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Black Pioneers

Black Pioneers

Intro by Nikki Frias

Pioneer Showcases by Candice Lola

Before the “War on Drugs” during Nixon’s reign and Reagan’s campaign of “Just say no’, cannabis was used as a utility for entrepreneurs. Unfortunately with its negative connotations towards racial identity and systemic oppression, black and brown communities have been the most unrepresented pioneers in the cannabis space. Since the era of its inception with Louis Armstrong’s “vipers” and the mix of cannabis with jazz, to the political fight that is still going on today, history makes little to no mention of what black women were doing during these times.

The rise of cannabis, from its influence in New Orleans to its migration up North, entailed speakeasies, music and “jazz cigarettes” in the 1930s. A pre-Harry Anslinger’s tirade of defeating all that is cannabis had the Harlem Renaissance and the beginning of the fight for equal rights. The Great Depression seemed like an opportunity to expand the cannabis industry, (textiles in hemp and its medicinal use) but unfortunately began negative rhetoric linking race, crime, and violence. Not only did black women have to fight for their seat at the table, but they also had to deal with the beginning (and unfortunate present-day) incorrect stigmas aligned with race and opportunity.

The post-Anslinger world was filled with racism, criminalization for a very bleak future for women and minorities. In a time when an eighth meant life in prison and a beneficial drug was classified as a Schedule l, the progression of cannabis and women of color became marginalized. It’s after the embrace of the Civil Rights Movements, the feminist era, and Woodstock in the 1960s and 1970s, the lines between legality and racial individuality became the push needed for change. Smoking pot was cool, and iconic actresses like Pam Grier and Diahann Carroll symbolize a new face for black women.

Fast forward from the 1990s to today, between the rise of cannabis in hip-hop, like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, to fashion and tech; black women are dominating in every industry. The conversation of privilege, mass incarceration and inclusion is now at the top of everyone’s agenda, and while its a slow start…it’s still a start. Women are now being embraced for the things that made them different. What a time to be alive when a top black mogul on the Forbes billionaire list is an open cannabis user; intertwining the gap between a suppressed gender and race.

Unfortunately even to this day, through history and the impact black women have made within the world of cannabis has been minimal. Stories of these badass women picketing, rallying and making progress against oppression have been overshadowed with legalities and politics. Today black ownership is up and especially with women capitalizing on beauty, health and dispensary ownership. According to 2017 data from Marijuana Business Daily, women account for 25% and Black ownership in cannabis hovers at 4.3%.

The new pioneers are now found in owners like Dr. Rachel Knox and Dr. Jessica Knox of The Canna MDs, Shanita Penny of Budding Solutions, Safon Floyd, Kali Wilder and Sirita Wright of Estrohaze, and Andrea Unsworth of Stash Twist, to name a few. These new black-owned, female speared businesses are taking advantage of the 45 billion dollar industry and are continuously growing. The more availability and access to the industry through laws and education will only promote the expansion of these minority owners. Taking the keys and lessons learned from an unspoken personal history are now assets to creating generational wealth for decades to come.

In the cannabis space, women of color represent longevity and triumph between mass incarcerations and negative media rhetoric in this industry. Before its legalization, exploitation and capitalistic society the cannabis space now holds, it once was used as a tool to feed homes, support families and an opportunity for business. From a historical perspective, in a male dominant society, women as a whole and specifically of color are the minority. The word pioneer is generally assimilated with synonyms like trailblazers and innovators, and within the cannabis industry, we can’t use those words without acknowledging black women.

Dasheeda Dawson

Being impressive is nothing new to The WeedHead founder, Dasheeda Dawson. Besides becoming the first black-led company to be featured in a Times Square digital billboard ad, Dawson is also an award-winning executive strategist, an impassioned cannabis advocate, and an author of a top-selling workbook. Her book entitled How to Succeed in the Green Rush intends to instruct and inspire entrepreneurs and contractors who are interested in the burgeoning cannabis industry. Her comprehensive background perfectly positions her to foresee trends in the marketplace; she has worked at the senior executive level for Victoria Secret, Target and the United Way and has garnered nearly 20 years of experience with brand marketing and strategic marketing. She is also a scientist and holds an undergraduate degree from Princeton in molecular biology.

Dawson was introduced to cannabis by her mother, who was suffering from breast cancer. It seemed to be the only thing that quieted her pain. “ Anything she had (used) prior to chemo had exacerbated it.” Even after her recovery, Dawson’s mother became a lifelong user of cannabis, even inviting Dawson to partake with her. There was only one issue. Dawson was an executive at Target and Minnesota was not a medical marijuana state. But when Dawson did smoke, she noticed that she coped better with the stress of corporate America and a sick mother. “…over time it became a big staple in our household.”

Dawson remained a closet cannabis user for years until one day, while being offered a promotion; a light bulb went off in her head. She thought about “how much effort I had put into my corporate positions and not necessarily seeing the benefit back. I had given, you know, nearly billions of dollars of extra business and I didn’t see 1 percent of that.” Soon after Dawson moved to Arizona, where medical marijuana was legal and began to do for that industry what she had done for industry giants before.  Her new focus grew into a brand, a book, and cannabis advocacy. Dawson currently serves as the Chief Strategy Officer for Minorities for Medical Marijuana and one of the co-founders for the Cannabis Education Advocacy Symposium & Expo. In these positions, she fights for further education and diversity in the cannabis industry. To put it simply and in her own words, “ People should, as adults, have to right to use it however they want to.” Taboo be damned, Dawson’s objective to make the use of cannabis in everyday life normal and accessible.

Sirita Wright

Sirita Wright is one of many black women working to create more diversity within the cannabis industry. Her company EstroHaze is run by herself and two other black women. Together they are working to partake in the “Green Rush”, a term applied to the growth and spread of marijuana business in the United States and Canada. Her company works to make room for other women of color to learn about the cannabis industry and the unlimited opportunities it offers. Wright had her first experience with cannabis at age 14 when she and her friends decided to skip school. Her first joint was unimpressive, “I don’t recall any real effects.” She reports.

Wright is brazen in the face of the cannabis taboo. “I am unapologetic. Cannabis is saving lives, creating jobs and a huge opportunity for people of color to attain generational wealth.”  This kind of brass is necessary when breaking into any burgeoning industry, let alone one with so much fraught history. It isn’t for the faint of heart.

Wright is also a writer who is passionate about women of color building generational wealth. While writing for Black Enterprise Magazine she urges readers to investigate the possibilities of the proposed $44 billion coming into the cannabis market by 2020. She has also interviewed the likes of singer/songwriter Ryan Leslie, the CEO of Slack Steward Butterfield, and covered the red carpet for Black Girls Rock. She is also an on-air personality, having appeared on the Breakfast Club on three different occasions. Every time she had the privilege of appearing on a platform she advocates for women of color and financial literacy. The cannabis industry provides a unique opportunity for Wright to combine her many talents. Thanks to her efforts the cannabis industry has room for more racial diversity, more female representation, and more chances for new entrepreneurs to change their financial situations, possibly for generations to come.

Hope Wiseman

Former investment banker, dancer for the Atlanta Falcons, and reality show personality Hope Wiseman is no stranger to excellence. Opening her cannabis dispensary Mary and Main at the age of 25 makes her the youngest African American woman in the country to own one. This is a smart move by any standard, but Wiseman was especially attracted to the economic growth the cannabis business is making. “ I remember watching CNBC and they were talking about how quickly the cannabis industry was growing. I had never seen an industry grow at double-digit rates consistently and the projections continue for years to come.” Wiseman saw a chance to jump in at the ground level and took it without hesitation.

Owning a small business allows Wiseman to have face-to-face interactions with her customers, granting her a peek into how her product affects their lives. She has had the opportunity to see cannabis ease pain, anxiety, and even ailments that her clients face. Observing these experiences showed Wiseman that the cannabis industry was not only economically attractive but powerful as well. “I really understood the level of impact I could make on someone’s life through Mary and Main.”

Wiseman is also one of the co-founders of Compassionate Herbal Alternatives (CHA). This incredible organization targets those who have been incarcerated or otherwise negatively affected by America’s “war on drugs”, and trains them to land an entry-level position in a licensed Maryland cannabis facility. It goes a step further to monitor the progress of these individuals inside these facilities to ensure upward mobility. Her passion and business know-how have been major assets in helping her and her business partners establish themselves as a brand. It wasn’t easy, with Wiseman’s age working against her in professional spaces.  “I feel like I’m a triple minority because I’m a woman, a minority and I’m only 25. When I walk into a room by myself and I’m representing our company, they immediately don’t take me seriously. Most of the time I have to prove myself.”

Wiseman has also shared that the community spaces don’t understand the project. Members of the city council are nervous about associating with it. But despite these challenges Mary and Main surges forward, becoming successful in Capitol Heights, Maryland and looking to open more locations nationwide. Through accessibility and education, Wiseman hopes to end the taboo against marijuana and invite more people to harness its power to heal.

Solonje Burnett

Culture Curator Solonje Burnett serves her community in every way as an event producer, artist, consultant, and political activist. It is her mission to give underrepresented communities a seat at the table within the cannabis industry and by extension all global business. With Danniel Swatosh, Burnett is a co-founder of Humble Bloom, where her production and storytelling talents enable events, education and opportunity to merge for the public good. Never missing a chance to speak out for equality, Solonje has been called “resolute in [her] resistance of the corporate takeover and commercialization of the industry, and [sees] diversity and inclusivity in cannabis as a stepping stone to healing systemic oppression and injustice.” As a private consultant to businesses and organizations, she also creates innovative workplace designs and programs to implement diversity and inclusivity. A member of the Equity First Alliance Steering Committee, Burnett was recognized as one of 15 Women to Watch in the CBD Industry in Marie Claire and Culture Magazine’s Five Cannabis Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2019, with features in publications and podcasts including Vogue, VICE, WGSN, Cheddar, Women & Weed, Miss Grass, Maria and Jane, Supermaker and more.