Can The Cannabis Industry Set The Example for Gender Equality?

I’m a feminist, one of five sisters, and a female business leader. That makes this an exhilarating inflection point in our culture, when so much energy is being devoted to examining workplace gender dynamics, alluding to the equality and respect I’ve always expected of a progressive society. But an allusion is far from a promise, and my enthusiasm is tempered by concern that the conversation doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t inspire action. After all, gender inequality and exclusion are not new: What makes this time different?

Rather than theorizing about the question, I’ve chosen to be. And in doing so, an answer emerges: that this is the time for women to realize our own power. I decided to start Say Hi motivated by a deep belief in the significance of our mission, but also because the most productive and personally satisfying professional experience I had had was being one of the leaders at a startup headed by truly competent women. We took a company that had meteorically soared and then floundered under the men who started it and rebuilt it to be stable and lean, powered by a hard-working and collaborative team. I’ve spent more years than I’d like at the opposite end of the spectrum, working for men whose sole – though admittedly valuable – skill was rallying investors behind lofty and often misguided visions of the future.

Female leadership at tech start-ups is rare. Even in 2016, less than 5% of venture capital went to female-led companies, a statistic that reminds me that, unlike our male counterparts, women have to outperform. We can’t simply tell an inspiring story; we have to be masterful strategists and operators moreover. And that’s just to have a fighting chance at securing part of that 5%. However, it’s also a number that reminds me how much opportunity there is to make change, and how critical that effort is.

The narrative is grimmer yet in cannabis. Whereas female entrepreneurship and consumerism are at least conceptually accepted in mainstream American society, these notions are still embryonic in cannabis. Only about a 26% of executives in the industry are women according to a recent survey by Marijuana Business Daily, and with a culture trapped in stoner stereotypes, women most often playing the role of temptress in branding materials, leading the consumer on the path to fulfill their dope dreams.

But there is a growing number of entrepreneurial women working to establish businesses and careers for themselves in cannabis. Zoe Wilder is changing the conversation through the press, Claudia Mata is evolving beauty and topicals, and Emma Chasen is educating professionals in the science of cannabis, to name a few. In an industry with so many norms yet to be defined, the possibility is vast and unconstrained for women to be leaders in ways that haven’t been realized in technology, finance, and politics, for instance.

In this burgeoning age of women in cannabis, we have the hard but real opportunity to create a new model of power, one that can catalyze similar change across other industries. If we are going to transform American gender dynamics meaningfully and permanently, we have to seize opportunities to lead men in the workplace and as consumers until it’s no longer a subject worth discussing. We can establish a new standard of leadership that relies on the expectation of true competence rather than projected confidence, neutralizing the power of the inflated ego, which so often leads to the inequalities dominating conversations today.

Equal to the task of redefining our relationship with men in the workplace, women have to support and collaborate with each other. We can still be capitalists – and in fact, we can be better capitalists – by opening up to each other as resources. In fact, studies like this one published in the Harvard Business Review validate our competence as leaders and the value of nurturing cooperation. We can collaborative to build products and experiences that more effectively service needs across men, women, and everyone in between.

We can do better than operate in the traditional binaries of men versus women and others versus me. In creating this new model of power founded on meritocracy and inclusion, we engage in generative rather than reductive behavior, growing the pie — and who doesn’t want a bigger slice?

Bettina Huang