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Will the Cannabis Industry Be the First True Gender Equalizer?

The bias facing women in the business world is very real, but these women think cannabis may be different.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The numbers don't add up. Women make up a majority of the U.S. population (51 percent). They earn almost 60 percent of undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of all master’s degrees. Women also earn 47 percent of all law degrees and 48 percent of all medical degrees.

Heath Korvola | Getty Images

And yet, there are so few women at the top of corporate America.

Among the S&P 500 companies in the financial services industry, women make up 54 percent of the labor force, but only 29 percent hold executive and senior-level positions--and only 2 percent are CEOs. The startup space is abysmal at best for women looking to get ahead. Fifty-seven percent of U.S. startups report that they have no women in the C-suite, and 71 percent have no women on their boards.

Related: Why Finance Would Be Better Off With More Women Leaders

The cannabis industry may be the first to turn this trend around. While others may see tremendous challenges and stigma in the weed business, many women see opportunity.  “Women are used to having to go above and beyond to prove our merit,” says Jen Price, Founder of Potnt, a public relations and marketing agency servicing the cannabis, hemp, and ancillary spaces. “We are determined care-givers, and cannabis has given women the opportunity to apply our professional skills and to make our mark on an emerging industry full of promise.”

Women in Green

Thirty-six percent of cannabis industry executives are female, which may seem small until you realize that the national average for female executives across all industries is only 22 percent. For an industry still in its infancy, there is plenty of time for cannabis to lead the way in gender equality.

“I definitely see a beautiful trend in the cannabis industry with strong women rising to leadership positions more so than in any other emerging industry,” says Jennifer M. Sanders, Founder & CEO of CNS Equity Partners. “Most of my professional experience has been in the investment and banking industries, which are pretty male-dominant fields. Given my ability to successfully work with men, I feel the cannabis industry has proven to be a wonderful environment that is much more balanced and focused on positive impact businesses.”

The green economy may be riddled with complexities, but opportunity abounds. Currently, the cannabis sector employs 125,000 – 160,000 full-time workers. And the industry is projected to add as many as 340,000 full-time jobs by 2022. This amounts to an estimated growth of 21 percent per year, which is considerably higher than estimates for other industries like Healthcare, which is projected to grow only 2 percent.

Related: These Stats on Cannabis Sales Will Shock You

The cannabis space may go down in history as one of the most complicated industries in which to grow a business. Because cannabis is still illegal under federal law in the U.S., cannabis companies are burdened with tax, banking, and interstate commerce issues, coupled with ever-shifting regulations.

"The cannabis industry requires the ability to interpret a quickly changing landscape and pivot with lightning speed and laser accuracy to make it through the challenges of banking restrictions, the threat of federal law enforcement, the idea a government could take my business from me if I don’t meet requirements defined with two weeks to implement, or stop operating,” says Samantha Miller, President and Chief Scientist of Pure Analytics Lab. “Every day is a challenge with unique obstacles, and I’m the one who makes the final decisions.  That’s the thrill and peril of being a founding member of a new market segment.  You have to love the game if you’re going to play.”  

It's About Intuition

This burgeoning marijuana space is riddled with fluctuating guidelines, extraordinary discrepancies from one jurisdiction to the next, and little to no narration to build on. There are no core courses or MBA’s that can wholly prepare an entrepreneur for business operation in the cannabis industry. Against these odds, "women have pushed the door wide open in this space, using perseverance, intuition and the creative solutions necessary to build a billion-dollar industry from seed to success,” said Price. “We are persistent, yet patient. Women tend to create support networks and place collaboration ahead of competition. We are open to discussion and while we know that there are many obstacles to overcome, we are thinking ten steps ahead, accounting for contingencies, and improvising along the way.”

Putting financial gain aside, many women have been drawn into the cannabis industry simply out of necessity.

Related: Women Increasingly Are Cannabis Entrepreneurs and Customers

It's About Compassion

“The cannabis world is more of a moment than a business endeavor to most leaders in the industry,” said Myha Le, Executive Advisor and Head of Marketing for BAS Research. “Most people who enter the space are driven by a passion to help their loved ones or someone they know that can benefit from the healing properties of cannabis. At the forefront is typically a mom who turns to CBD to help their child. In my case, I wanted to help my autistic son to control his seizures.”

Chris and Hugh Hempel, founders of the national cannabis brand management company Strainz, were also inspired to start their company based on challenging family circumstances. The Hempel’s identical twin daughters, Addi and Cassi, now 14, were born with a very rare and fatal disease, Niemann-Pick Type C, otherwise known as “Childhood Alzheimer’s”. 

Chris left her job in the high-tech world to care for her children, turning her kitchen into a lab and creating CBD formulations that helped reduce the intensity and frequency of the girls’ seizures.

While going through the process to help Addi and Cassi with their disease, Chris says she "saw an opportunity to help others and to do good for society,” said Hempel. “We get up each day motivated by our girls and knowing that there are so many others out there who could benefit tremendously from this curative plant. Failure is not an option.”