By Sam Wood The Philadelphia Inquirer
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) While men dominate the cannabis space, in Philadelphia, there are plenty of female entrepreneurs who are making their mark taking on crucial leadership roles across the industry.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
One area woman has received $3.5 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health to study aspects of marijuana.
Another is a former martial arts athlete who ran an erotic boutique before seguing into CBD products. And a third is a former Top Chef contestant who infuses marijuana in her food and aims to write a cookbook.
Cannabusiness is attracting women of all backgrounds, from millennials to boomers, from private equity hotshots and serial entrepreneurs to planners of underground pot parties.
Is there "pink-washing" in marijuana, where male-owned businesses use women as cover on an application? Probably. But nevertheless, women persist.
The Inquirer is profiling women who have started businesses or are active in the field of recreational and medical marijuana. Pennsylvania and New Jersey both award medical marijuana licenses, among 33 states that have done so, and there have been proposals in both states to broadly legalize recreational use.
It's not just marijuana that is opening up business opportunities. Hemp, marijuana's cousin and the source of the nonintoxicating CBD, was grown in Pennsylvania for more than 260 years as a valuable cash crop until it was banned in the 1930s.
Hemp production became legal for research in 2014, and now is legal to farm across the United States. Researchers are exploring the plant's potential to suppress weeds, add diversity to crop rotations, and boost farmers' bottom lines.
Chris Visco is Pennsylvania's dominant retailer of medical marijuana. The mother of three is the cofounder and CEO of TerraVida Holistic Centers, with three cannabis dispensaries scattered across the Philadelphia suburbs, and the largest legal weed dealer in the Keystone State.
TerraVida sells between 30 and 40 pounds of marijuana flower a week through each of its three locations. Visco employs 130 full-time workers.
"There are very few women in weed," said Visco, one of the most high-profile names in Pennsylvania's marijuana industry, male or female. She's hoping other women will join her in the business, although she acknowledges it requires serious capital.
"Women need to raise their own money and put their face on the business. Right now, we're one of the the only women-owned [marijuana] businesses in the state. We got investors, but we made sure to retain control," Visco said.
And there is pink-washing going on, she alleges. "Some men put their wife's name on the application" for a marijuana businesses that isn't truly female-owned or -operated.
"It's definitely the hardest thing I've ever done," said Visco, a native of Conshohocken and a retail guru who was mentored by the president of Boscov's. She has said she wants to be known as "the Al Boscov of cannabis."
What would she advise other women thinking of getting into marijuana as an industry?
"Do it, but be aware of the challenges. Make sure to get private investors, venture capital and angel investors, and have a strong financial plan."
Business runs in her blood. Visco's grandmother started a plastics company in Trevose, and "she gave me little jobs as a kid in the back office."
And be prepared to do a lot of your own marketing, she adds.
"I personally appear at all kinds of events in the community." She'll be speaking next on Nov. 12 at the KleinLife center at 7763 Old York Rd., Elkins Park.
Snider is considered Philadelphia's first-mover in cannabis investments. She became interested in the business of medical cannabis while she developed LindiSkin skincare products. It was while studying available treatments for cancer patients, she said, that she saw a need to develop best practices for an industry hampered by a dearth of science-based research.
Snider was at the vanguard of the legal cannabis expansion in Pennsylvania. She has been actively investing since the days when medical cannabis was legalized in only a handful of states. She co-founded Treehouse Global Ventures investment firm and also is involved with the Arcview Group, Greenhouse Ventures, and Manna Capital; property-focused Stem Holdings; Kind Financial, which provides banking services to cannabis businesses; And companies such as Lenitiv Scientific, founded by Montel Williams.
Her philanthropic endeavors include serving as the chair of Athletes for Care, a nonprofit founded by pro athletes who advocate for cannabis research and education, and working with the Entrepreneurship and Social Impact Initiative to foster diversity in the cannabis industry.
Her advice to women entering the cannabis space: "Stay focused. The cannabis industry isn't one industry. It's 100 industries, no different than the rest of the business world. It's agriculture, retail, branding, technology, insurance, legal. Focus on one sector."
Also, cannabusiness prides itself on being socially conscious, and keeping women and minority access top of mind, Snider said. "Women and minorities are recognized as untapped and needed as a resource. There's a great opportunity right now." That said, the ratio of women founders to men in cannabis is probably still around 20%, which needs improvement, Snider added.
Cherron Perry-Thomas, co-founder of the Diasporic Alliance for Cannabis Opportunities (DACO), is spreading the word. "DACO was created to promote awareness," said the Germantown marketing executive. "You have a lot of marginalized communities that are not aware of the legal space and the economic opportunities happening in cannabis."
Perry-Thomas and co-founder Desiree Ivy launched DACO last year with a conference at Temple University that attracted over 800 people. "That showed us that there's a lot of smart people who want this information. A demographic survey showed that 75% of the attendees were college-educated and 65% made $75,000 or more a year."
Perry-Thomas said her desire for social impact drives her passion for the nascent marijuana industry. "How can we take this business and revenues from this industry and put it somewhere where it can make a larger social difference, especially in population centers that have been devastated by the War on Drugs?"
She teaches aspiring entrepreneurs what questions to ask. "It's about more than 'how can we make money,'" she said. "It's about showing people how we can create intergenerational health."
Maria Rodale was chairman and CEO of Rodale Inc., which published Men's Health, Women's Health, Prevention, Runner's World, Bicycling and other magazines before it was sold to Hearst in 2017.
Now she's joined the advisory board of Treehouse Global Ventures, working with Snider and others in the cannabis investment space. She recommends watching Grass Is Greener, a Netflix documentary about the history of marijuana and the targeting of African Americans during the War on Drugs.
"While I myself am not a big proponent of the use of cannabis for recreation, I'm very interested in its medicinal uses and hemp for farmers," she said. "As a publisher. I saw the double-edged sword of the pharma industry up close. I'm very interested in the power of plants and organic remedies in partnership with medicine. But if you're going to pick between Vicodin and oxycontin or smoking a joint, for God's sake smoke the joint."
Treehouse invests in hemp, cannabis, and CBD companies that preferably support women and minorities, Rodale said. "This industry today reminds me of the early days of organics and the vitamin industry. There are a lot of players, some credible, some not at all. There's no clear regulations, and the research is still just in its infancy."
She is also a current board member of the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit agricultural research organization near Kutztown, Pa., now researching hemp as a crop.
"Hemp was one of the most important crops around the world," she said. "Then it was banned, and we've become a culture of corn and soy, which is overproduced and unnecessary." Luckily, she noted, hemp was made legal to grow in the U.S. last year.