Beth Stavola, Sara Gullickson & Jessica Billingsley (L-R).
Less than four years ago, high ranks in the cannabis industry were among the most female-friendly in the world, with women occupying 36 percent of C-Suite level positions – as per Marijuana Business Daily numbers for 2015. However, as time went by and the industry continued its upward trajectory, many women started to bump into the so-called “grass ceiling.”
By 2018, women were only occupying 27 percent of C-Suite level positions in the marijuana industry. Cassandra Farrington, CEO of Marijuana Business Daily, remains one of them.
After discussing the topic extensively, I managed to break down what I think are the main factors driving this trend. Namely: deeply rooted social conceptions, the continued migration of male executives from men-dominated industries into cannabis, and the clear trend of funding favoring male-founded businesses.
However, a few women have persevered, proving their resilience and reaching C-Suite spots at publicly traded cannabis companies. With the recent listing of women-led cannabis tech company Akerna (formerly MJFreeway) on the Nasdaq, this seemed like a good time to get to know some of the top women in cannabis, and learn about the challenges they faced to get to where they are today.
The Way To The Top
Jessica Billingsley is the CEO of Akerna, and thus, the first female to serve as CEO of a Nasdaq-traded cannabis company.
Jessica Billingsley at the Nasdaq
Libby Greene / Nasdaq, Inc.
Ten years ago, Billingsley invested in the first Colorado cannabis licensee and, given her tech background, she was quickly asked to advice them on software issues. She noticed there was “nothing suitable for the cannabis industry that would provide a business with the ability to track their product from seed to sale, down to the gram level.”
“My co-founder [at MJFreeway] and I believed that tracking across the entire supply chain would be necessary to support the growth of the industry. We invented seed to sale tracking to drive product, public and patient safety.”
MJ Freeway rapidly grew from an idea to 100-plus employees, offering services in 14 different countries. “I suppose the old joke applies: after ten years of hard work and dedication, people will talk about what an overnight success you are.”
Sara Gullickson is the CEO of Item 9 Labs, which is OTC-listed in the U.S., with a valuation close to $200 million. She previously served as the CEO and founder of cannabis consulting firm Dispensary Permits, a company she started at age 27, with only $3.00.
Specializing in cannabis licensing, her consulting firm secured multiple wins in state markets across the country. Four years ago, Gullickson decided to expand her licensing offerings by developing a more inclusive resource platform. She created sister company DispensaryTemplates.com, a site with an extensive online library of downloadable cannabis business plans available for purchase.
“Leveraging my different skillsets and diversifying my business services has allowed me to get where I am today. I grew my company into the top 3 percent of women-owned businesses and secured ownership of multiple properties before making the decision to sell. My company was acquired by publicly traded Item 9 Labs Corp where I now serve as CEO,” she explained during a recent, exclusive conversation.
Beth Stavola serves as Chief Strategy Officer and Director at iAnthus Capital Holdings, a cannabis company that is listed in Canada and the U.S., raising most of its money up north and deploying into U.S. cannabis businesses. With a market cap of more than $600 million, it stands among the top marijuana companies in the world.
Patty’s Pixels LLC
After working on Wall Street for many years, focusing on institutional equity sales, Stavola made a personal investment in a medical marijuana company in Arizona. When the deal went south, she took over the business to save her investment.
She quickly went full time into the medical marijuana industry and began rolling up licenses in Arizona.
As she witness the “many medicinal benefits cannabis brought to patients,” Stavola became passionate about the plant. It was in this environment that she launched two vertically integrated medical marijuana operations in Arizona. In order to meet the regulatory deadlines, she invested additional capital to help get the her Health for Life brand and its licenses up and running under a 4-month window.
She later partnered with MPX Bioceuticals and became the COO. MPX was then acquired by iAnthus in a multi-million dollar transaction, and Stavola was named CSO of the parent company. “I truly believe that the people make the business, and my job is to create that culture in our business and the wider industry at large,” she said.
A Rocky Road
Getting to the top is never easy. But making it as a woman is even harder. We could quote all sorts of statistics to back this claim but the reality is: it’s so evident, so widely known and accepted, that we don’t need to.
Gullickson also brings up industry-specific challenges: “Attaining a C-suite position as a woman is a challenge in any industry. Early on, the cannabis space was talked about as being female-centered where women were leading companies at a higher than usual percentage when compared to other sectors. However, this number has been declining since 2015.”
She assures the industry is still male dominated, and the biggest challenge lies in bridging this leadership inequality gap. “More and more male executives are entering the cannabis space from mainstream industries, funding still favors male-founded businesses, and there are still social conceptions that men make better CEOs. Every day I work hard to prove that I deserve to be exactly where I am today,” she voices.
For Stavola, the biggest challenge was fear: fear of making mistakes in the early days.
“Part of success is dealing with the failures that lead to success.”
“You need to be committed to your goals and believe in yourself and your vision,” she advises. “But part of success is dealing with the failures that lead to success. Everyone eventually gets knocked down. It’s how you recover from a setback that’s important. Learn from your mistakes and move on.”
It’s not just getting to the top that’s hard. Remaining atop is also a big challenge.
In Stavola’s view, “it’s about guiding the ship through rough waters and making positive changes along the way.”
Stavola always tries to focus on the things she has the power to change, and not worry about things she can’t control. She says she’s constantly setting higher goals and standards, and always striving to be better. “Re-evaluating where your company is and planning the next 2, 3, 5 years becomes very important. It’s a process and it takes patience and a belief in yourself,” she explains.
For Billinsgley, the top is still far. This is “just the beginning,” she assures. “I consider this to a wonderful acknowledgement of a milestone, but it’s just the beginning. There is much more for us to do… Being on Nasdaq means we have a much larger platform now to pursue our strategy and vision… Staying focused on where the industry is headed – not where it is now.”
However, remaining a leader means doing the right thing and being part of the solution – whatever the problem is. “Doing the right thing means operating with integrity. Being part of the solution means innovating and remaining focused on the solutions we need to solve tomorrow’s emerging challenges and opportunities.”
How To Make It To The C-Suite As A Woman
Finally, I asked these ladies to share some advice for other women aspiring to the same kind of position, one in the C-suite at a big company, cannabis or not.
Billingsley holds this topic close to her heart. She often brings up stats from the tech world, where there are less women today than 25 years ago. Furthermore, she mentions, 56 percent of women who enter the tech field drop out in the first ten years. And it’s an even bleaker situation as you get higher up, with females making up only 20 percent of executives in tech.
“We can all be more helpful than we think, and everyone can commit to one act to help one woman’s career,” she says, bringing up her company’s One Woman Challenge. “It could be a coffee, an introduction, a mentoring position to help one woman when and where you can. Additionally, women getting into the industry should be bold and reach out and ask for help. There are people willing to help, you just need to ask.”
Gullickson adds one should be realistic: there is no fast track to the C-suite.
People need to work hard and put time in, gain the expertise.
“Slow and steady wins the race,” she says. “I stuck to my own game plan and made sure to not get caught in the ‘green rush’ mentality. I have also been committed to this industry from the beginning. There have been multiple times where I have thought about giving up, but I believe the reason I didn’t get out earlier is my determination. I felt I had a higher calling to be involved in this industry for others, not just myself. When you see how people are benefiting from the plant, it feels selfish to stop what you are doing.”
“Slow and steady wins the race.”
Stavola adheres to this view as well: perseverance is the key.
“Check your ego at the door and do whatever it takes to see your vision through to the end, despite the setbacks,” she recommends. “Surround yourself with great people and ensure your employees are happy and the company culture matches your long-term goals. I am more interested in the effectiveness and integrity of the individual.”
Other Notable Women In The C-Suite
While the women in this article are running some of the largest publicly traded cannabis companies in the world, there are other marijuana, hemp and CBD companies that also count on the female touch. These ladies are:
- Darby Cox – CEO of Smoke Cartel
- Melinda Rombouts – CEO of EVE & Co
- Alison Gordon – Co-CEO of 48North
- Rosy Mondi – CEO of Quadron
- Jeanette VanderMarel – Co-CEO of 48North
- Penny Green – CEO of The Yield Growth Corp