Leading up to legalization, the weed industry was sold as a shining opportunity for Canadian women. But for these three, that has not been the case
It was a certainty. Canada’s cannabis industry was going to be enormous. It was supposed to create more than 150,000 jobs with products and brands that would disrupt the booze sector, smash the stoner culture stigma and heal the masses with therapeutic and pain-relieving innovations.
It was also supposed to shatter the glass ceiling. The potential to rebrand weed as a wellness tool was particularly appealing to women’s media, eager to spot the next Goop. With headlines like, “Is it time to quit your job and work in weed?” and “I traded my job for a cannabis start-up,” they presented the burgeoning cannabis industry as an opportunity-filled landscape readied for Canadian women to move in. Unlike tech or finance, women were already on the frontlines of activism, compassion clubs, home-growing and research — the same barriers that existed in other sectors didn’t seem to apply, and being open-minded to cannabis seemed like the only prerequisite.
Unfortunately, cannabis legalization did not go as planned. A bumpy retail rollout, the sophisticated illicit market, expensive and confusing regulations and poorly allocated venture capital have combined to create a toxic brew of challenges. Seemingly overnight, startup founders became CEOs and managers — without any experience managing people or the massive sums of money at their disposal.
As for women in the industry, jobs at weed startups have been guttingly disappointing.
“Back when Gill (Polard) and I used to do the High Friends podcast we used to say, ‘If you’re a woman, join the industry,’” says Rachel Colic, brand strategist and founder of Boss Ladies of Cannabis, a database of professional women in the sector. Now, she compares recommending weed jobs to her peers to recommending a bad boyfriend.
“Women are not finding this a welcoming environment — an environment where they feel valued and seen and appreciated and paid well and whatnot,” she says. “This is not a fruitful place to bring your career at the moment, especially if you’re a woman.”
To learn more about the situation, we spoke with three women — on the condition of anonymity — about their experiences in the industry. These are their stories.
‘You’ll never be a CEO’
Amy joined the C-suite of a Toronto cannabis startup for the experience, she says. She had been successful in tech already, but had never taken a company public before — something she was eager to learn more about.
For the first few months, she describes the job as a “high.” She had never seen money flow in so easily before. But as a wave of new hires joined the team, their CEO, who hadn’t turned 30 yet, turned away from fundraising and toward the daily operations of the company.
The dream job quickly became a nightmare.
The company’s newly formed culture committee, tasked with brainstorming the company’s key values and creating a mandate for the growing business, presented their ideas to management. In the meeting, she says the CEO ripped it up.
“He thought that we didn’t need any other values except for ‘mindfulness,’” she says. “We’d be giving examples (of other values), and he’d be like, ‘That’s mindfulness.’ We’d be like, ‘What about, taking responsibility?’ And he’d be like, ‘That’s mindfulness.’ And we’d be like, ‘No. That’s … not what it is.’”
This was only the tip of the iceberg. As they got closer to the IPO, Amy says she realized the CEO wasn’t listening to her suggestions — or perhaps he never had been. Working 12-hour days, seven days a week, she says raising money suddenly became more challenging — they were far from the only startup in the green rush.
Eventually, their investment relations firm, a key player for securities compliance and communications, quit. It was then that Amy felt all the pressure at once. She says it seemed like the IPO would be a failure and she didn’t feel empowered to mitigate the fallout. She broke down in tears.
“(The CEO) got upset with me for crying,” she says. “He told me how unprofessional it was and that he doesn’t want to hear me crying from other people on the team. I got really upset with him and I said that I couldn’t stand working for him anymore. And then he said, ‘Well, you’re so emotional you’re never going to be a CEO,’ or something like that. And I quit. In that conversation, yeah.”
‘Chaotic and dysfunctional’
Single mom Jennifer hadn’t worked full-time for more than seven years when a friend, another parent at her kids’ school, asked if she wanted to help with the first cannabis harvest for her husband’s company.
“It wasn’t supposed to be a job. It was just supposed to be a two-week thing,” she says. “So I went in there and I just found it absolutely fascinating. Even though I’d grown up in Kelowna — I know this sounds crazy — I’d never seen a cannabis plant in my life.”
Huddled among an eclectic crew of business associates, friends, parents and workers from the illicit market, Jennifer loved getting out of the house, learning to trim cannabis flower from the stems.
“People had so many crazy stories, and there were all of these different people,” she says. “I just thought it was the most fascinating, interesting place.”
Eventually, Jennifer accepted a full-time job at the cultivation facility. What she didn’t know was that the job she took had previously been offered, and then rescinded, to two people already there on staff. Unsurprisingly, they weren’t happy she was chosen to manage them. Neither were their friends.
“They had their crews. Certain people had axes to grind with other people — someone had even taken a hit out on someone when they were working,” she claims.
Despite not being well-compensated nor given a management job title, Jennifer says she was responsible for between 10 and 30 people at a time — some of whom would bully her or try to make her look bad by blaming her for mistakes they’d made. “It was chaotic and dysfunctional. And they put me in this position of supervising all of this chaos, with all of this resentment.”
“I reported bullying and harassment of myself and others. I reported things I thought were unsafe. I followed the employee handbook to a ‘T,’ and that earned me the label of being a troublemaker.”
The pressure to get product out the door to suppliers grew after legalization, and as a result, she says the company’s compliance to Health Canada’s strict regulations softened. Jennifer believed the company’s entire future depended on its licences, which allowed them to grow and sell cannabis products. To protect them, she would report non-compliance and inform management when she thought they were at risk (the correct protocol as outlined in their employee handbook).
It all came to a head in December, when management wanted to report higher sales for their final quarter and Jennifer started working longer hours. “That’s when we started working without PICs,” she says, referring to a “Person In Charge,” who are mandated by the Cannabis Act. They’re employees who have been granted security clearance by Health Canada to oversee certain higher risk operations.
“The first time it happened, I was in the vault with my manager and one of my colleagues,” she says. “And I said, ‘What about a PIC?’ And my manager said, ‘Oh, screw the rules.’”
Jennifer says procedures weren’t clearly explained, and she was trained to lock up the entire facility — the vault, the grow rooms, the security gates surrounding the facility — haphazardly, in a conversation over the phone. She continued to report non-compliance even though it would invite bullying and harassment from fellow staff members and management — which she would then document.
“I reported bullying and harassment of myself and others,” she says. “I reported things I thought were unsafe. I followed the employee handbook to a ‘T,’ and that earned me the label of being a troublemaker.”
Jennifer says she dreaded going to work so deeply, she would cry in her car on the way each morning. She became too afraid to enter the packaging department at the facility, concerned she would be bullied. In February, after unsuccessfully bringing her issues to management, Jennifer says she was fired without cause — but also told that they were reexamining surveillance footage from previous months, intent on identifying a fireable offence.
Documentation in tow, Jennifer filed three Worksafe BC claims and a Human Rights Tribunal complaint. In exchange for dropping the claims, she was given an undisclosed sum of money.
‘Just be cool’
Eva is quick to claim that her petite frame and blonde hair have never helped in terms of being taken seriously at work. But at the cannabis startup she joined, that didn’t seem to be a problem. From the outside, it looked like a casual and informal work environment; there was a cool factor to the company she joined.
But once she began working there, that same “cool factor” was used to ostracize her. “It was difficult,” she says. “They made it very clear to me that I was not cool. I didn’t go to the trendy bars that are so exclusive that people don’t know about.”
As the only woman in the office, Eva felt as though she was being targeted with sexist jokes. “I post on Instagram too much. They were always calling people ‘fucking losers.’ Fucking loser this, fucking loser that. It quickly became clear that they were such ‘bros.’”
Through it all, Eva tried to play it cool, “It was insane. I would jokingly, like a female, be like, ‘Now now boys, there’s a lady here, you can’t talk like that.’”
“I would go to my manager, and I’d be like, ‘I can’t live at home. It’s not a good thing for me right now. I need a raise. That was stupid on my end. I was never like, ‘I deserve it.’”
Her colleague, a young gay man, was referred to as “the office twinkie” by management, but she says she was too afraid to speak up because she was still on probation and felt she had to show them she could handle the startup atmosphere. She didn’t have a designated job title yet, and was told that opportunities and rewards awaited after a period of “all hands on deck.”
“I took on the classic female roles of organizing lunches, shipping, returns, writing letters, answering info emails — and let me tell you, we got a lot — all of the events, all of the legalities around everything, interviewing new hires, office managing, literally everything and then some.”
All the while, Eva was yearning to move out of her parents’ house. Finally, after a year of proving herself at a salary of $45,000, she asked for a raise. Despite a glowing performance review, she was only offered an additional $1,200 — $100/month before tax. She also got a job title — marketing manager — and after probing about being awarded shares in the company, she was given the shares that an outgoing employee forfeited.
“I would go to my manager, and I’d be like, ‘I can’t live at home. It’s not a good thing for me right now. I need a raise,’” she says. More than once, they responded with, “Why doesn’t your mom buy you a condo?”
The founders had grown up in wealthy families and the company had been at least partially funded by them. But it wasn’t until a sales team was hired, and its director was offered all kinds of extras, that Eva completely soured on the business.
“I’m being paid close to minimum wage and this new guy gets a car, great salary, $200,000/year for meals and entertainment,” she says. After that, she became more outspoken about what she says was unfair treatment. When male colleagues didn’t listen to her, she says she would complain to her managers — and be told to “just be cool” and “fucking chill.” She stopped getting invited to marketing meetings and sales lunches.
As legalization neared, the pressure was on to produce labels for their cannabis packages. Eva was tasked with designing labels under Health Canada’s strict, lengthy and very difficult to understand packaging rules.
“I got to the point where I didn’t know what to do, and (my colleagues) would be like, ‘Just read the manual,’” she says. “I’d be struggling, like ‘What size font this is supposed to be? What colours are we supposed to do — please help.’ And they’d be like, ‘Sorry, I gotta go, I have a kid. You got this.’ I’d be in the office sometimes until midnight. I’d have like 20-hour days. And I’m still getting $47,500.”
Her second performance review didn’t go as well as the first one. Even though one manager had rewarded her hard work with dinner and promises of better pay and more opportunities in the future, the CEO “shredded” her, she says.
“‘I didn’t wear makeup that day because I knew I was going to be upset,” she says. “You know when you’re crying and you’re not even sobbing, you’re just streaming tears — tears were streaming down my face. And he’s just yelling at me — all this crap he has to deal with because of me.”
And then she was offered a $10,000 raise. But, she discovered, so had everyone else.
A month later, Eva says another employee was hired to push her out. She gave notice and found a new job.
Due diligence before accepting a job
While the number of jobs on offer have dwindled and the green rush seems to have slowed to a crawl, all three women now wish they had put more thought into the cannabis industry before accepting their jobs.
Even one of Canadian cannabis’s most successful entrepreneurs, Jeannette VanderMarel, the co-founder of The Green Organic Dutchman and Good & Green, says she’s had a “bumpy ride.” At the beginning of her career, she was usually the only woman at the table who wasn’t an assistant or bringing coffee. It took time for her to demonstrate her skills. And even today, she still has to ignore sexist feedback that her male counterparts don’t.
“I’ve had threats, really sexist horrible comments on social media. People commenting on my hair, my clothes, my makeup — y’know, down to the vulgar suggestion that I use a cannabis grinder on some of my body parts. These are not comments that a male CEO receives. So yeah, let’s focus on the functionality of the company rather than the personal attacks. I’ve never seen comments like that to a male CEO or male officer of the company.”
VanderMarel recommends researching the management of a company before accepting a position. Many issues can arise from a lack of experience, and if management hasn’t demonstrated that they should be in their positions, it should be a major red flag.
She also says that now that the bubble has burst, perhaps managers at cannabis startups will take a more sober approach. “I’ve used the analogy of ‘crawl, walk, run, fly,’ and I think the cannabis industry unfortunately went from crawl to fly,” she says. “And now that it’s had to hit land again, it now has to learn how to walk.”
The parallel between women in the sector and the industry as a whole are obvious: Both have had to readjust their expectations after being brought back down to earth. While some women might have hoped to find a place where glass ceilings no longer exist, so far, the only thing the cannabis industry has shattered is expectations.
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Written by Kate Robertson