As cannabis began its long, chaotic transition from contraband to consumer product, about a third of the people involved in the emerging industry were women.
The billions of dollars involved in the markets for legal cannabis soon attracted the attention of multi-national corporations and big capital. As major players began taking over, they apparently brought gender discrimination along with them. Industry-wide statistics are hard to come by, but anecdotally, the percentage of women in the industry has decreased and older white males – as in many corporate hierarchies — are ascendant.
Two Reno entrepreneurs are fighting that trend — and helping other women break through the grass ceiling – with the Women in Cannabis Expo 2021, scheduled for Sept. 27-29 at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa in Reno. The expo features vendors/exhibitors, speakers, speaker panels, breakout sessions and sponsors. All involve women who have made their marks in marijuana-related markets or founded cannabis-related businesses.
Brooke M. Westlake, the founder and owner of ADA Lake Labs, a cannabis analysis firm, said she came up with the idea for the Women in Cannabis Expo after attending a marijuana trade show in Las Vegas in 2019. She signed up for what she thought was a forum centering on women in the industry.
The need for a weed fest
“It was billed as a ‘ladies night,’” Westlake said. “All they did was stick us in a room with some drinks. There were a lot of women there, and we networked a bit, but later I wondered why there wasn’t an expo for women who are interested in going into the cannabis business and aren’t just an afterthought at a general trade show. I started looking for something like that, but found none.”
She reached out to the investors who are backing her lab business “and they thought the idea for a women’s event was fabulous,” she said. Westlake, who has experience in the healthcare industry and holds a master’s degree in criminal justice, teamed up with her long-time friend Jelena Hatfield, who also has a background in health care and trade shows, and the Reno expo was born.
They recruited a battalion of sponsors, booked the venue and built a slate of speakers from around the country and the world. The presenters include women who own testing labs, dispensaries and companies that make cannabis or hemp products. Topics include navigating the legal issues of weed, lining up investors, handling government relations, registering trademarks, dodging banking pitfalls and marketing wares from eatables to wellness products to hemp/CBD offerings.
CBD is the non-psychotropic compound in hemp and cannabis and is used to treat various physical and mental health issues. THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces the “high” sensation and is also used as a medicine to increase appetite, treat insomnia and as a pain reliever. It can be consumed by smoking cannabis, but also is available in oils, edibles, tinctures, capsules, and more.
The expo is focused on both women who are already active in the industry and those who want to be, whether they are looking for a job path or a change in careers.
“This industry is still in its infancy,” said Westbrook, who was voted one of the “Most Important Women in Weed” in 2020 by the Green Market Report. “It’s important that we get the word out to women about the opportunities that are out there. There’s room; we want to help open those doors.”
Hatfield said that the business is about more than bud tenders, cultivators, dispensary managers and shop owners.
“I tell people that every job that people do, and the skills they already have, whether they are bookkeepers, managers, lawyers, craftspeople, health-care workers, can be adapted into the cannabis industry. There are opportunities everywhere.”— Jelena Hatfield, partner in Women In Cannabis
In their office on Mill Street, Westlake and Hatfield are in constant motion. They hustle on the phone lines, answer emails and do research online. Ideas flow. They cover walls with sticky notes and printouts about prospective sponsors, vendors and plans for both the expo and other cannabis-related projects and businesses. Their enthusiasm and energy fills the rooms.
Both women have overcome personal obstacles and are themselves in the process of mid-life career changes.
Lessons in resilience
Last year, Westlake, who is a former Miss UNR and has served on several state commissions and panels, recently went through a tumultuous – and public – divorce. Hatfield, who has been friends with Westlake since both were 16, is well known to many Truckee Meadows residents. Her painful and dramatic battle with flesh-eating bacteria while she was in high school, played out in headlines and news broadcasts in the late 1990s.
She fought the rare disease for months – and lost her lower legs, several fingers and a lot of her skin — before she beat the near-fatal infection. She has endured years of skin grafts and learning to walk with artificial legs, while making a living modeling and demonstrating prosthetics at trade shows.
Hatfield, now married with four children, said she first used medical marijuana edibles while fighting the bacteria, while weed was still a clandestine drug. Although Westlake already works in the cannabis industry, she has only recently started using edibles to deal with a lack of appetite, the result of a recent medical procedure.
Nevada, which has become a destination for cannabis aficionados and an epicenter of the industry, is the perfect place for the inaugural event, Hatfield said, and they plan to develop it into an annual exposition. “This year is the start of what we want to see doubling and tripling in the coming years,” she said.
The partners’ passion for the industry is based on both personal experience and the proven benefits of the weed and hemp products, which are an environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic, paper, fabric and many other materials.
Hemp, health care and beauty
“We’ve got speakers who have their own CBD skin-care lines and health-care products, an attorney who does litigation on behalf of cannabis companies and another lawyer who is an expert on trademark issues, nurses and coaches who teach about consumption (of THC products), cultivators, women who write or do podcasts about breaking the stigma surrounding marijuana, and a woman who did (jail) time when cannabis was illegal,” Westlake said.
“So we’re encompassing a lot of the things that people in the industry, or who want to break into it, need to know.”
Raising capital from investors, dealing with licensing, compliance with regulations and other issues are daunting hurdles for anyone who wants to get involved in legal marijuana businesses, she said. “It’s hard to find answers or even know who might have those answers,” Westlake said. “Getting women together with the experts is what the expo is all about.”
The event has 38 spaces for vendors, with a few spots still available. The partners expect between 500 and 1,000 attendees. “We’re seeing ticket sales daily,” Westbrook said. “We’re getting people from Nevada, other states, and people are even coming in from abroad, including Australia and Canada.”
COVID-19 precautions will be observed. Tickets are available online for the three-day expo or for single days.
The organizers will be offering several pairs of tickets to the event, with details to be announced soon. They also are looking for community volunteers to help staff the event. Anyone interested may send a message to the expo via its website.
There are 32 speakers scheduled for the event, including experts on cannabis law, trademarks, marketing, real estate, dispensary management, cultivation, edibles and writers who will talk about cannabis-related books and erasing the stigma attached to a product that was (and, federally and in some states, still is) illegal.
A listing of the speakers, their areas of expertise, and links to their websites is on the downloadable PDF, below.