The initiative is building gender equity in cannabis

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I meet Amy Margolis at The Commune, her plant-filled, exposed-brick coworking space with floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights, located in Portland’s Old Town. The majority of people huddled around tables in a large meeting room are women who run emerging cannabusinesses, which makes the shared office look as if it’s The Wing for weed.

But this isn’t your typical coworking set up; all of the companies that work at The Commune are part of the first cohort of The Initiative, a startup accelerator program for women-owned ventures in cannabis.

“The main barrier to equity is the traditional influx of capital,” Margolis says. “The more you see traditional capital and traditional business people — primarily white men — in cannabis, the more you see women and POC being pushed to the fringes. It makes it very hard as a capital-intensive business, when we know that white men primarily fund other white men.”

Margolis spent years as a criminal defense attorney, and gradually found herself taking on more and more cannabis clients — leading her to found the Oregon Cannabis Association in 2014. When Oregon legalized recreational sales to adults in 2015, Margolis took stock of the rapidly-expanding industry and saw an equity gap — not just in terms of gender, but also in terms of racial and LGBTQ equity among industry leaders.

The Initiative came together quickly; what was just an idea in May 2018 grew into the coworking space that August, followed by an October retreat. The Initiative’s first accelerator round began this January with eight startups, a board packed with industry leaders, and an investor pool pledged to provide “follow-on funding” upon program completion.  

The day I visit, Margolis is helping the cohort prepare for The Initiative’s penultimate assignment: pitching investors at the Arcview Investor Forum in Vancouver, Canada. Margolis is perched on a cushy leather sectional, her feet propped on a coffee table and a laptop balanced on her knees as she reviews the upcoming agenda. Seated in a wide circle around her are founders from businesses like Barbari, Hana Medicinals, Leif Goods, Make & Mary, Mendi, Orevape, and a new project from the women’s cannabis network Tokeativity. Not every business in the cohort is at this meeting; some are based in far-flung cities like Oakland but will join the group in Vancouver.

Angele, the Commune’s manager and Margolis’s executive assistant, comes into the room with printed copies of the pitch decks that each business will present at Arcview, reminding the founders to send her any updates since they won’t be running their own audio-visuals at the event. Margolis is reminding people that if they are driving to Vancouver instead of flying, they should be prepared to explain to immigration why they have, for example, a car full of CBD literature.

Someone calls out, “remember your business cards.”

Some of the reminders might seem redundant to anyone who has been running a venture capital-based business for years. But for underrepresented groups launching businesses for the first time, these little clues are vital keys that help unlock doors in a white male-dominated industry.

“The cohort will come away with a network,” says Margolis. “They’re coming away with some more confidence in themselves. If I hope for anything we’ve done here — it’s everything they think about doing something, take that and multiply it times 20. Think bigger, move faster, be cocky. Women don’t hear that enough.”

Over The Initiative’s three-month program, founders learn everything from how to talk with investors to how to make sales and prepare for nationwide expansion. Most of the founders have day jobs, or are slowly building up to devoting themselves to cannabis full-time.

Valarie Sakota and Meryl Montgomery, founders of the herbal smoking blend company Barbari, are in the early days of operating their business full-time. Meryl left a digital content strategy career behind in 2018, and Valerie quit her advertising job this February. The partners introduced their herbal smoking blends on the market last year. But since the accelerator began, they’ve gained a huge network, new skills, and no small amount of clout.

“We’ve been able to get a lot of strategic guidance in building out our business plan over the next few years,” says Meryl. “And being able to have a constructive place to practice for things like pitches, but also having them help find or weak spots. It’s been a really collaborative process.”

A Mendi meeting with Rachael Rapinoe (first on the right); Mary Emily O’Hara

While network-building is the biggest perk for established businesses already making sales, other cohort members are still in the early stages. Mendi hopes to have its cannabis pain-management products on the market in July. And while gummies and salves may not be unheard of on the existing legal market, Mendi is aiming for a different kind of customer: professional athletes. And with retired soccer star Rachael Rapinoe (sister of U.S. Women’s National Team forward Megan Rapinoe) at the helm, networking is the least of Mendi’s needs.

“What makes Mendi unique is we have a pretty robust team of five co-founders, but we also have a pro athlete ecosystem we are working with for research and development feedback,” says Rapinoe. “We have an opportunity to leverage the platform of athletes to challenge the stigma of cannabis and disrupt the pain relief market.”

Mendi’s biggest barrier, Rapinoe says, is the stigma against cannabis in sports. But while some drugs are looked down upon, traditional pain medicine is overused — and the opioid crisis has hit pro athletes as hard as the rest of the nation. Rapinoe has seen the problem firsthand, and Mendi’s mission of expanding healthier pain management options is personal for her.

“We’ve seen opioids being passed out to pro athletes like they’re candy, for far too long,” says Rapinoe. “It’s happened to myself, to members of my family, to teammates, and to many pro athletes that I grew up admiring. If I can make a small change in the opioid crisis for pro athletes as well as the other active people in pain, that’s something I will dedicate my life to.”

It’s this kind of overarching social good mission that Margolis looks for when choosing companies for The Initiative. Among the first cohort is Urbn Cirque, an Oakland-based startup working to increase equity and representation of the communities most impacted by marijuana prohibition. The black-owned company sells sesh kits that feature cannabis products made by underrepresented minorities, and that incorporate history and cultural information so consumers can learn about things like “Teapads” — private homes in Depression-era Harlem where marijuana could be bought and smoked. Other cohort companies do their giving back financially; Barbari donates 5 percent of all sales to FIERCE, a New York-based member organization for young LGBTQ people of color.

“This is a pretty progressive industry borne out of a social justice movement. That should be remembered and that work should be carried on,” says Margolis.

In cannabis, as a young industry builds its foundation for what will likely soon be a national infrastructure, there’s an opportunity to glue social equity into the basic framework. Right now, Margolis sometimes struggles to capture investment interest based on gender equity and social good alone — “I have to rephrase it as ‘unique deal flow,’ and then they’re interested” — but she’d like to see industry leaders become more dedicated to inclusivity for its own sake. And she says small businesses are in a more powerful position than they sometimes realize: acquisition targets can tell larger companies that if they want to buy them out, for example, they have to put more women and people of color on the board.

“This program can make a difference but it can’t make all of the difference,” Margolis says. This industry can be anything it wants. You have to say ‘I’m going to make a commitment to make sure this looks more equitable.’”

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