High ambitions

Female entrepreneurs are at the vanguard of the burgeoning cannabis industry

When it comes to redefining a substance that had once been labeled a dangerous drug, the key ingredient for changing perceptions may be the endorsement of women

(EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)

A silver bead in the shape of a marijuana leaf adorns one of Kyla Hill’s shoulder-length dreads. Her complexion is flawless and, aside from some subtle black eyeliner, she wears no makeup and a ready smile. She orders vegan hash. By all ostensible markers, Hill nails the look of a free-spirited cannabis entrepreneur.

Hill’s cannabis emblem is not just a nod to the key ingredient in her all-natural skincare line, Get Hemp Butter — it also reflects an appreciation for the value of visual cues, acquired during over a decade working in experiential marketing as a brand ambassador for clients including Samsung, Nintendo and Annie’s, not to mention her appearance on the Shark Tank of the cannabis industry, The Marijuana Show. Hill’s pitching prowess on the small screen was sufficient to garner a subsequent offer from Walmart to sell her wares. The marijuana leaf — once the rallying symbol for stoners the world over — has moved into a new era, where it may come to signify multi-billion dollar businesses, medical breakthroughs, culinary experimentation and even social justice reform, and women are notably at the vanguard of these new business opportunities.

“My product is all about moisturizing, It’s not necessarily to get you high,” Hill, 32, told Women in the World one chilly afternoon in a bustling D.C. bistro. “I like to believe that it promotes relaxation. When I get feedback from people that are using it to treat things like eczema, I point out that it’s high in anti-bacterial agents.” Customers have also reported the hemp butter product reduces inflammation, treats muscle tension and sunburn and works as an anti-fungal. The lip balms are 100 percent vegan, edible and customers tell her they have also used them to treat cold sores.

Kyla Hill_Facebook

Creator of all-natural skincare line, Get Hemp Butter, Kyla Hill. (Facebook)

Hill’s products are made from cold-pressed hemp seed oil, CBD (the non-psychoactive constituent of the cannabis plant that promotes pain relief) and other natural ingredients. The hemp and CBD she uses is not cultivated from the flower or the leaf of the cannabis plant, which means that, according to the DEA, she’s in the clear legally to sell her product to over 50 U.S. states and even internationally. But not all businesses feel comfortable about her association with the cannabis industry. “There are a lot of businesses that understand the law and are receptive to working with me,” said Hill as she finished applying her signature hemp-based balm to her hands and cuticles. “There are more businesses that are scared and that’s how I’ve been categorized in the cannabis industry. But that’s [the cannabis community] where I found my home; they’re accepting and they understand the medicinal value.”

Hill is just one of many entrepreneurs in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in the country, navigating the legal “grey area” around cannabis; the vacuum created by contradictory local, state and federal laws, or lack thereof, that regulates marijuana businesses. Since the passage of Initiative 71 in November of last year, which permits marijuana possession for personal use and growth, but not recreational sales, D.C. has become the next frontier in canna-business (and bad puns). Women Grow, a national network for female entrepreneurs in the industry, opened a chapter in the capital this past May and quickly made itself a reliable resource, advising businesses on how they should be preparing for inevitable recreational legalization.

As Women Grow’s Washington, D.C. chapter founder, getting an early start in your regional market is essential in the cannabis business, even if that means giving away your product for free, according to 23-year-old Laila Makled.

“That’s what Women Grow is encouraging folks to do: get some nice packaging, get your label, start to build your customer base, build a website, give away your goods, start preparing for what’s going to happen when there is tax and regulation because it’ll happen soon — it’s going to happen eventually — and you’re going to need to be quick,” she explains. “You can already see in Colorado; the market becomes saturated very quickly.”

Laila Makled. (Facebook)

Founder of D.C.’s Women Grow chapter, Laila Makled. (Facebook)

Women Grow facilitates marketing opportunities, organizes regular monthly networking opportunities to promote sharing industry experience and, more generally, ensures that women are shaping the rise of a multibillion dollar industry. The organization draws men and women to their events and they work with all sectors of the industry, from managing PR for a local marijuana cooking class to a well-financed LLC angling to attain one of the few dispensary licenses available in a major metropolitan area. In July 2015, after only a year of operation, Women Grow had 20,000 members nationwide and chapters in 33 cities.

At a recent networking event in October organized by Makled, around 30 people gathered at the Salty Dog Tavern, a restaurant and bar near DuPont circle to discuss all things pot in the nation’s capital and beyond. The group was a mix of representatives from various cannabis advocacy organizations, curious marijuana enthusiasts thinking about a career in the industry, owners of startups and a few older writers for local pot publications. There was a raffle for two vaporizers (Pax and Kuli), a grinder (Grind for a Cause) and hemp lip balm (Get Hemp Butter), with all proceeds going to The Sentencing Project, a charity that trains lawyers to represent individuals who have been incarcerated for minor drug offenses and possession charges.

As with all public meetings organized by the D.C. cannabis community and Women Grow, there was an unspoken ban on marijuana consumption. One of the sponsors, Hemp Kettle Tea Company, did, however, sell samples of its hemp-based (and therefore legal to sell) organic teas. Spicy Lemon Ginger Turmeric was extremely popular, as was the CBD infusion on offer for a few extra dollars.

The main event for the evening was a talk by Michelle Rutter, 25, the government relations coordinator for the National Cannabis Industry Association and a gregarious, polished Capitol Hill operator. In February, Rutter organized meetings as part of Women Grow’s lobby days, where 70-plus small-businesswomen spoke to various representatives about the need for regulation in the industry, specifically banking and taxation reform.

Michelle Rutter. (Facebook)

Government relations coordinator for the National Cannabis Industry Association, Michelle Rutter. (Facebook)

Rutter meticulously outlined the current state of cannabis legislation and related policies, citing laws introduced in both the Senate and the House that proposed safe harbor for banks dealing with legal cannabis businesses and state-compliant marijuana tax deductions. She highlighted comprehensive legislation packages like the CARERS Act, introduced by Senator Cory Booker and co-sponsored by Kristen Gillibrand and Rand Paul, among others, which would re-categorize cannabis as a schedule II drug, remedying the banking discrimination issue faced by legal cannabis businesses. The bill remains stuck in committee, but its very existence reflects changing tides. Rutter also emphasized that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ recent marijuana bill did not seek federal legalization as many in the industry have concluded. She explained that his S.2237 looks to de-schedule cannabis by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act, clearing up the banking and taxation issues by relegating cannabis policy-making to the states and preventing overriding federal intervention and contradiction.

Rutter also offered that 2016 would very likely see five states with winning legalization initiatives on the ballot (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada.)

While running through the positions held by the current Republican presidential candidates, Rutter described Jeb Bush as “all over the place.” A member of the audience gleefully chimed in, “he’s probably high” to some giggles and laughter. Another attendee one-upped the interjection: “Or, probably not!” Another bout of raucous laughter followed.

The mood was buoyant and a little conspiratorial. Public opinion polls, as well as success stories coming out of states that have already allowed recreational use, point to federal legalization in the next 5-10 years. Plus, D.C. is the first east coast outpost to not just decriminalize marijuana, but make personal possession and growth legal, in limited amounts. As Makled pointed out and as many in the room seemed to recognize, getting in on the ground floor early could make or break a cannabis startup and by virtue of being in attendance, they were ahead of the game.

A few weeks later over lunch, Rutter discussed the pressing need for banking reform from a public safety perspective. As it stands now, the cannabis industry is necessarily an all-cash business, even in states where it is formally legal to sell marijuana (recreational or medical) because banks are subject to federal laws. This means that millions if not billions of dollars are floating around cities in cash. According to Rutter, most of the public is supportive of a regulated, legal marijuana industry in the abstract but still associates cannabis with crime. Rutter argues that it’s the presence of cash, not cannabis, that leads to public safety issues.

“People are very reluctant to have marijuana into their backyard,” she explained. “If you’re worried about crime in the community as a result of cannabis, you don’t need to worry about it coming from the drug itself, you need to worry about the crime as a result of the cash flow and criminal activity that stems from the fact that we are forcing businesses to operate entirely in cash.”

Stories of friends and colleagues held up at gunpoint at medical dispensaries and other businesses are commonplace. Local tax offices in Denver have even taken to providing cannabis industry professionals security guard escorts and allowing them to park right out front, violating parking rules, to ensure the safety of taxpayers delivering large sums of money in cash. “I’m worried that we’ll have to wait until something terrible happens, someone is murdered for cash, for there to be movement on the issue.”

Public safety, potential medical opportunities, states rights, criminal justice and common sense have all been offered up as potential reasons for amending federal laws that deal with cannabis, but it’s important to note the moral grey area that goes hand-in-hand with the legal grey patchwork. When it comes to redefining a substance that had once been labeled a dangerous drug, Women Grow may have the key ingredient for changing perceptions: women.

Makled elaborated on this point, “I hate to be the one to make assumptions based on gender here, but for people who previously felt some type of way about cannabis, there’s something a little more warming and welcoming to have that conversation with a woman.”

It seems that the same social norms and societal structures which may have once been a prohibitive factor for women in other industries (which compelled the formation of Women Grow in the first place) may actually serve to make women the best spokespersons for cannabis. Women are often the moral centers of their families, control household budgets and play active roles in shaping their communities. Most notably, on the medical front, women are leading the movement to legalize CBD for the treatment of seizures in children.

If women managed to outlaw alcohol, perhaps they’re best suited to legalize pot and lead the industry.

When Kyla Hill received an offer from Walmart to carry Get Hemp Butter in 2014, which would have required her to outsource production, reduce the quality of her products and compromise her commitment to sustainability, she decided to pass. Instead, she prioritized improving the quality of her line. She explains that profit alone has never been an incentive, a belief that has crystalized as she has grown her enterprise.

“It was never about the money and to this is day it’s not. My goal is just to provide jobs, to be able to take care of myself and thrive within this business, be able to give back. Income and generating money is also part of it, but I never started a business to make money.”

For Makled, criminal justice and prison reform are what drew her to the cannabis industry. As the founder of D.C.’s Women Grow chapter she’s focused a lot of her education efforts on informing local entrepreneurs of the inherent racial prejudices in evolving cannabis policies. Historically, African Americans have been disproportionately arrested and jailed for possession and sale of a substance that is now legally peddled in a number of jurisdictions throughout the U.S., with local and state governments once responsible for reprimanding the activity now profiting from tax-collection on the same, now legal, businesses.

Makled describes how policies are being installed to prevent individuals with any criminal record from participating in legal cannabis endeavors — including individuals who were once arrested for possessing or dealing cannabis. In D.C. that currently applies to the medical cannabis operations, but as the industry grows and the prospect of legal recreational use looms in the coming years, these policies would apply to the industry as a whole, essentially barring a segment of the population from participating.

“It makes no sense,” Makled explained. “It’s saying, we’re gonna open a market for people to come in and grow and sell and do whatever you feel like with this plant that got you arrested and you can’t join us. It makes absolutely no sense and yes, there are laws like that in D.C.”

When Makled opened the Women Grow meeting back in October she reinforced the network’s mission to guide and support women in cannabis, but elaborated on the group’s commitment to inclusivity more broadly, including socioeconomic diversity.

“It’s not just about women, it’s about diversity in general,” she said. If you know folks that can’t afford it, let me know. We will work something out.”

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