide that because you made a cannabis brownie in 2005 you should start an edibles company.
- Bootstrap. Be small, be scrappy and be nimble. It’s not easy to get investment in the beginning. You need to prove your space. You need to do your homework. You need to build relationships. Bootstrap as much as you physically can to get to a place we are ready to jump to the next level. If that means that you need to be building your business plan on nights and weekends from your regular job do that. Get to a point in time where you have an MVP and some traction. It will show investors that are you’ve done your homework, that you’re invested in this as much as you want them to be, and that you are willing to see that your company has possibilities for the long-haul.
- Do your homework. Read as much as you can and talk to as many people as you can in the industry knows the space you know where cannabis is going to the regulations in your area know what’s legal and illegal know where regulations are heading in your space don’t be a generalist. It’s easy to say “oh, cannabis is gonna be a $50 billion industry," but do you know what the area you're trying to get into is projceted to make? We’re not in the time anymore when you can just say Cannabis and everyone comes running; people have likes and dislikes. Are you pointed towards a flower, extract or edibles market? Do you know the demographics of your ideal customer? The same sort of demographic and market work that is necessary every other industry is necessary here as well, which people tend to forget. You need to make sure that your pitch is on point and error-free. That your business plan is tight and your executive summary shows the value that your company can offer.
- Collect your “no’s” on the way to a yes. Remember that as an entrepreneur in cannabis, hearing "no" is very common. I hear no’s all day — from investors, partners, distributors, customers — I have to get used to hearing "no," and still be able to wake up and the next day and do it all again. And the key to that is to remember I only need one yes. And at the same time, I need to remember that in all of those no’s I don’t need to burn my bridges. Even though it might not be time for that investor to come into your seed round, it may be a time when you’re raising your A Round or your B Round of funding. Building these relationships is important to maintaining your network.
- Know your worth. It’s difficult when you’re getting started and you feel like you’re constantly asking for something: You’re asking investors for money, you’re asking people for their support, you’re asking new partners to take a bet on you, you are asking other entrepreneurs for insight. That is when it’s most important for me to remember that I am also offering all those people something: I’m offering investors a great opportunity to make money, and I'm offering my partners a great brand to align with, offering my customers a fantastic product. It’s important that you know your worth. That’s what keeps your integrity. That’s what keeps you from picking that investment partner. Or do a deal with the bad business partner.
Leslie Apgar MD and Gina Dubbe (Founders of Greenhouse Wellness)
- You will lose friends. Some folks can’t accept cannabis as an alternative healing method, and can’t even agree to disagree because of past beliefs. It has happened to both of us.
- It is harder than any other business. Many dispensary owners saw an opportunity due to the emerging market. But they aren’t necessarily as business savvy as they are cannabis savvy. This makes playing in the sandbox fairly challenging. We are seeing the death of dispensaries due to mismanagement.
- Cannabis is really impactful medicine, impactful in ways that we didn’t anticipate. We have helped our patients as they live and during the sad times as they died. In High Heals, you will read about actual patients whose lives are significantly improved after adding medical cannabis to their regimens.
- Not being able to advertise makes growing a business extremely difficult. Facebook won’t allow you to boost or share much if "cannabis" or any other synonyms are a key word. In fact, the moderators erase your Facebook and Instagram pages if there are any complaints or it comes to their attention. And you lose everything ... your followers and history.
- Get ready to play by someone else’s rules ... not all of which make sense. The Commission in Maryland changes the rules frequently and quickly.
Liz Sprinkle (Founder of Love Always, Liz CBD Oil)
- Brace for impact. Cannabis entrepreneurs are in what I commonly refer to as "the belly of the beast," selling one of the most controversial topics in this country in uncharted waters and it is not for the faint of heart. With no federal road map and a lot of ambiguity, it’s not a matter of "if," it’s a matter of "when" the setbacks will happen. If you have passion and a genuine love for what you do, you will learn to weather and navigate the worst of storms.
- Stay in the know. Always stay up to speed daily on what is happening politically, economically, and in specific industries such as healthcare and banking to not only educate people but prepare for those setbacks. Spin positive information such as new medical research or success stories to bolster your message to your audience and use the negative to prepare for the next storm. For example, I just found out the other day as of June 2020, North Carolina is outlawing smokable hemp flower since it looks and smells exactly like marijuana flower. While this does not specifically impact my business, people will ask me for my opinion on it and I always see it as an opportunity to open up a positive dialogue about cannabis.
- Create a network. Ever since I hopped on this crazy ride, I can’t even begin to describe to you the immense support I feel when I reach out to fellow cannabis entrepreneurs. It’s this movement and common mission that bonds us and whenever I experience a setback, I reach out to my trusted contacts to lament, seek advice, and point me in the right direction. It also helps to know we’re all experiencing the same aches and pains and I’m not alone. There are people that have come before you that are paving a path: take advantage of this.
- Be prepared for limitations. You’d be surprised how much you’re restricted by being a cannabis business and what companies still consider CBD to be a narcotic even though the 2018 Farm Bill removed it from the list of Schedule 1 Drugs. Most large banks won’t let you open a business account, PayPal will put you on a black list if they catch you using their service platform to process payments, and Shopify will allow you to have a CBD website but will not serve as a payment gateway for credit cards. It will take some time for these larger companies and institutions to come around but you still have options which is why creating your own personal cannabis network is crucial to getting the inside scoop.
- Get creative. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram don’t allow you to purchase sponsored advertising, so you have to consistently maintain an organic presence in order to be seen. Trust me, this is a lot harder than it sounds and can be very time consuming, but social media is an incredibly powerful business tool for exposure.
Jill Ellsworth (Founder and CEO of Willow Industries)
- Patience is key. From the outside looking in, the industry seems to be moving like a rocket ship. However, being on the inside, that is typically not the case. Adoption is slow, rules and regulations are constantly changing and evolving, which requires a quick pivot, and legitimacy is slowly taking place. At my core, I am not a patient person, so I’ve had to dig deep to work on being patient and not rush the process. It hasn’t been easy!
- This isn’t a gold rush. A lot of people refer to cannabis as a “gold rush.” Sure, being on the ground floor of an industrial and cultural revolution is exciting and hugely rewarding. But this isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. It seems as though every business is working under tight margins and cannabis is not a cheap crop to produce. It’s a long game and the ones that can withstand the turbulence will win.
- Differentiate yourself. When I launched Willow, there were no companies providing this type of technology or service. Once it caught on that this was a problem in the industry that was not fully being addressed, I have seen many competitors pop up in the market that are no longer in business. Whether it was a “me too” or the tech didn’t work, it is very important to differentiate yourself in a crowded field, especially if you are selling a product. Ask yourself: What makes you better than your competition? What is your competitive advantage? You must find ways to set yourself apart.
- Understand compliance and state specific regulations. Each state has a very different set of cannabis rules and regulations, so it’s imperative you understand how to stay compliant and up-to-date on rules and regs. There are some really good companies out there aggregating all of this info (I particularly like CannaRegs), so build this position into your organization and stay up to date. For instance, we had been operating with no issues in a Midwest state and then suddenly, they changed the regulations and prevented remediation. We immediately addressed this issue, but our customers would have been out of compliance using our tech, which is really concerning.
- Stay positive. This industry is like no other industry I have worked in. While the black market vibe is becoming a thing of the past, there are still remnants of what that looked like. Whether it’s the people or behaviors or business practices, it can feel like you are being defeated on a daily basis. But staying positive and holding true to your core beliefs and mission is the best way to make it through the really hard days.