Two pioneering women leaders in the evolving legal cannabis industry coined the term "grass ceiling" in 2017 as the title of their debut book. Penned by Ashley Picillo and Lauren Devine, Breaking the Grass Ceiling: Women, Weed & Business, shares personal accounts of perseverance — while battling old schools of thought — in a quest for equality, respect, and a voice at the top.

Today, "grass ceiling" is still used in headlines and among industry circles to describe the gender gap in the male-dominated, multi-billion dollar corporate landscape. According to a recent survey conducted by cannabis news outlet Marijuana Business Daily, women held just 22% of leadership roles in the industry in 2021, a decrease from nearly 37% two years prior. In 2019, the cannabis recruiting platform Vangst confirmed the invisibility of women in executive-level roles with a state-by-state breakdown: 58% of cannabis workers in New York identified as women.

Building Ladders

Khadijah Tribble, Chief Member and Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at Curaleaf, a vertically-integrated cannabis conglomerate across 23 states, sees the gender gap in leadership.

"If you are looking to be [a part of] somebody else's organization, there are very few large cannabis companies that are run by women," said Tribble. "So, I think there is a real ceiling and one of the things that we, as women or underrepresented groups, could probably do better is understand when it's time to say goodbye once you have reached a certain level at a company [and can’t go further]."

Despite this observation and as cannabis continues to corporatize, Tribble believes there is an "enormous opportunity" for women in such a nascent industry. She encourages women to venture out and create their own path to C-Suite status instead.

"We're just getting started in terms of regulation and there is a real window for women to excel and outpace men in this space, quite honestly," added Tribble, who’s known as one of the most respected experts in the country on social equity and inclusion policy in cannabis and other industries. "I want to help ensure this happens for other women by building ladders that have no ceiling — I think my work at Curaleaf is a perfect example of those ladders [women] can build."

In celebration of Women’s History Month in 2021, Tribble’s "Rooted in Good" CSR initiative for Curaleaf announced a partnership with Women Grow, focusing on supplier diversity and education for underrepresented communities across the cannabis ecosystem. Its end goal is to do business with 420 new cannabis brands, ancillary suppliers, and advocacy organizations from underrepresented communities by 2025.

Plants Over Pills

For fellow Chief Member Sarah Burlew, Founder and CEO of Omlie, her personal cannabis story started as a child of the D.A.R.E. era of the ’80s who was educated to "just say no."

"To this day, when I hear an egg in a frying pan, I still picture that commercial [telling us] 'This is your brain on drugs…any questions?'" recalled Burlew, who’s leveraging her healthcare management consulting experience with clients like Pfizer and Putnam Associates into cannabis.

After her father suffered a back injury and was provided a prescription painkiller regimen, Burlew was curious if there were an alternative route that was equally effective without relying on prescription painkillers. After exploration, Burlew was intrigued enough to try medical marijuana herself and eventually got a medical marijuana card.

"I was like, wait a minute. I have been working to help patients find solutions for the problems that they're struggling with and here's this other thing that I have been taught was so bad — this gateway drug — [that could be the solution]. So I started to investigate."

In addition to consulting across health, wellness, and cannabis sectors, Burlew also launched a woman-powered cannabis community online under the Omlie umbrella that is focused on education for the soaring number of new consumers.

The latest Brightfield U.S. CBD Market Report revealed that 59% of new cannabis consumers are women — a figure that steadily rose in 2020. It also showed that women consumers tend to be younger and heavier consumers than men (21% of female consumers reported daily consumption) and are more focused on mental and physical health benefits.

"I am fortunate enough that the pharmaceutical clients I've worked with have been incredibly full of integrity. But there are so many lessons to be learned from what has gone wrong with opioids," said Burlew. "I love the idea that instead of calling it recreational, calling it over-the-counter. Because that's such a simple parallel to how we think about medication, right? If we can navigate that divide in a meaningful way, which hopefully, my company is able to do, people will be open and more thoughtful about cannabis than going back to that egg in the frying pan memory that we all so vividly have."

From CPG to THC

Another report, this one from Green Entrepreneur, explained: "Data shows that women now represent the fastest-growing consumer segment within the industry — and they are spending larger amounts of money on cannabis and gaining a larger market share. In fact, women across all legal age groups drove cannabis sales in the first three months of 2020, with the average amount spent by women doubling by 50% by the end of the quarter."

This potential is what convinced Chief Member and Acreage Holdings CMO Katrina Yolen to make a switch from consumer packaged goods (Kraft Foods and GlaxoSmithKline) to cannabis after a recruiter approached her out of the blue four years ago. Previously the Senior Vice President at Curaleaf, where she worked alongside Tribble, Yolen joined Acreage Holdings in April 2021 to build brand awareness for its national portfolio of plant-based brands.

"When I started to seriously consider the cannabis industry, I realized there are a lot of parallels with the growth of the natural foods industry [for] the big CPG companies I was working with," Yolen noted, observing that rise in both sectors is driven by wellness-driven consumers. "I could see that cannabis was going to be disruptive in the same way — certainly to tobacco, alcohol, and pharmaceuticals. But [cannabis] is about wellness. It's about modernizing an ancient plant that's been used to help with sleep, anxiety, relaxation, and pain relief for thousands of years."

And women and wellness go hand in hand.

Yolen added, "We’re in the first or second inning [as an industry]. But in terms of how it’s evolving, there are a lot of places where people can come in and have an impact by transferring their business skills and entrepreneurship know-how into cannabis. And as the stigma lessens over time and more cannabis formats are developed in terms of edibles, beverages, capsules, or mints — I think women who were hesitant, and particularly some female consumers perhaps will enter the industry as leaders and consumers in large numbers."

Article has been updated on April 20, 2022.