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Outmanned and Underfunded, Businesswomen Share Their Difficulties in Marijuana Industry

Chanda Macias would sit down in a meeting and be the only woman in the room. Then, when she would ask those in the room to do business with her startup company, she was denied again and again.

It’s the same old story that can be told in just about any industry in a male-dominated business world.

Macias, who has a Ph.D. in cell biology from Howard University in Washington, DC, as well as an MBA in supply chain management, said she was turned down by five cannabis suppliers while working to launch her first medical marijuana dispensary in the Washington area.

“It has been challenging; it has been extremely hard,” Macias said. “Typically, in any room that I enter, I’m the only female.”

And without a doubt, she has always been the only black female in the room, she said.

Women’s Equality Day is Aug. 26. It commemorates the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which in 1920 guaranteed the right of women to vote. That was 98 years ago, but equality remains elusive in the business world across numerous sectors, including the fledgling cannabis industry.

A March 2018 poll to celebrate International Women’s Day of more than 3,000 entrepreneurs worldwide by 99designs, a graphic design marketplace that also conducts research, showed men are nearly twice as likely to raise at least $100,000 or more in funding than women. Nearly 28 percent of male entrepreneurs raised $100,000 or more to start their own business, compared with 15 percent of women, according to the poll.

The poll showed that women are also less  likely to have two or more employees as men — 32 percent for females, compared with 53 percent for males.

Macias found out the hard way that attitudes in the cannabis industry are reflective of the larger business world.

She owns the National Holistic Healing Center, the operator of two medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington, DC. The dispensaries have been around for roughly three years, reporting more than 3,500 customers, and specialize in aligning cannabis strains to specific ailments and conditions.

Macias is also the chairperson of Women Grow, a for-profit networking group designed to help women succeed in the cannabis industry.

To get to where Macias is now was no easy task. She finally found and appealed to a black supplier, who was willing to supply her only two strains to sell for a limited period of about six months. She soon found another supplier, but he would only do business with her if she bought 10 different strains at $6,500 a pound, or about $2,950 a kilogram — far above the going rate of roughly $4,000 a pound (about $1,815 a kilo) at the time, she said.

“There were other people who were white men who were being supplied, but I wasn’t,” she said.  “I think I was not supplied because I was a black woman and they did not want me in this industry.”

It’s not just entrepreneurs like Macias who have faced challenges. Women at all levels in the industry may be struggling for equality.  

The cannabis industry is heavily dominated by men across most of its sectors, according to James Yagielo, CEO and co-Founder of HempStaff, a medical marijuana training and recruiting company.

“I can say it’s about a 30/70 split women to men in this industry,” Yagielo said.

That ratio closely resembles what Robin Ann Morris, CEO and owner of MaryJane Agency LLC in Sandusky, Ohio, has been seeing in her placements.

The only sectors where women have near equal numbers as men seem to be in dispensaries, where an ongoing trend is to hire attractive, customer-facing budtenders.

“They’re looking for the beautiful girl to represent their brand,” Morris said. “As a woman it just makes you feel less valued, but as long as women go along with it and do it, nothing’s going to change.”

Most of the high paying positions in other parts of the cannabis industry, such as master growers or master extractors, are rarely filled with a woman, according to Yagielo.

“Cannabis has always been a male-dominant area, even in the black market,” Yagielo said. “So, as it has become legal it has stayed that way in the cultivation and extraction areas. If you look at the number of females arrested for marijuana charges, you would see close to that same 30/70 split.”

Among those women who Yagielo has placed in positions, the feedback isn’t always positive.

“We have heard of women getting frustrated because they’re getting passed over because they’re a woman,” he said.

A 2017 survey by Marijuana Business Daily shows that women held 27 percent of executive-level roles. That was down from 36 percent in 2015, but above the 23 percent for U.S. businesses as a whole.

Those figures make Dr, Karen Munkacy, president and CEO of Garden Remedies, a Massachusetts-based cannabis company with a dispensary and cultivation facility, one of the few women entrepreneurs.

Munkacy did what she could to raise money to start her business, including bringing male employees to meetings with potential backers to improve her odds of getting funding.

“It’s been difficult raising money,” she said. “If I went by myself, there was probably not going to be funding forthcoming.”

Her experience of getting funding may be reflective of the entire venture capital landscape. Women-led companies got just 2.7 percent of the $84 billion in venture capital investment that went into startups in 2017, according to Fortune.

Munkacy said the millions she raised are due to perseverance, developing expertise in the field, building a great team, “and always having at least one man from my team as part of my pitch.”  

Like Macias, Munkacy’s foray into the cannabis business came with impressive credentials, while her interest in cannabis is personal.

She was a professor of anesthesiology and pain management, having served stints at both UCLA and USC medical centers in Los Angeles when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She suffered through a double mastectomy, 28 radiation treatments and aggressive chemotherapy.

“The nausea was about 1,000 times worse than any nausea I’ve experienced,” she said.

As a board-certified anesthesiologist, Munkacy knew all the medications she could take, but nothing worked well for her. She had friends and physicians who told her medical cannabis would be helpful with pain and nausea. But it wasn’t legally available in her state, so she didn’t use it.

That was her decision, but it was one she felt others shouldn’t have to make.

“At the time people had to choose between suffering greatly and breaking the law,” she said.

Once she was cured of the cancer, she worked to get her state’s cannabis laws changed, and then she got into the medical marijuana business to help others.

She said obtaining success is a challenge in this industry, regardless of her gender.  

“There are men in this industry, just as there are men in any type of business, that are chauvinists, and dismissive and disrespectful,” she said, adding that there are already enough hurdles to clear in the cannabis business. “You really have to have nerves of steel to be able to persevere through a lot of twists and turns.”

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