“This looks like one of my concerts!”
That was Melissa Etheridge’s reaction to the crowd of 1,400 women (and men) rocking the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver last month. Etheridge was the keynote speaker at our second annual Women Grow Leadership Summit, and she killed it with a performance that combined personal stories — like how David Crosby reintroduced her to cannabis after her breast cancer diagnosis — with a stirring call to action. “It’s now time for us to run the business,” she said. “We can create our own corporations.” A lot of the women in the audience already had — and many more will.
I had the pleasure and the pain of following Melissa. Pleasure because I love her, and pain because, well, woe to the speaker who has to follow Melissa Etheridge.
I had a different reaction to the crowd.
Eighteen months before I stepped on that stage, I started Women Grow in Denver, Colorado. I saw the need for women in this industry to connect, create, and raise our collective profile. I sat through too many conference panels with one lone woman on stage, and stopped listening to too many others that contained none. Women Grow started small, but by the end of 2015 we had expanded to more than 44 cities across the United States and Canada: New York, Toronto, Portland, L.A., and even cities in non-legal states, like my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Walking out on that stage was a powerful moment. What was most thrilling wasn’t the applause, but the knowledge that I could walk away and feel confident that the whole thing would continue growing without me. We have a nation of leaders who can get this shit done.
That didn’t happen by accident. At our 2015 Leadership Summit, Women Grow’s first, 125 women attended. This year we expanded tenfold. So we asked our presenters to step up and prepare. Bring it strong. Our first-time speakers worked side by side with mentors as they prepped their bios, stepped up their social media game, and invested in professional headshots. That’s not a natural part of this industry culture yet, but it has to be. Polished performance is an essential ingredient for commercial success.
We’re working to use intentional language. Corporate culture tends to train women to adopt a diminished or passive voice, to spread the credit, to say “we” developed this product, to soften an opinion by saying “I think maybe…” Our Women Grow mentors told our speakers: We put you on stage because you did these things. Own that success and your hard-won expertise.
There’s a great Google Chrome app called Just Not Sorry. I love it. You plug it into your Gmail account and it picks out hedging words and phrases like “I don’t know,” and “actually,” and highlights them like spelling errors. A lot of women in our network are using it. It’s really amazing how often those words and phrases pop up—and how quickly you can train your mind to drop them.
Women of all ages showed up at this year’s Leadership Summit, but over the course of three days, two interesting demographics emerged.
I met a lot of young women in their 20s, some just out of college, who see the cannabis industry as an opportunity on par with the tech boom of the late ‘90s. These young women weren’t born when Microsoft exploded; they were in middle school when Google went public. They’re not constrained by the Drug War stigma; medical marijuana has been legal for most of their lives. They can sense the opportunities in cannabis but, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has said, you can’t be what you can’t see. So we showed them Genifer Murray, who founded CannLabs and took it public. We introduced them to A.C. Braddock, extractions expert and CEO of Eden Labs. They connected with women who’ve been through two, three, four startups. These young women saw what a panel of experienced, accomplished cannabis industry women looks and sounds like.
The loudest, most vibrant bunch were the mid-career women, ages 40 to 55, who just exited a stage in their life. These women are choosing to start a new chapter in midlife on their own terms. If they’re shifting careers, they are done with whatever they did for the past 15 years. Or maybe they built a career in their 20s, took time off for family, and now are returning to business. These women, accomplished and experienced, want something new and exciting, and they are determined to succeed while having fun. They are collaborating, flipping their experience in other fields into success in cannabis.
I met a woman from Pueblo, Colorado, with a background in construction and development. Now she’s killing it as the go-to contractor for her city’s booming population of growers and processors. Another woman, Lisa LeFevre, is a business education expert who previously worked in the medical field. After learning about the medical applications of cannabis, she saw the opportunity to apply her 20 years of experience to the cannabis industry. Our industry needs the vision and experience these women bring to the table.
Melissa saw it, too, when she asked, “Can you believe you’re in a room this big, with this many other women doing what you’re doing?” Even though I’d lived through the exponential expansion of Women Grow, I still had to see it to believe it. The Women Grow Leadership Summit was the largest single gathering of women in the cannabis industry ever. As I walked out onto the stage I didn’t see just a cheering audience. I saw 1,400 women facing the future together.