women in cannabisAja Atwood, co-founder of Trella Technologies

Breaking The Grass Ceiling: Eight Women Who Are Ruling Cannabis

The cannabis industry is flourishing at a time when women and nonbinary people have more opportunities than ever. On average, women hold more high-level positions within the cannabis world than in other industries, and they’re making significant impacts along the way. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating just some of the women who are making waves in the cannabis industry. From technology to photography to the marriage of sex and cannabis, these eight women are helping shape the way we grow, view and consume cannabis.

Aja Atwood: Co-Founder Of Trella Technologies

Aja Atwood, co-founder of Trella Technologies, combined her interest in cannabis with her background in mechanical engineering when she helped launched the company. With its clever design, Trella’s space-efficient and automated setup is the perfect solution for growing tall plants in small spaces or in urban settings. With a combination of innovation and community spirit (Trella plans to gift units to nonprofits, caregivers and growers serving urban “food deserts”), this company is one to watch with Atwood at the helm.

Age: 39
Location: Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Time in the cannabis industry: Since 2014

BigBudsMag: Which came first for you, engineering or cannabis?

Aja Atwood: Engineering came first, but as my interest in holistic and plant-based healing methods increased, I discovered the cannabis plant from a healing perspective. Prior to that, I always considered cannabis to be a recreational drug. I started researching the plant and discovered its endless healing opportunities. I started growing my own plants, and I knew I wanted to get involved in the industry in some capacity. I was an engineering manager at the time, and my travel schedule was hectic. I knew I had to rely on automated solutions to control and maintain my grow, and that’s how the idea of TrellaGro LST came to be — I wanted to automatically train and control my tall sativa plants that were growing in my basement, while traveling.

BBM: How does the cannabis industry stack up to engineering when it comes to the treatment of women?

AA: When I first got involved with the cannabis industry, the majority of my peers were women, and I’d heard stories of sexism in cannabis just as it persists in any industry. The difference with cannabis is that we have the benefit of perspective — to look at industries like engineering and tech, and to create and live by new standards for what a business’s organizational chart should look like. While there’s space for everyone, I also believe in balance and maintaining space for those who put in the work to get the industry to the level it is today.

BBM: What advice would you give to women looking to enter the cannabis industry?

AA: Become an advocate first, help others, find what resonates with you, develop a plan, and stay focused. It’s the same advice I give everyone.

Ophelia Chong

(Photo: © Pietro Chelli)

Ophelia Chong: Founder And COO Of StockPot Images

You may not realize how often you’ve been influenced by Ophelia Chong. She merged her background in photography and experience as a creative director to create StockPot Images, a rapidly growing company that is literally changing the way we view cannabis (beyond the stereotypical stoner motif). And people are noticing — StockPot Images has even partnered with Adobe. Beyond her company, Chong is also a co-founder of Asian Americans for Cannabis Education, which helps to connect and empower Asian communities on cannabis issues, news and policies that affect them.

Age: Unicorn
Location: Los Angeles
Time in the cannabis industry: Five very fast years

BBM: What prompted you to start StockPot Images?

Ophelia Chong: My sister has an autoimmune disease and was using cannabis to help with her condition. She was visiting from a foreign country and had to come here to ingest cannabis. As she was eating an edible, I looked over and thought, “She’s a stoner.” I caught myself stereotyping her with propaganda that I’d been fed since I could walk. That day, I created StockPot Images and launched it five months later with 30 photographers and 3,000 images. We’re now at 240-plus [photographers] with more than 25,000 images — and partnered with Adobe.

BBM: Have you experienced any sexism in this industry?

OC: No, I haven’t. I’m past the age for exploitation, and I look like someone you don’t want to irritate. It’s my “short, yellow and eye roll” stance that gets everyone in line.

BBM: What advice would you give to women looking to enter this industry?

OC: Don’t chase the occupation or business you have no skills in — add “cannabis” to what you do best. Be it accountant, attorney, designer, marketer, etc. Begin with your best, and then dive deep into the industry and learn before you walk the walk. There is nothing that’s more of a turnoff than when someone comes in thinking they know it all in front of people who have been advocating for decades.


Katie Stem And Kate Black: Co-Founders Of Peak Extracts

With combined backgrounds in traditional Chinese medicine, Western medicine, herbalism, acupuncture, design and culinary skills, Katie Stem and Kate Black brought Peak Extracts to its current heights. The company is now the second largest cannabis chocolate manufacturer in Oregon.

Ages: 38 and 46
Location: Portland, Oregon
Time in the cannabis industry: Business founded in 2014

BBM: What sort of challenges did you face in getting Peak Extracts up and running?

Katie Stem: As with any business, the financial challenges were significant in the first several years. Kate and I worked for more than two years without pay, being supported by other jobs. The regulatory environment was the hardest part — licensing, municipal approval of our equipment (a 14-month process) and constantly changing packaging, labeling and testing rules has been a roller coaster of pressure and unanticipated expenses.

BBM: Have either of you experienced sexism in this industry?

Kate Black: Yes, a great deal. Our sector of the industry, extraction and manufacturing, is at the convergence of several male-dominated fields — engineering, business, science and cannabis. We were the first, and for many years the only women to own an extractor fabricated by one of the biggest companies in the industry. The assumption made by that company [and our municipal government] was that we were incapable of running the machine without male assistance. In fact, in order to get permitted after a couple of failed attempts with inspectors, we had a [large, bearded] friend of ours pose as a technician. He had spent zero time with our machine or in our facility, but his presence had an immediate effect and moved our case forward with the regulators.

BBM: What advice would you give to women entering this industry?

KS: Having allies of all genders is invaluable. Without our male friends, we would have missed out on so many industry secrets, strategy sessions and personal connections with powerful members of the community. However, it’s also very important to both support and be supported by other women in the industry, as they have a unique perspective on the challenges we face. If someone says you can’t do something, research it, pivot and try a different approach. Don’t give up. Women have fared so well in cannabis because we’ve had a lifetime of hearing that we aren’t capable or allowed to do certain things. It wasn’t true in general, and it’s certainly not true in cannabis.

Aliza Sherman - Co-Founder And CEO Of Ellementa

Aliza Sherman: Co-Founder And CEO Of Ellementa

A mere two years in the industry, Aliza Sherman is already shaking things up. Leaning on her vast experience in breaking glass ceilings (in 1995, Sherman founded Cybergrrl, the first full-service internet company to be owned by a woman), she created Ellementa, a space where women support and educate each other about cannabis. This global women’s cannabis wellness network hosts gatherings and events across the country, so visit the Ellementa site to find where your local chapter is.

Age: 54
Location: Alaska
Time in the cannabis industry: Two years

BBM: Where did the idea for Ellementa come from?

Aliza Sherman: I noticed that when I would go to women-oriented cannabis events, they were really interesting but they were only about business. I had so many basic health and wellness questions, and I wanted a forum where they could be answered. I went on Facebook and announced what I was working on, and all of my girlfriends came out of the woodwork as being cannabis users or curious. So, I took the idea behind Cybergrrl, and it’s a replication of that. Ellementa is women teaching women, hearing from female experts and learning about the science in a way that’s easy to understand. It’s a personal guide for cannabis and CBD for health and wellness.

BBM: Had you experienced sexism in the workplace before?

AS: I was in the music business prior to some of my other careers, and spent seven or eight years in what was a misogynistic time for the music business. I was being paid half of what the men were being paid, and was told that it was because I was young, single and had no expenses. I had no idea that was wrong, but it was a bit of an awakening for me.

BBM: What challenges are women facing in the cannabis industry?

AS: What’s happening in the cannabis industry, other than the barrier of legality, is that it is moving so rapidly. We’ve already watched California legalize recreational and women go out of business. And minorities going out of business — because they were undercapitalized. If you look at the businesses that are capitalized, you will have to dig deep and look very hard to find women or minorities at the helms of these much larger cannabis companies. But, I still find this industry to be welcoming to women. I haven’t seen all the barriers I saw in tech.


Ashley Manta: Creator Of CannaSexual

Ashley Manta has what would sound like a dream job to many: She spends her days talking about cannabis and sex. Manta is a sex educator, coach, and the creator of CannaSexual, a mindful method of combining sex and cannabis. She offers educational workshops, pleasure-focused events, private coaching sessions and more. Manta is not shy about either of these so-called vices, and works tirelessly to dismantle stereotypes and stigmas associated with both.

Age: 32
Location: Long Beach, California
Time in the cannabis industry: Four years

BBM: How did you come to combine cannabis and sex into a career?

Ashley Manta: I’ve been a sex educator since 2007, with much of my focus on trauma, sexual healing, STI awareness and stigma, body confidence, communication, and pleasure and sensuality. When I moved to California from Pennsylvania in 2013, I experienced medical cannabis for the first time. The following year, I learned of a THC-infused sex oil produced by a company called Foria and wanted to try it. I am a sexual assault survivor, and I experienced pain with penetration for more than half my life. That oil was the first thing that allowed me to have pain-free sex. I quickly realized there was a massive knowledge gap in the world of sexuality professionals about the pleasurable and therapeutic benefits of cannabis. I decided that I wanted to explore and learn as much as I could, and then share those benefits with my colleagues and clients — both through my own subjective experience and through research and study with cannabis industry professionals.

BBM: You work at a very interesting intersection of cannabis and sexuality. Have you experienced any sexism or similar roadblocks along the way?

AM: It is a unique intersection to be sure, and fraught with taboos and stigma on both sides. The main roadblocks I’ve found tend to be about people not taking my work seriously — seeing sexuality as a frivolous topic rather than one worthy of thoughtfulness and consideration. I find it frustrating to have my work sometimes dismissed as superficial, especially considering that the impetus for my work was seeing a need for cannabis to be addressed vis-a-vis sexual violence survivors finding empowerment and joy in the bedroom. This later expanded to include all people who might benefit from employing cannabis as a sensuality enhancer.

BBM: Where do you hope to see women within the cannabis space in the next five years?

AM: I want to see women and nonbinary people in every boardroom in the industry, and on every panel at every conference. Businesses benefit from diversity in perspectives, and you don’t get those points of view when everyone in the room is a cisgender white guy. I’d also like to see significantly more women-owned companies receiving [venture capital] money.

BBM: Do you have advice for women wanting to enter the cannabis industry?

AM: Networking is everything. Go to events, connect with other folks who are doing what you want to be doing. Practice collaboration and lift each other up — there’s plenty of blue ocean to go around for all of us. Most importantly, don’t lose sight of the core social justice issues in the cannabis industry — the fact that people of color have been historically targeted by law enforcement for cannabis-related offenses. The victims of the so-called war on drugs deserve to be out of jail, with records expunged, and have plentiful opportunities to make money in this industry.

CEO Jade Daniels And COO Harlee Case Of Ladies Of Paradise

CEO Jade Daniels And COO Harlee Case Of Ladies Of Paradise

Ladies of Paradise is a women-run creative agency and brick-and-mortar store where “women are appreciated, celebrated and supported.” The company does it all, from cannabis event planning, graphic design, packaging, creative content development, educational meetups, and a variety of product lines. Beyond the business, Ladies of Paradise works to elevate women while normalizing cannabis.

Age: 31 and 27
Location: Portland, Oregon
Time in the cannabis industry: Four and two years, respectively

BBM: What was the inspiration behind Ladies of Paradise?

Harlee Case: To spotlight women in cannabis who were mastering skills and roles in a growing industry that had been previously dominated by men. There are so many women doing great things in cannabis, and when we launched our blog in 2017, we wanted to focus on giving those women a platform.

Jade Daniels: We both worked in fashion before Ladies of Paradise and sometimes found that there was a competitive and catty nature among women. After staying with The Grow Sisters in Humboldt and meeting so many wonderful women in the Portland cannabis community, we wanted to hone in on that inviting, collaborative vibe that cannabis brought out. Girls in our crew would rather pass joints than judgments, and that’s the way it should be.

BBM: What compelled you to focus on women in particular in the cannabis space?

JD: I helped open my fiancé’s dispensary in 2015 and met a lot of really rad chicks who were working in the industry, whether it was growing, making edibles, handling the paperwork for rules and regulations, etc. I found that the owners of weed companies you’d often see on Instagram actually had their wives, girlfriends or sisters helping them behind the scenes, and I really wanted to give those women their shine.

HC: Because these women were working on farms and doing manual labor, we noticed they weren’t feeling as feminine or pretty as they’d like, so we would style them and help them feel beautiful and then take their photos. It’s always such a fun time for everyone involved.

BBM: Where do you hope to see women within the cannabis space in the next five years?

JD: I hope to see more women CEOs in the cannabis space and more women-owned companies receiving funding. I love the aesthetic that women are bringing to the industry, and it’s great to see cannabis brands have their artistic visions and non-discriminatory marketing tactics.

BBM: How can women help support other women in this space?

HC: By being nice to one another, by supporting each other’s brands and ideas, and by choosing to collaborate with one another over competing.

BBM: Do you have any advice for women wanting to enter the cannabis industry?

JD: Work hard, hold your own and keep reaching for the top. All of these things can take you a long way in this industry.

HC: Know your worth and stay true to who you are.

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