We’ve all heard the statistics about women in business – that just barely a third of cannabis companies have women at executive levels, that only a shocking two percent of pitches from female entrepreneurs receive venture capital funding in a given year. While the appalling gaps in gender parity remain a fact, there are those working with all their power to change things for the better. Meet our superheroines: Hailing from diverse backgrounds, building brands across all aspects of the industry, and reinvesting their resources into making success more accessible for other women, these titans are a force to be reckoned with. You don’t need to be a numbers genius to profit from their examples.
Jeanne M. Sullivan
There can be no discussion of women in cannabis without mentioning Jeanne M. Sullivan. A true industry pioneer with over 25 years of experience as a venture capital investor, Sullivan is renowned for her fierce and infectious enthusiasm. Her familiar rallying cry to fellow investors to “Get your PhD in cannabis!” has led to millions upon millions of dollars raised across all areas in the space. A co-founder of a successful tech investment firm in New York City, Sullivan claims she is “on a mission to fund and fuel women CEOs (and a few good men).” She serves on the Board of Trustees of ASTIA, an organization that invests in women-founded companies in tech and life sciences. Particularly known in the last several years in cannabis for her achievements as an investor, advisor, connector and keynote speaker, Jeanne is now building investment platforms for The Arcview Group. She is a passionate advocate for legalization and regulation in the industry, and is a key leader in Arcview’s recently-announced Member Managed Fund, that was created by Viridian.
In high demand as an industry speaker, Sullivan also served for many years on the board of the New York Venture Capital Association and the Women’s Leadership Board at the Harvard Kennedy School, and currently serves as an Athena Fellow at Barnard College’s Athena Leadership Center. Honored by the New York Hall of Science for her work inspiring women and girls in the science and technology sectors, Jeanne now serves on their Board of Trustees. The New York Angels honored Jeanne with an OPEL (Outstanding Professionals for Entrepreneurial Leadership) award; Sullivan has truly laid the foundation for scores of others to succeed in uncharted territories. Forbes has cited her as “one of the women VCs changing the world – grooming the next generation of female entrepreneurs” and Business Insider honored Sullivan as a “rising star in Cannabis”. Every encounter with Sullivan is a lesson in the power of imagination. Here’s what Jeanne claims as her best achievement: Breaking ground in new sectors and inspiring others to follow – their tech fund was early to invest in leading cloud-based computing software and e-Commerce companies, and Jeanne Sullivan finds it thrilling to be an early student and investor in the complex cannabis sector – aiming to remove the stigma of the plant, source great business owners, and support women and diversity in the sector.
“Negotiate like a girl, because you can get what you want. You will hands-down never get what you don’t ask for.” This quote from Codie Sanchez’s personal website perfectly encapsulates her approach to business and life. Now Managing Director and Partner at Entourage Effect Capital (EEC, formerly Cresco Capital), a leading cannabis investment firm, Sanchez is one of the foremost figures shaping the industry for women and minorities. Formerly an award-winning journalist, she switched to finance so she could empower people making a difference in more direct ways. After managing mutual funds at Goldman Sachs and consulting for Facebook, Apple, and others, she turned her passion for healing full-force toward cannabis. As of November 2019, EEC has invested more than $100 million across 40-plus cannabis companies, and Sanchez has recently joined the board of the prestigious Arcview Group, where she will be spearheading efforts to foster more opportunities for diverse leadership in the space.
Consistently named as one of the most powerful women in cannabis by media including Fortune, Forbes, and Complex, Tahira Rehmatullah subtly drives the sector into the future. As president of T3 Ventures, a strategy consulting and advisory firm geared toward early stage companies and investment funds, she is known for her commitment to women and minorities succeeding in the space. Her forward-thinking leadership has been put to use throughout the industry, from her time as General Manager of Marley Natural, where she developed, launched and led product lines that came to define the iconic cannabis brand; to being Managing Director of investment firm Hypur Ventures; to her instrumental position as Chief Financial Officer of MTech Acquisition Corp., the first U.S.-listed Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) focused on ancillary cannabis businesses. In 2019, Rehmatullah worked hand-in-hand with MJ Freeway co-founder/CEO Jessica Billingsley to complete a unique industry transaction, when MTech and MJ Freeway merged to become Akerna, a cannabis tech company listed on the NASDAQ. Rehmatullah now serves on Akerna’s board of directors, one of the few women to sit on the board of a public cannabis company. It’s easy to see why Business Insider early on deemed the award-winning entrepreneur a “rising star” cannabis investor; her holistic approach also encourages others to shine.
Edibles queen Nancy Whiteman has moved mountains as CEO of Wana Brands. The Cornell-educated executive owned a successful marketing firm before making the move to cannabis in 2010, which certainly helped her and her team to quickly solidify the company’s place as the country’s number-one bestselling edibles brand. Under her direction, Wana has more units and dollars sold than any other edibles brand, and consistently leads the industry in quality, consistency, and potency; products are currently available in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, Illinois, Florida, and Michigan, with expectations to enter California, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington and internationally in Canada by the end of 2020. Whiteman emphasizes Wana’s mission to “enhance your life,” an ethos reflected in the company’s strong commitment to corporate social responsibility. They currently operate numerous initiatives that address issues of homelessness, domestic violence, and equitable access to healthcare. Additionally, Whiteman has a laundry list of achievements to her credit, being heralded as “The Queen of Legal Weed” by Inc Magazine and “the Martha Stewart of edibles” by Entrepreneur, developing Wana into one of the best places to work in cannabis according to mg Magazine, and delivering one of the first keynote addresses at South by Southwest’s inaugural official Cannabis Business track in 2019. Listed at Number Three on Cannabis Business Executive’s 2019 Power Women in Cannabis and as one of only six women named to High Times 100 this spring, Whiteman’s legacy in the space is secure and ever expanding. We can’t wait to see where she goes next.
She may have stepped down as the CEO of Marijuana Business Daily in December, but as co-founder and de facto captain of the leading cannabis B2B media source since 2011, Cassandra Farrington has arguably done more to change the course of the industry than anyone in the past decade. Not only did the former Citigroup executive and her business partner develop a platform for international business news in the legal cannabis space, providing a critical need for the burgeoning sector, but they also created the Marijuana Business Conference in 2012. Known as MJBizCon, it has become the world’s largest international cannabis industry conference, renowned for introducing new companies and innovations in its expo (as well as being the initial networking connection for countless other professional ventures). The 2019 show was the biggest MJBizCon yet, with over 1300 exhibitors drawing in 31,523 attendees from more than 75 countries. Meanwhile Farrington, who has been dubbed “High Priestess of Marijuana Business Intelligence” by Inc. Magazine, will continue her extraordinary work in the space as Chair of MJBizDaily’s Board. She has always been recognized as an agent of change in promoting women in leadership roles; on the subject of how to fight sexism in the cannabis industry she told us: “The best way to combat it is to continue to establish, support, and encourage female entrepreneurship. Because things change when women are indeed at every single level, in every single company, engaged in every conversation, and empowered to respond, ‘Dude, did you just say that?’” No one will ever have the last word on Cassandra Farrington, and we eagerly anticipate her next moves.
“Holy shit – she’s a force,” a top cannabis industry expert has said regarding Kim Rivers’s impact on the space. As CEO of Trulieve, Florida’s first and largest medical cannabis company which has now grown to one of the nation’s most profitable brands in the sector, Rivers holds an unrivaled power. In the position, she presided over the creation of Trulieve’s dispensary network in Florida, which counts 43 locations in the state to date, led a successful effort to raise capital by coordinating to sell Trulieve shares on the Canadian Stock Exchange, negotiated impressive acquisition licenses in California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and continues to direct cultivation, processing, and marketing strategies. “Our rapid expansion is due in large part to our focus on delivering a consistently high patient and customer experience. This focus drives everything from our breadth of high-quality cannabis products to the knowledgeable and accessible Trulieve employees in our dispensaries. It’s our ever-expanding base of loyal customers and our dedicated employees that have helped Trulieve develop the blueprint for a successful and profitable cannabis company,” Rivers said. Her background as an attorney, in which she specialized in mergers, acquisitions, and securities for large companies, has perfectly prepared Rivers to rise to the top in the Wild West environment of legal cannabis. During 2019 her name headed nearly every major industry listing, from Cannabis Business Executive’s Power Women of Cannabis to MJBizCon’s Trailblazing Women to High Times’s prestigious Female 50, a selection of the most influential women in the field. “As a female leader in the cannabis industry, I strongly believe in championing the need for more diversity across the market. I’m proud to be a pioneer in, but even more so, to be setting an example for young women nationwide that no career path is off-limits. The cannabis industry serves a wonderfully diverse community, but we still need to make major strides in ensuring that leadership reflects that diversity,” said Rivers.
A passion for rock climbing has evolved into an apt metaphor for Jessica Billingsley’s life: She takes risks, she scales walls against impossible odds, and she leads her teams to the summits with the most fascinating mix of responsibility, humility, enthusiasm and aplomb. Therefore it’s no surprise that the CEO and co-founder of Akerna, a full seed-to-sale cannabis technology company, is such a pioneering figure. Billingsley is the first female CEO of a cannabis company to have her business traded on NASDAQ, and Akerna itself is the first compliance technology firm in the space to be listed on the exchange. Other landmark feats: Being the initiators of an enterprise resource planning product specifically for cannabis called MJ Platform, which is offered through the company’s MJ Freeway entity, and being the first business of its kind to expand internationally. Akerna’s international portfolio includes 14 countries and the company has tracked $17 billion in worldwide client sales. Additional members of the Akerna family include LEAF Data Systems, supporting state government cannabis program operations; solo, integrated tagging and tracking technology for consumers and brands on a wide variety of platforms; and Canadian platform Ample Organics, a recently-announced acquisition. Billingsley has become one of the most sought-after executives in both cannabis and tech; she has been named to Fortune’s Most Promising Female Entrepreneurs, Inc. Magazine’s 100 Female Founders, Entrepreneur’s 100 Powerful Women, High Times’s Female 50, and many more accolades. Still, ever the good steward of others, Billingsley keeps her eyes on the broader horizon. She’s observed that the percentage of women in tech is currently lower than it was 25 years ago, warning in a recent comment to Forbes: “We are going in the wrong direction. We as a society – not just women – need to be thoughtful about how we progress again.” Thank goodness we have her example to show that with the right ingenuity and powers of foresight, we can indeed reach the peaks.
She’s not really a doctor, but she has been played on TV. Dina Browner, dubbed “Dr. Dina” by Snoop Dogg for her expertise in medical cannabis, is one of the great pioneers of the modern cannabis movement – and the inspiration for Nancy Botwin, the main character on Showtime’s hit Weeds. Browner’s advocacy in the space is legendary; Snoop Dogg, her longtime friend and business associate, gave her the “honorary doctorate” to celebrate her work in providing safe access to medical cannabis following the passage of California’s Compassionate Use Act in 1996. Numerous celebrities and dignitaries have approached Browner for her medical knowledge to grant them access to the best medical cannabinoids, and she has advised countless dispensaries and businesses on compliance and regulation in her home state of California, working closely with the cities of West Hollywood and Los Angeles, and nationally. Browner is the co-owner of the award-winning Alternative Herbal Health Services in West Hollywood (AHHSWEHO), the oldest continually operating dispensary in the United States. AHHSWEHO was the first dispensary in California to sell adult-use cannabis under the new laws in 2018, and the business inspired Ruth’s Alternative Caring on the Netflix series Disjointed, for which Browner consulted. Among her many achievements, Browner has been immortalized in the Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum (Barcelona and Amsterdam) exhibit on women who changed the cannabis industry.
At the top of 2020, Kimberly “Kim” Kovacs became the first woman to take on The Arcview Group’s role of CEO. Her appointment is a highly strategic and fortunate one for Arcview; the preeminent investment group will be able to draw on Kovacs’s nearly 20 years of success in venture capitalism and angel investment. Kovacs has had a long history of experience in California-based businesses focusing on tech and women-owned startups; in the cannabis space, she is perhaps best known for founding MyJane, an online curated cannabis experience specifically for women. MyJane’s popularity led to an acquisition by the cannabis business solutions giant Manifest 7 in 2019. Additionally, Kovacs is the managing director of Arroyo Ventures, a firm that empowers high-level investors and entrepreneurs to connect, with a special interest in promoting women-led entities and projects that strengthen local economies. Affiliated with several other companies in which Kovacs has taken a managerial role, including Golden Seeds (an investment firm in early-stage women-owned businesses) and TechCoast Angels (California’s leading source for startup funding), Arroyo has been vastly able to increase the growth capital potential of the startups that come under its wing. Now that she’ll be spearheading similar growth for Arcview, it’s clear Kovacs is thrilled about the new horizons ahead. “For me to lead this group and all it does to build a positive, healthy and diverse investment environment for cannabis is the perfect next step,” Kovacs told BusinessWire shortly after her appointment was announced. “We’re at a pivotal time in the cannabis industry, and I look forward to leading Arcview members through the growth of the industry as legalization opens up new markets and opportunities.”