In honour of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating some of the influential women in cannabis who are spearheading innovations, inspiring top-down collaboration, and producing cannabis products consumers love.
While these outstanding women are setting much-needed examples, they are just that — outstanding. A recent study from Deloitte, commissioned by the OCS, revealed women in cannabis leadership is far from the norm. Prior to legalization in October 2018, almost every federally licensed medical cannabis producer was run by white men. In 2020, BIPOC men and all women were significantly underrepresented in cannabis leadership; 72% of these positions were still held by white men.
Read on to learn more about how these women founders, growers, managers and C-suite executives have carved out a hard-earned place for themselves in this fast-paced, evolving industry.
Trang Trinh, CEO
Leading with empathy is what Trang Trinh says attracts and retains the hardworking talent in her organization. This is embodied in her bold 10% for Good — a corporate give-back program that has been donating a tenth of its profits to Cannabis Amnesty since its launch in 2019.
TREC is a house of cannabis brands, which includes Blissed, Thumbs Up Brand, and WINK. The clever WINK WINK product is Trinh’s favourite innovation: a rotating SKU featuring limited-time, small-batch lots from micro cultivators. Despite her company’s enduring success, she says she’s still pushing against traditional gender norms — a challenge that her male peers don’t have to contend with. “Instead of decisive and strong, I am seen as pushy, arrogant, or even bossy. But I view this as an opportunity to keep moving forward,” she says.
Trinh wants to see more women as CEOs across the board. “There have been many leadership changes to the industry over the years, and I consistently see women leaders and people of minority groups replaced by men. As an industry we need to do better.”
Naomi Miller, COO and co-founder of Agripharm Corp.
With TREC's planned acquisition of Agripharm, the company will gain another powerful woman leader — Naomi Miller, Agripharm’s co-founder and COO.
Miller is surrounded by talented women like Trinh in her day-to-day — 60% of Agripharm staffers are women — so she doesn’t always feel like she’s working in a male-dominated industry. She’s more focused on the increasing gender diversity among their customers. “Women tend to drive household purchasing decisions, so if cannabis is anything like other CPG [consumer packaged goods] categories, female buyers punch above their weight,” she says.
Seven Leaf and Final Bell
Dianna Tarbell, general manager, Seven Leaf
“Being an Indigenous woman, residing on the territory of Akwesasne, I am very fortunate to come from a matrilineal culture. Strong, vibrant women are leaders in government, business and the arts, and it is neither a surprise nor an anomaly,” says Dianna Tarbell, general manager of Seven Leaf, Canada’s first 100% Indigenous owned and operated Producer. “When you grow up surrounded by these role models, it gives you the courage to undertake new challenges.”
That’s not to say she breezed into her leadership position. Tarbell’s trial by fire was the gaming industry, where her voice and management style was not the norm. (Once in a room full of over 100 general managers, she counted fewer than 10 women in the mix.) But by leading through mentorship and encouragement, while fostering the hidden talents her experienced eye sees in people, she now hires predominantly from within the Akwesasne community.
As the pandemic settles, she anticipates many more women entering the industry as a whole. “From sales and marketing to cultivation and operations, I hope women from my community and across Canada are inspired to join us as we continue to build the sector.”
Jennifer Maccarone, COO, Final Bell
As chief operations officer for Seven Leaf’s brand partner Final Bell, Jennifer Maccarone thinks the barriers to gender equity in cannabis leadership are beginning to come down, especially within new businesses or what she calls “second round” startups. She points to the female leadership team at Final Bell as evidence. “We’re making big moves!”
Sometimes with her new baby in tow, Maccarone says she leads by listening openly and facilitating solutions while also continually driving revenue. A pervasive challenge Maccarone wants solved is the ongoing stigma around women consuming cannabis, pointing out mothers who drink wine have been normalized, but mothers who consume cannabis are perceived very differently. “That same stigma does not exist for men,” she says.
Cristina Hogue, CCO, Final Bell
Final Bell’s chief commercial officer Cristina Hogue sees opportunity to shift the narrative for both women as consumers and women as leaders in the cannabis industry. “We can continue to build an industry that’s about collaboration, compassion and inclusiveness for everyone,” she says.
Recently launching not one but two new brands in partnership with Seven Leaf, SEV7N and SOVE7EIGN, she credits the many women she collaborates with — especially Tarbell — for their continued growth. “We need to continue to work together, cheer each other on, build each other up, mentor the next wave of women leaders, and be the engine of continuous change and improvement.”
Christine Halef, CEO
Behind every terpene-rich, hand-trimmed Msiku flower is the parent company AtlantiCann, founded and led by Christine Halef. The former community pharmacist admits her drive for business was inspired by her family of successful entrepreneurs, yet none of these role models were women. “I constantly felt as though I had imposter syndrome,” she says of her early days in cannabis after pivoting from the largely female-concentrated world of pharmacy.
And yet, her medical lens may be her secret advantage. Not only did it set the tone for product excellence — something she says her team is most proud of — but it continues to inspire her leadership ethic: “My background in pharmacy taught me it’s impossible to know everything — the key is in knowing your resources,” she says.
Halef hopes more women in cannabis will help end the stigma and create mentorship opportunities that weren’t available to her. “Men typically have more access to capital, connections and resources. I think we need to see effort to provide these same resources to women, not only for this industry but for any industry.”
Ayurcann and Her Highness
Jaspreet Bhatia, head of laboratory and formulations, Ayurcann
Jaspreet Bhatia, PhD, is a formulations expert, stakeholder and leader of research and development at Ayurcann. She credits the 50% female workforce at Ayurcann with fostering a collaborative, mentor-rich culture. A passionate plant chemist, she says having strong women around her not only inspires her to explore new opportunities in cannabis, it’s also a market advantage.
“With more women in prominent positions we’ll see more products that are female-focused,” she says, nodding to Ayurcann’s recent launch of GLOW Day and Night cream. “After all, it is a female plant that can be best understood by a female counterpart.”
Allison Krongard, co-founder, Her Highness
Her Highness, a new business partner of Ayurcann’s, makes products “expressly for the purpose of bending cannabis to suit women,” says co-founder Allison Krongard. With a background in high-end product design, the NYC-based entrepreneur creates every product with female joy as the focus, from sex-positive oils to lash- and nail-friendly pre-rolls with an extra long crutch built in. And this is not just because she’s pushing back against the lingering stigma against women using cannabis — women as a demographic are the fastest growing user group in cannabis, says Krongard. (Sales to Gen Z women grew by 150 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to data from cannabis data firm Headset.)
“I’ve noticed the industry settling into the pattern of marketing cannabis to men primarily for the purpose of feeling good — high-THC strains, sauces and concentrations — and marketing to women for the [relief] of anxiety, pain, trauma. In other words, giving us permission to use it for what’s wrong with us,” says Krongard. “[Her Highness] is determined to get out in front of this and market cannabis to women for the purpose of feeling joy, which is powerful, important.”
Jane West, CEO
“To call cannabis a male-dominated industry is an understatement,” says Jane West, CEO of her Colorado-based namesake brand. Like Halef, she cites limited access to traditional capital as the force keeping diversity out of the industry. “To build my business I had to dive into the worlds of venture capital, manufacturing, logistics and construction, to name a few, where woman-owned entities are just as slim.”
After traditional investors shut her out for two years, West turned to equity crowdfunding to get her vision off the ground. This unconventional route was a challenge unlike anything she’s ever faced, but now she’s proud to say that her company is woman-owned and 80 percent BIPOC. And many of these investors are regular customers.
Launched in 2013, Jane West now has over 50 cannabis products — from sophisticated, custom-designed accessories to premium flower offerings, including a new partnership with Calgary’s Boaz for handmade pre-rolls. But for West, there’s still a long way to go to move the diversity needle and serve all consumers. She says there aren't enough female CEOs and business owners are in place to influence decision making across the board. “That [leadership] role is one-of-a-kind, and their decisions shape the sector.”
Myrna Gillis, CEO
Gillis is brimming with quiet passion, not just for excellent cannabis but also for an ethical business model. Under her leadership, the company launched their award-winning, commercially scaled aquaponic cultivation technology — all maintained with certified-organic inputs to keep their water and carbon footprints as low as possible.
To get there, Gillis and her team “kind of bootstrapped and did it all ourselves,” she says, along with the support of the Arcview Network and smaller investors across Atlantic Canada. In most financial meetings, she says she was the only woman in the room; potential investors often looked first to the company’s chief financial officer, Mike O’Keefe, with questions. “He would be like ‘ask her’!” she recalls.
Today, Gillis works with lots of women in the industry, from retail to research, and recognizes many of her C-suite peers who are also women. “Understanding your own power as a woman and understanding what you have to offer has tremendous value. Don’t be afraid to share what you know, to collaborate and to celebrate.”
Leigh Stewart, owner and co-founder
New Licensed Producer on the block and maker of premium Fly North edibles, Blossim Inc. was launched through “hard work, dedication, and the mindset to never give up,” says co-founder Leigh Stewart. From planning and executing their state-of-the-art Blossim facility in Maple, Ontario, to navigating regulation in the legal cannabis space, she says coming into this kind of business is not for the faint of heart. Add to that complexity Stewart’s dedication to using top-shelf cannabis and premium, all-natural gummy ingredients, all inside consumer-friendly price points.
But these multifaceted challenges, unique to the cannabis industry, have never deterred her. In fact, she says it’s been a privilege to be involved in this growing industry that offers so many opportunities. And to young cannabis entrepreneurs of any gender, she advises the same thing: “Don’t give up. Follow your dreams. Hard work will conquer all.”
Jennifer Ayotte, CEO
More and more women are communicating openly about cannabis, from the corporate level all the way down to consumer enjoyment and Jenn Ayotte sees this as the biggest influence on the cannabis industry moving forward. As CEO of one of the first Producers in the legal market, she’s sensitive to the constantly changing market, switching gears when needed to entice the consumer while maintaining the strict standards Maricann is known for.
Being part of the team to receive and maintain their European Union Good Manufacturing Practice certification is a proud feather in Ayotte’s cap. It means that, not only does Maricann serve the Canadian market — her company is one of a handful that exports to the European medical market, too. With her global market perspective, Ayotte sees limitless opportunities for women in cannabis.
“From the science of growing through to product development, the entire industry is evolving and maturing, leaving every facet open to discover and grow.” She wants to see more women enter the field and fill major roles to influence product offerings in exciting new ways.
Tricia Symmes, CEO
A former competitive figure skater, Tricia Symmes knows composure under pressure. Now in her newly minted role as CEO of Aleafia, she says balancing the responsibilities of a leadership role in a fast-growing company requires versatility, a nimble mind and focus — especially while raising a young family. But through holding the tension of these opposing demands, she’s found clarity.
“I’ve taken a different approach and looked at the cannabis industry with up-and-coming growth markets,” she says, referencing their Noon & Night wellness line for the new-to-cannabis consumer who may not have been reached under conventional leadership. “We have a keen eye for what was missing and how we could differentiate ourselves, allowing us to be successful as late entrants in a very competitive market.”
Laura Beth Steiner, master grower
In Aleafia’s Grimsby, Ontario, hybrid greenhouse you’ll find Laura Beth Steiner, one of just a handful of master growers in Canada who are also women. “I have always had a connection with plants and soil. I can grow anything,” says the farm woman-turned-horticulture specialist who also has a knack for business growth. She led the greenhouse expansion from 30,000 square feet to 130,000 square feet in the last year.
Steiner credits both the men and women of the facility for its success, saying the whole team is empowered by a positive atmosphere. And a little love: “As a mom I’m a bit of a different leader in terms of love, compassion and empathy. Nurturing both plants and people comes naturally to me.”
Beena Goldenberg, CEO
With an engineering background and an executive career in grocery retail, Beena Goldenberg has experience thriving in male-dominated spaces. “It is a wonderful opportunity to stand out in an industry dominated by men; it differentiates Organigram in a competitive market.”
Goldenberg’s own senior executive team is currently 55% women, and she credits her uncommonly diverse management team with creating a positive culture, greater team support, and more innovative ideas. She’s now sensing a shift; as the cannabis industry matures and is further destigmatized, Goldenberg expects we’ll see more women move into leadership, master grower and production roles throughout 2022.
At Organigram, Goldenberg has her sights set on growing a female customer base. “Our consumer segmentation research clearly defines the motivations behind female cannabis enthusiasts, and there is great opportunity to better serve them,” she says.