This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of ESSENCE
Let’s be real: most of us probably didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming powerhouses in the cannabis industry.
As it was with Wanda James, the first Black woman to own a dispensary in Colorado, the idea of working in weed most likely wasn’t talked about in your household. Despite being a military brat, James has always called Colorado home. Even though her state decriminalized marijuana in 1975, she never imagined the industry turning into what it is today. “In college and as a young adult, I didn’t even consider that this could be a career,” she says.
James started out as a serial entrepreneur, running several restaurants and consulting companies. It wasn’t until she met her biological brother for the first time in 1999 that she had a professional change of heart. She found out that, at age 19, her brother had been arrested for possession of 4.5 ounces of marijuana. Sentenced to ten years at a maximum-security prison, he spent four of those years picking cotton.
“When I learned what had happened to my brother, it pissed me off,” James says. After serving on Barack Obama’s National Finance Committee in late 2008, James wanted to put an African-American face on legalization efforts. “My husband and I decided that we were going to open a dispensary and be political about the social justice issues surrounding cannabis.” Today they own and operate Simply Pure, a Denver-based cannabis edibles and cooking company and medical and recreational marijuana dispensary. Says James, “We started speaking out in 2010 and we haven’t stopped.”
Altering The Image
James works tirelessly to encourage other Black women to become pioneers in one of the fastest-growing fields in the United States. According to a recent report from cannabis industry analysts Arcview Market Research, the legal marijuana market is expected to generate $39.6 billion in overall economic impact by 2021. As for the demographic dominating this new green rush? It’s White men. Why aren’t people of color, who have suffered the most from the devastating effects of the war on drugs, benefiting more from the economic boom? James believes the first step is erasing the negativity attached to the plant: “The folks in the industry are some of the most motivated people I’ve ever met. They are up early; they are up late. They are working on their businesses; they are running other businesses. And the Black women are trailblazers. We have to be. We know the law, because we have to. We’ve got to change the stigma of who uses cannabis and why.”
Dasheeda Dawson agrees. She’s the founder and CEO of MJM Strategy, a digital-focused strategic management that specializes in rebranding the cannabis industry. She says improving the perception starts with education. “We need a road map,” she explains, “something that shows how you stay out of prison, how you avoid being shunned out of your church community, how you can do this and still be a good mom. The stigma is high for us, because as women of color we’ve seen our dads, our brothers, our sons and our cousins targeted for this. We have to overcome that fear.” The Princeton graduate, who has a corporate background at several Fortune 500 companies, believes that telling our stories will help make strides toward change. The women at EstroHaze, a multimedia outlet high- lighting the work and lifestyles of women of color and multicultural communities in the field, are doing just that. “The narrative that was being pushed by the mainstream as it pertained to people of color and cannabis was really bleak and uninspiring,” notes Sirita Wright, who started EstroHaze with two of her former coworkers, Kali Wilder and Safon Floyd. “No one was showcasing people of color in a positive light and giving them resources. We knew that there were people out there who looked like us and that their stories needed to be shared.”
Finding Your Spark
Kebra Smith-Bolden is one such success story. She says building a cannabis business is all about finding your niche. She’s a registered nurse who serves as the CEO of Cannabis Consultants of Connecticut and president of CannaHealth, a holistic health and wellness center. She also started the Connecticut chapter of Women Grow, a nationwide networking organization that empowers women to become entrepreneurs in the arena.
“The first thing I generally ask people is, ‘What [kind of work] are you doing now?’” she says. “Pretty much anything that you can think of, you can add cannabis to it and it’s relevant, it works and it’s profitable.” If you think being a grower or dispensary owner is the only option, think again. There are non–plant-handling enterprises that can help you bloom where you’re planted. From chefs and real estate agents to security, law and PR firms, opportunities are sprouting everywhere.
Accounting, for example, is an area where women can thrive. “Dealing with tax laws and trying to figure out how an operation can be profitable is a skill set that could easily be transferred,” Wilder says. Other possible ventures? Skin and hair care products, yoga instruction, social media management, event planning and even weed-friendly lodging. And let’s not forget about the many marijuana accouterments one could sell: Rolling papers, grinders, smellproof bags and other accessories, particularly with feminine details, are hot items.
Getting The Green Light
Ready to help diversify the greenscape? First and foremost, you have to learn the politics of pot because not everybody is on board. If you don’t live in one of the nine states or in the District of Columbia, which are places where recreational use is permitted, then your business will need to be centered on medical marijuana, which is currently legal in 30 states.
“It’s super important to understand what’s happening in your state, city or town and ultimately what’s happening in [Congress] as it relates to cannabis,” says Shanita Penny, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) Board of Directors. The MCBA’s mission is to create equal access for minority cannabis entrepreneurs. Through networking events, monthly webinars and federal lobby days, the nonprofit helps members stay abreast of the ever-changing policies and regulations.
Also stay connected to a network. “There’s no one- man show happening in this industry,” Penny points out. “You can be a wonderful businessperson and a wonderful leader in other spaces, but cannabis is unique.” Your village—or “canna-fam,” as some call it—is the circle that will help you stay in the know about potential educational, investment and partnership opportunities. Finding your circle can also help you secure start-up money. If you don’t have the capital to get your idea off the ground, find someone who does.
“Maybe they don’t want to be the face of a company, or maybe they don’t have the time to devote to building a business and getting it licensed and up and running, so they’re looking to partner with folks who do,” advises Penny, who’s held management and consulting roles at major companies in diverse fields. “Black women in this country lead in entrepreneurship, yet we have the least access to capital. We make it happen in every other industry; there’s no reason why we can’t make it happen here.“
Experts agree that potpreneurs have to be innovative in getting their enterprises funded. That’s because under federal law marijuana is still prohibited, and even though it’s legal in an increasing number of states, most banks refuse to do business with companies connected to the plant in any way.
Instead of relying on bank loans, James suggests the best way to raise money is to put together a business plan based on the laws and regulations in your state and then find investors. “You have to be willing to talk about your business,” she says. “Make sure you have your ducks in a row. Know exactly what it is that you want to do. Have your research together. Once you know how much capital you need, you can go out and raise it.”
If you’re having trouble getting individual investors to sign on, don’t give up. “It would be fantastic to see a group of Black women come together and raise the money we need,” James says. “Find each other. Create the village together. You may not have $6 million but maybe 20 of you together can have $6 million.”
And here’s some added motivation: Sisters aren’t joining in the green rush just for the coins. Increasing our representation in this business means we have the power to keep and reinvest more dollars in our community and effect change on the policies that have targeted our people. “We need ownership and participation in this industry because we’ve borne the disproportionate burden of the war on drugs,” Penny reminds us. “We have been locked up. We have been arrested and over-sentenced by a targeted campaign against Black and Brown people, so now that cannabis is being legalized, it’s only right that we be able to benefit from this lucrative new industry.”
Los Angeles native Myeisha Essex (@myeisha.essex) is a writer with a passion for all things digital. Currently, she is the managing editor of The Shade Room.