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Panel of Top Women Leaders in Michigan’s Cannabis Industry Talk Challenges, Resources, and Social Equity During Nov. 9 Panel

In 2008, Michigan became the 13th state in the United States to legalize medical cannabis. Ten years later, a 56% vote legalized recreational cannabis with licensed sales starting in 2019. With this newfound acceptance of cannabis in the state, many individuals began to open businesses in the industry, ranging from cultivation to laboratory testing and processing to distribution. The Detroit Regional Chamber welcomed four of those individuals – now top leaders in the cannabis industry – to share their experiences entering and navigating the industry, specifically from a woman’s perspective in the male-dominated field. 

Jamie Cooper, founder of Sensi Connect, formerly known as Cannabiz Connection, and director of Industry and Community Development at Sensi Media Group, LLC, moderated the panel of women leaders, including: 

  • Amy Brown, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, ABKO Labs, LLC 
  • Vetra Stephens, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, 1stQuality Medz 
  • Luann Sun, Owner, Sun Provisions 

Brown entered the cannabis industry in 2009, shortly after it was legalized in Michigan and right when the recession was starting. She had just graduated from law school and found getting a job to be difficult, so with her legal background and already 30 years of experience in the financial services industry, Brown collaborated with her dad, a chemist, and her boyfriend, a caregiver, to create the first startup testing lab in the state under the Medical Marijuana Facility Licensing Act.  

Before joining the cannabis industry, Stephens and her partner contracted through Wayne County to help create, find, and generate revenue for the county while also generating revenue for the Detroit People Mover. Health issues struck, and she and her partner decided to learn more about cannabis and eventually opened the first adult-use cannabis dispensary in Wayne County. 

Sun has been in the industry since 2008. With a mechanical engineering degree and background in automotive, beauty, and design engineering, she decided to open her own general distribution company. In February 2008, Sun transitioned her distribution company into the first cannabis microbusiness in the state, which is an all-in-one cannabis business. It includes growing, processing, and selling cannabis, all in-house. 

Industry Challenges

When asked about their challenges working in the cannabis industry compared to their previous careers, the panelists unanimously cited the industry’s newness. There was no established foundation to learn from compared to their previous careers – financial services, marketing and advertising, and engineering. 

“Working in financial services, that was a very old industry that had a lot of very clearly defined dos and don’ts, rules and regulations, and a lot of it was federal, so it made a little more sense and was a little bit easier. I think that just the fact that it’s brand new, the fact that it can change in a heartbeat is, I think, one of the biggest challenges,” Brown said. 

Stephens concurred but said they are already past some of the challenges Brown shared, such as zoning laws, and are dealing with new ones on the dispensary side. 

“It’s because it’s a new industry to the state of Michigan. They are tweaking and trying to figure out what’s going to work best,” Stephens said. “The only thing they had to look at was Colorado and California, and what they did was try to decide what they didn’t want to do. That didn’t mean you knew what to do; it just meant you knew what not to do. So, going through those changes with them – quite difficult, but we’re getting through it.”  

Because these challenges will continue, Sun said one of the best ways to figure things out is by educating yourself through books, YouTube, and reading Marijuana Regulatory Agency rules. 

“There’s no ABCD to follow. It’s a lot of things you have to learn and find out yourself,” Sun said. 

Challenges of Being a Woman in the Industry

According to the 2020 Fortune 500 list, there are 37 female chief executive officers in the U.S. Compared to the 463 chief executive officer positions held by men on the list, that’s not a significant amount. This gap can also be found in the cannabis industry, with only 37% of women holding senior-level positions. Although this gap is not as large as the national average, it is still big enough for potential challenges to arise for women who choose to enter the male-dominated industry.  

Stephens cited being the only woman in the room as one of the challenges, as this leads to having to speak louder and making sure you have all your I’s dotted and T’s crossed. 

“Someone will kind of push you to the side if they don’t feel like you belong,” Stephens said. “You have to kind of make yourself seen and make yourself heard so that we can have something that we can look back and say, ‘I’m glad we designed it this way, or I’m glad I had a word to be able to say that changed the game from where it was before.’ Challenging, very challenging, because it’s several men in this space.”  

Sun shared that she hasn’t experienced many challenges, however, as a woman in the industry. She thinks this is because she has been in the distribution industry for a long time already. 

Brown also does not experience many gender-related challenges. In fact, she was surprised that the cannabis industry is so male dominated. She did not enter it with preconceptions or expectations of what the industry would be like.  

“I found that people are very open, and they engage a lot when they find out you’re a female entrepreneur in a new industry. I found the culture to be very welcoming, very accepting,” Brown said. 

Brown thinks this has been her experience because she is on the lab side and not in cultivation where there may be more pre-judgment. 

Finding Funding as a Woman in the Cannabis Industry

Another challenge the panel of top women leaders discussed is finding investors and resources for their businesses. According to Cooper, if women-owned businesses find funding, they receive less of it and fewer resources, such as mentorship and strategic guidance, than their male counterparts.  

To overcome this, Brown, Stephens, and Sun all recommend using your network to help. 

“The challenge is going back to the underlying theme of this being a brand-new industry. A lot of the places that do lending want to see two years of financial history. Well, it’s a brand-new industry; I don’t have two years of financial history,” Brown said. “For myself, personally, I had what I had built myself in my savings and some friends and family that helped out, but it is really difficult. And I’d like to see more women getting into it.” 

Which side of the cannabis industry you are involved in can also play a big part in receiving funding. Brown shared that she reached out to her “former world with a lot of high-net-worth investors” and did not get a lot of traction. She later found they were putting a lot of money into the growth side of the industry with provisionary centers, but the lab side just wasn’t “sexy” to them.  

Sun recommends being creative when finding funding sources. For example, she reached out to classmates from her childhood and found a couple of partners to buy a building, which she leased from them. 

“Sometimes, just open your mouth to ask people what you want,” Sun said.  

But you should be careful to not over ask by immediately aiming for a commercial license. Stephens stressed the importance of understanding what you want and have the capacity for before jumping in. 

“You have to do your research and know if this is something for you before you even tap into this. Thinking you’re going to get into it at the commercial level, you’re going to probably need to pool resources to be able to do that because it’s still not federally regulated so you can’t say, ‘I have a piece of property, and I’d like to get a loan,’ because the bank will not do that as soon as you say the word ‘cannabis,'” Stephens said. “Speak to your other counterparts to see who else wants to be a part of the industry and pool those funds together to be able to do those things. Or maybe start off with a smaller license until you can bring in the right funding to be able to grow into a larger commercial license.” 

If you do elect to partner with someone, whether to buy a building or to help run your business, Stephens recommends choosing them carefully and to not have too many. If you want multiple partners, she suggests bringing on silent partners, or people who are only going to provide funding. 

Improving Social Equity in Michigan’s Cannabis Industry

While the panel primarily focused on the experiences of and provided advice about entering the cannabis industry as a woman, it also touched on the intersection of cannabis and being Black and brown. Historically, Black people have been disproportionately affected by marijuana laws. According to the ACLU’s 2020 report, in every state in the U.S., Black people are arrested at higher rates than white people for marijuana possession, despite using it at similar rates. This history makes Stephens’ desire to see Michigan create programs targeted to minorities to give them easier access to the industry even greater.  

“Have they [Michigan] done enough? The answer to that is no. However, just like this industry started, it morphed into where we are today, and I’m expecting that to be the same thing for the social equity program. You have to know what the problem is first before you can embrace that,” Stephens said. “I’m seeing that they are working towards that. I’m seeing that they are creating programs and putting people together so that that can happen. So, it’s not enough just yet because there’s still some problems here and there, but they’re recognizing some of those issues, and they are coming together to rectify those issues. I’m seeing that it is headed in the right direction, and I’m hoping that I can see where it can be very helpful for Black and brown people to be able to come into the space easily.” 

Advice to Women Interested in the Cannabis Industry

Ultimately, no matter who is entering the industry, Brown advises them to be patient and learn as much about the industry as possible to be successful.  

“Attend a lot of different events, talk to a lot of different people, even the virtual events – virtual networking is great — and learn a lot about the industry,” Brown said. “You can be a CPA, you can be a real estate agent, insurance agent, banking – there’s a lot of other areas of this business you can get into, and the people that I’ve seen really thrive are the ones that had patience. I think that is key.” 

In addition to patience, Stephens recommends having a passion for the industry. 

“Don’t follow the dollars. Don’t feel like, ‘this is a lucrative industry, so I want to be a part of it,’ because you will change and turn around and walk right out that door,” Stephens said. “If you don’t have the passion to be a part of this industry, then nothing will ever work. Have some type of passion and love for the cannabis industry, and the patience will come with that.” 

Networking is another piece of advice the panel shared, with Sun stating it is one of the most important things you can do to be successful in the industry. She also shared that being mindful that owning a business in the cannabis industry is not easy to do is essential.  

Although it is hard work to enter the cannabis industry, it can also be gratifying and enlightening. 

“I had a preconceived notion about cannabis prior to getting involved with this. Opening up a provisioning center and meeting the people and seeing that they were not like I expected them to look was just enlightening,” Stephens said. “I expected to see the rapper, the young guy with his pants hanging down, and people with crazy hair. I expected something I did not see. I saw people from churches, teachers, people that indulged in cannabis for various reasons: for pain management, mental disorders, accidents they had been into, for different reasons. Just seeing regular people – just like us – that indulged in cannabis was quite enlightening, and I appreciated that. It made me want to have something opening up for all to come.” 

Thank you to the event sponsor, Plunkett Cooney.