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The Cannabis Conversation. A European perspective on the emerging legal cannabis industry.
Welcome to The Cannabis Conversation with Anuj Desai where I explore the new legal cannabis industry by speaking to the professionals that are helping to shape it. Today, I've got Jess Steinberg on the show. Jess hails from the US and is a great guest. She's currently studying for a PhD at Oxford and her particular topic of conversation today is about women in cannabis. One of the things that I've been frequently told about the cannabis industry is that we have an opportunity to build it from the ground up based on today's standards, which includes aspects such as sustainability and diversity, inclusion, and equality. But Jess is here to sort of give us a reality check on exactly what that means and how it's unfolding in today's emerging businesses. It's an issue that faces wider society so there's no real surprise that it affects the cannabis industry as well.
One bit of housekeeping is one of the perils of having to record a show in meeting rooms hired in London is sometimes people next door sound like they're drilling to the center of the earth and that was certainly the case with this week's interview. But thanks to my amazing new sound editing skills, which I've learned in the last few weeks, hopefully those will be kept to a minimum. So I hope it doesn't affect your enjoyment of the show too much. Anyway, let's get cracking. Enjoy.
Today we have Jessica Steinberg on the show. Jessica is currently studying for a PhD at Oxford University, but has her fingers in many, many pies when it comes to the nascent cannabis industry. And has set up a consultancy firm called The Global C and a platform for women in the industry called the entOURage Network. Welcome.
Thank you for having me, very happy to be here.
Pleasure. I mean it sounds like you're very busy and have your hands full. Why don't you let us know a bit about what the various projects are that you're working on?
Yeah, so I've been doing research on the legal cannabis market for about three and a half years starting with my Bachelor's at St. Andrews which led into a Master's which led into a PhD. So currently the PhD is looking at cannabis policy reform through the lens of different cannabis companies by taking on this global paradigm shift. So from Europe to Latin America, North America, a bit of Asia now and Australia and New Zealand. That then led into the opportunity to consolidate different cannabis companies and I wanted to push it through a more legitimate channel rather than being taken advantage of as an academic and having that brain drain.
And I don't like to play the young female card, but I saw my colleagues were getting in terms of consulting work and compensation and I wanted it to be fair and equal. So I decided to set up The Global C, which I'm now running, and that's been very exciting project to project in various aspects of the world really. And then through all of that I met Jasmin Thomas, Founder of Ohana CBD, and her and I together co-founded the entOURage Network to cultivate a platform for women to come together, educate, collaborate, and just learn about the cannabis industry specifically here in Europe. So we host different panel discussions, CBD lunches, and networking events. We've held them in London, Paris, Geneva, and we have one upcoming in Tel Aviv and then a few more in different European cities over the next few months.
So truly international then.
Very, yeah. But I mean, that's the cannabis industry.
It's becoming a global market so we have to play to that target I think.
And kind of one of the themes of the show is a kind of European perspective on cannabis industry. How do you feel things are here as compared to South America or North America or the other places you mentioned?
Yeah. So I just got back from Columbia and Panama and the way it's shaping up is very different than it's here in Europe. And I think one of the things that we have to be really careful and aware of is that one model doesn't work everywhere. Just like cannabis is not in America for everybody. So what's happening is rather than implementing what Canada did and trying to put the Canadian model built in Columbia or put that model here in Europe, we have to really contextualize for the people, the patients, the policies, the framework, et cetera. So I've become really, really aware of that. And that's part of the fun, navigating those local rules and regulations as well so.
And where would you say the most progressive places and where are the less progressive let's say?
You know it's a hard question because I feel like it's constantly changing. I was just in Spain and Spain seems like there's some progression happening there, but it still feels like where California was maybe in the early 2000s. So I don't know. It's a hard one because it's quite relative. What is progressive here in Europe might not seem progressive in Colorado where I'm from so.
True. Colorado is ground zero, isn't it? For cannabis in terms of where it mainly began.
Yeah. And that's something I would actually like to see here in Europe that when I go back home to Colorado it's so normal and people are just openly talking about it. You don't really face that stigmatization, especially from a professional side. It's like, "Okay, you work in cannabis. Cool. Awesome. Let's move on to the next topic." It's not really news anymore. And I would love to see more of that here in Europe that it's like here you say, "Oh, cannabis." It's like, "Oh my gosh, what? Crazy. Whoa." And I hope that it becomes part of this process of medicalization that it leads to normalization and that it becomes more accepted. And I guess that's also why I do a lot of what I'm doing.
Oh, I'm 100% behind that. And yeah it's one of the main reasons for this show as well. When I do talk about it there is about five minutes worth of drug dealer jokes going on-
-and then you can actually talk about it on a serious level. So that's interesting that you've obviously felt that too.
Yeah. And I mean from the academic perspective and living in a legal state, it's for me important to also be vocal about the fact that you can be highly intelligent, you can be highly productive, and also be a cannabis consumer in however you might choose to use cannabis. Whether it's skincare or whether it's pain relief on a joint or a muscle or whether it's a joint, whatever that is. And the two are not mutually exclusive and so I do feel like it's important to also voice that. That you can be a professional, you can be a person, and they're all together so.
Yeah, definitely. It's an education, isn't it?
And in the same way as people who have a glass of wine in the evening after work.
You don't start thinking they've got a problem unless it's a bottle of wine every night. I don't know.
Right. Right. Right.
That kind of thing.
Whatever their tolerance is maybe.
Yeah, exactly. That's great. That's really interesting. So one of the ... I mean, one of the major reasons I've asked you on the show and I'm really glad that you're here was to talk about the topic of women and cannabis in general. When I was first looking at this area and wanting to kind of focus my attentions on it, one of the things I really liked was the idea that by creating something brand new you could try and create an industry with today's standards. And that when it comes to sort of diversity and environmental and sustainability and CSR and all these great things and equality, what's the actual reality in terms of what you've experienced?
So doing research for about three and a half years, I hear this all the time. "It's a new industry. Let's shape it. Let's mold it how we want." And it's an incredible opportunity, but I think the reality is not necessarily in line with that pitch. And I do think sometimes it is a pitch. They're really tapping into this emotional side of, "Wow, let's rise up and we can totally create it and create those standards." I do think it's better. And so for example when I first started my research women in executive positions, and I think this was specifically in the US, was about 36%. That was in 2015, in 2017 it was recorded that it was 27%. So it has decreased, but still the industry wide standard for other sectors is about 21%. So it's higher than other industries and so it is still better and so I think we do have this opportunity, but cannabis is not necessarily different to other businesses or commercial sectors in the sense that from a female perspective, there's still a lot of obstacles to face and an entry level of requirements and things like that.
And one of the things that I have come across and I struggle with with a lot of my colleagues is like, "Yeah, we have women in our business." I'm like, "That's awesome. Great. Tell me more." They're like, "Yeah, but most of them are at the entry level position." I'm like, "Okay, let's work backwards there. Is that better or worse? That's amazing that you have women in your company. I think it's important, but also I think we need to have an executive level that is balanced." And this is something that I've learned from cannabis in general, it's always a work in progress. We're constantly reforming. And so if that is our mission to create an industry that's shaped by equality and standards and a bit more "justice" then that's how we should actually execute it and I don't know if that execution is taking place in every aspect of the business so.
Yeah. I wonder actually if ... my slight experience is that there's a networking thing called The First Wednesdays on the first Wednesday of every month and it happens in London and it's been growing in size and sophistication since it started last year, I think, which is great to see. But I would say that it's very male heavy at those events.
It's very male heavy.
Yeah, I wouldn't want to put a number on it, but maybe 80/20 or something. I don't know.
It does feel like that. Ethnically it feels a bit diverse actually. It's not just white men, but from a male-female balance I don't think it's that balanced.
Yeah. And I can share a personal experience from that, and this is something that I've spoken to a lot of my female colleagues about. That when we go to events such as The First Wednesdays, and I love The First Wednesdays. It's an incredible-
Yeah, it's brilliant.
Yeah, they're doing an incredible job. So it's not a reflection on them, it's more of a reflection on gender relationships about what I'm about to say. That I'll walk into a room and it could be First Wednesdays, it could be any cannabis conference really, and the immediate reaction is more of a surface level conversation and then it takes me about 20 minutes to get down to the core business. Whereas I over hear other conversations and it's within 30 seconds maybe. They're like, "Alright, cut it. Let's talk business." I don't know if it's the female thing, again I don't know if it's the age thing but many people that I've spoken to are like, "Yeah, that's not how it should be." If I'm going to be taken seriously, I should be taken seriously from point one of the conversation. I shouldn't have to prove myself.
So that's also why at entOURage we try to create that space and cultivate a platform for people to just break into it right away. And if it is women to women, of course there's this level of comfort and familiarity and openness and we try to facilitate collaboration as well. So it's just I think those are some of like the small things, again, not particular to cannabis. It's just something we're facing in cannabis, but I think females more broadly struggle to perhaps prove them ... they feel like they have to prove themselves in conversation sometimes. So again, it's a work in progress.
Yeah, of course. Of course. And it's not a reflection on First Wednesdays, that was just an example. And they can't control who turns up to the events obviously. It's definitely very all inclusive. So for female listeners out there, I would very much encourage you to come along to the next one because it's a fantastic place to meet people and hear some really interesting talks.
And I was just wondering before we go into talk about entOURage, do you think it's a little bit more progressive in North America or is it a similar kind of picture there?
I would say it's somewhat similar. The phrase of, "Let's create this opportunity," is definitely over there as it is here. I think maybe because the European side is a bit newer in terms of the legalization coming online, we actually have more ... and I don't know the statistics on it here, but I would say I know a lot more female colleagues here in the US ... or sorry, here in Europe than in the US. But maybe again it's because it's smaller. So it's quite hard to compare it because also I think in the US you're comparing state to state rather than the nation as a whole. And in Canada, for example, there is an incredible amount of female leaders and pioneers in the space. In Latin America I know I was meeting an investor and she was literally the only Latino investor in the US for the last three years, like female Latino investor.
And so she's now trying to change that. So it's something global again that we're trying to overcome. But yeah.
Yeah, that's interesting. Everything takes time, doesn't it I suppose? Let's hope the signs are positive and we can move on from there. So to go back to the entOURage Network that you've set up, can you tell us a bit more about that and how that works and how effective it's being in terms of spreading the cause of women in cannabis in important positions?
Yeah. So we've had a few different events here in London. Depending on the location we'll have anywhere from, let's say 20 to 65 people. We have a Female Investors Forum coming up in June, on the 27th of June. So those have been, we've had incredible feedback because people will walk in and then by the time they leave they're like, "I have this entire new sense of confidence." And for me, that's the most fulfilling thing. And a lot that I'm doing to hear someone say they've had this slight transformation or an idea for inspiration here or there is so exciting for me because it just means that everything that we're doing, the education that we're providing.
For example, the education, we'll host different panels and we'll bring people from medical patients and advocates. We'll talk a bit about the science behind the different research going on, some female startups and investors. And so it really is giving an entire insight to the full supply chain of cannabis. And one of the things that we've done that works really well and really targets that female persona is that the networking events and the events in general are held for quite a long time. So there'll be a lunch or a brunch starting around 11 or 12 and we've had people stay until 8:00 PM.
And the thing that we've learned in some of the feedback is that women just want to talk and they want to get to know each other and they want to talk about cannabis, but they also want to talk about many, many other things.
And so what it seems like we're creating is more of this tight knit network or family. Because I've seen a lot of deals come out of it and some collaboration and then we'll meet up in different cities and different European cannabis events. And now we're actually also, I mentioned that we have an event in Israel, we're partnering with another women's group based in Israel. So now we're starting to see like a chain reaction almost and that connection building around Europe. And for me, that's so exciting because there's no sense of competition here. They're like, "We're supporting you, you're supporting us. You want to host an event, we want to host an event. Let's bring all of the women together and create that."
And so then there are these different initiatives that will come together and people can talk about what they're doing, what they're looking for, get more information or advice on whatever that means. And then also just have a space to feel comfortable talking about cannabis, because as we said there's still a lot of stigma here in Europe. So to have five hours or whatever it is to just feel completely free to talk about whatever it might be and also enjoy some of the benefits of cannibas when we have CBD infused lunches is a great way to facilitate that dialogue.
Yeah, for sure. Part of things that I've learned from meeting with great people for the podcast is come away thinking, "Wow, I just didn't know about that and thought about that aspect." So the more of these get togethers that you have and you're able to share ideas, I guess it just kind of empowers people then. Doesn't it?
Yeah, definitely. I would say the empowerment is very important because again if we go back to this idea that we want to create an industry that is shaped by ideals of equality and justice, then being empowered to actually go about and do that, have the confidence to do that, know how to speak to investors, know how to speak about the plant from the scientific point of view and be really educated about it is so important. And so I would say one of ... yeah, the empowerment is probably one of the most important things that people will walk away from. Yeah.
Great. Okay. So I think we've covered a little bit about it, but what would you really like to see change or what are the major kind of hurdles to overcome in order to kind of level playing field a bit and see more female representation at the top of companies?
So in my utopian idea of the cannabis industry, and probably any industry more generally, is I don't even want to have to talk about women in cannabis. I just want it to be the accepted norm that you walk into a room and there are as many women as there are men. When I was at the UN last week for the commission on narcotic drugs and the drug policy meetings, that was the accepted norm. You have people from all over the world, all genders, religions, everything, and you have a panel and it's not your stereotypical all white men panel. It's one of the most diverse, inclusive places. Of course, they have to do that because that's the UN. However, in my utopian idea of cannabis it's just harmony and balance between men and women throughout the entire organization, the entire supply chain, and all of that.
I think one of the biggest obstacles that women face from a business side and coming from a startup perspective is actually gaining access to capital. So there was a statistic that came out recently that women led startups only get 2% of capital from VCs. 2%. Men are getting 98% of the funds.
And if women are getting money, they're getting about 36% less capital than men. So I don't know the reasons or the processes behind why that is happening and I could go into many hypotheses, but that's not the time or place for this. I think one of the things that we have to do is create the space or opportunities for women to come to the table for, whether those are female investors or male investors, and really understand why it's important to invest in women. It's not just because of their gender but because they have great ideas too.
And so at the end of the day, I don't think it should be about investing in a gender. I think it should be about a human investing in the idea and things like that. So almost, and maybe I'm missing a step, but getting past that point where we have to talk about females.
Let's just include into the day to day those practices and things like that. So I think there's a perception change, some sort of confidence. And I've spoken to a lot of females about this, that they'll go into a room and they just don't have the confidence to speak to the other people that they're pitching to or sharing an idea with, whatever it might be. And so again, that comes back to this idea and the importance of empowerment. But then it's a two way street because if they're coming with confidence, then that confidence needs to be received from whoever they're speaking to in a professional and a high level way.
So I know a lot of people as well that I have spoken to through entOURage that will just say, "Yeah, I go into a room and I start speaking and then I look to my business partner who's a man," and that's problematic. So I think it's something that needs to change from the female within, but also from those that are on the exterior that they're receiving it. Yeah.
Sure. Yeah. I can imagine, I've never done it myself, but pitching for money. I just imagine a room full of suited men, which as a man is also intimidating. But regardless I can imagine, but which is why I think your network group of the entOURage Network is hopefully giving, as you said, a sort of safe space to feel comfortable to develop your ideas and then make them adapt to go out and pitch for money and all the rest of it.
Yeah. And so I think hearing from other females who have been in that experience and had certain obstacles that they overcame, understanding how they did that is so beneficial. And just to be able to relate to a peer like that and then have someone later that you can text online and be like, "Hey, I'm wondering what did you do in this situation?" Is so beneficial.
So I think it is important that you create those micro level connections, but also more of those macro scale connections in terms of a larger event where we talk about female investment in general.
Yeah. Yeah. Completely. I've found that there are pockets of real good collaboration. There's also some bits where people are a bit nervous about each other.
I interviewed someone the other day about CBD and they were saying some people collaborate, some people are a bit scared. But it's such a big market, it feels like at the moment there is plenty scope to share and collaborate and people don't need to be scared of each other as perhaps they are.
Yeah. And I've heard ... I don't know if people say this in Europe, but it's stuff like something we'll say in the US, cooper-competition is what they'll say. It's like cooperation and competition because we're capitalists. There is going to be a competitive edge and an advantage there, but at the same time we're still fighting a bigger fight or there's a bigger elephant in the room. However you want to phrase it. So there's almost an underlying need to come together and collaborate, especially when all these rules and regulations are changing. It's like, "How do you keep up with it?" Well, if you collaborate with someone you're getting that insight automatically and it's in the benefit of all of us to be working together really. But I would say as it becomes more mainstream, more normalized, more legalization and countries keep coming online their competition is just going to increase and increase. And that's perhaps why some people want it to stay away from this corporate culture and create this cannabis culture. But again, I'm not sure if that cannabis culture is exactly what we say it is.
Yeah. I mean, exactly. With capitalists it will become a business much like any other.
And I've been to quite a few investment conferences actually and genuinely people ask me if people are smoking weed in the room. I find it hilarious because I'm looking around and this is a bunch of investment bankers in suits in Mayfair. And it's ridiculous, but this is the kind of outward notion of what this is and the reality is far different from what people think. So that's great, thank you for giving us that kind of opinion. Have you kind of noticed that things are different in North America? You touched on it before. Has the fact that the market's more mature in North America and states in US and in Canada meant that they've got some examples we can look to in terms of diversity and equality.
Yeah, I would say ... well so from the product development side, I would say there's a lot of innovation going on in the US and perhaps that's because the rules and regulations permit that to be that way. So there's a lot more diversity in the products, especially within the products available for females. Whether that's for menstrual cramps, other female related conditions that they're going to be dealing with, a lot of things for sex and sexual enhancement and pleasure. There's a lot more, I think, female groups there at a very local community based level. Again, I think that's just because the market is more developed and more mature so they have access to that from the diversity side on the business. But one of the things that I've realized that's different between the US and Europe is this push for social justice and criminal justice in the US that we don't really have as much here, especially in the UK.
Because the industry wasn't born out of a criminal justice movement because cannabis hasn't necessarily been criminalized or used as a political tool and target towards certain minority communities as the way it has been in the US. So in that regard, the US has a bigger push for equity and social equity in order to include people that have institutionally really been shut out of this opportunity and have had barriers to entry and have suffered through the jail system and things like that so.
Can you give us a quick example?
Yeah. So people, let's say so California went legal for medical in 1995 and then that was really when a lot of the legalization momentum started picking up and into the early 2000s. So prior to that you would have people, in the 1970s for example, during Nixon's war on drugs his Director ... Domestic Affairs Assistant I believe it was, made a statement that where, "We know that marijuana," and at the time that's what they would call it, "Marijuana is not necessarily bad, but we're going to make it illegal to have access to the hippie community and heroine for the black community." And by way of criminalizing both of those substances, they then directly targeted those communities. And then that has just had a trickle on effect and so more and more people from minority or marginalized groups have been prosecuted or have gone to jail and serve time.
Now that they have these "legal opportunities", because they should be wiggle opportunities, they're still being shut out of the market because of their criminal record in the past or because they still face the stigma or the discrimination. And also because the licensing and part of the application process is incredibly expensive in certain parts of the country as well as around the world really at this point. And so people that have not had the same opportunities and that privilege, how are they going to capitalize on this now? How do they know how to capitalize? Going back to the question of, "If I'm going into a room of investors, I've never been in a room of investors before. I've served time in jail. What do you do from there? How do you have that experience and knowledge and expertise?"
So there are actually some great companies, someone that I've worked with a bit her name is Christina and she runs the People's Dispensary. And that model is actually to bring people to ... someone that goes to the dispensary is essentially investing in that and investing in the community and it will be brought back. So their model is only hiring LGBTQ+, people from the elder generation, women, minority groups. And I think all of those together make up about 95% of their employees. So now there are more initiatives geared towards how do we include equity and institutionalize the practice of equality and justice and things like that so that this cycle is broken and we don't continue to criminalize or target or discriminate against the same populations that have been suffering for years and years and years.
Yeah. And then there's opportunity for other people in the same usual suspects that cash in on a brand new industry.
It's going to be the rich bankers who come in and take the money and hopefully this should level the playing field a bit.
Yeah. That would be the idea.
It would be nice. So let's just quickly touch upon your personal story before we wrap things up here. How did you kind of transition to this area and what were your motivations?
Yeah. So if we go back about three and a half years I was living in China at the time, studying abroad in Beijing, and I needed a topic for my undergrad dissertation in anthropology. And I hadn't seen my family for a year, during that time period my family moved from Chicago to Colorado in pursuit of a job in the industry. So I put a few pieces of the puzzle together and realized I could go home, spend as much time with my family if I could find a topic that was in that space. And so I ended up going to work essentially with my dad at their company and then that led into really being exposed to what cannabis was becoming. And this was in 2015 so right when Colorado had gotten legal or the year after for adult use. And so that led to the undergrad thesis.
And then I saw there was a gap in the academic literature because any literature at that point had really been about the illicit market and no one ... well, there was not an opportunity to study the legal market because it wasn't a thing up until that point. So then I got into the academic side of it and I realized I could add some form of credibility and legitimacy to the industry as well by way of adding to the academic literature surrounding it. And I thought that was really important. So it's really been about ... I've never had a plan, never wanted to go into cannabis. But for me, my passion has always been the plant and what's led me to what I'm doing now.
Fantastic. So you've kind of stolen my thunder with my last question, which is what did your parents say when you told them you're going into cannabis? I'm assuming they were more than happy that you.
They were very pleased. Yeah. No, it's been really exciting because I get to see my family back at home because I do a lot of my field work in Colorado and I go to a bunch of conferences with my dad. So that's really exciting. Yeah. They're very supportive of it. They're proud parents, but I'm very blessed because I could have on the other hand not been supported by loving parents and a loving brother and they could've been like, "What you're doing is absolutely crazy. You're going to have no future in this." And I did have family members, not in my immediate family but extended family, "If this is becoming your academic niche, you should really walk away or try to expand into something else." And this was when I first started doing it for my undergrad. And now I have some uncles getting into the industry and some family trying to figure it out as well. And they're like, "Oh, can we work together?" I'm like, "Yeah." Look at the 180 switch, sure.
How did you find that when you got a slightly negative reaction? Was it mainly through ignorant people were saying that, thinking about the stigma, et cetera?
Yeah. I think a lot of it was the stigma and the lack of education. Not saying that my family was uneducated, but that what they had grown up to believe was one idea and what I'm starting to learn through this process is something completely different. I started taking on a voice of the advocate and I think a lot of people in the industry will do this as well without knowing it. They become the educators of how this industry is advancing and how that perception is changing. Because you hear these personal stories of people with medical patients or mothers of medical cannabis patients and these miracles really. And then you start telling that or you start using it in your day to day life. And part of the way I convinced the extended family, let's say, was by introducing them to some pain relief creams and them having better night's sleep than they've ever had in their entire life. And it's the type of thing you believe it when you see it.
But I've always just been very open and honest about my relationship to cannabis, my understanding with it. And I think that's one of the ways of moving it forward within the family dialogue. But at home it's just very normal. Like you said, it's a glass of wine.
Yeah, of course. Of course. Cool. Well thank you very much Jess, that was really, really, really interesting to hear all the various projects that you're working on and how you're trying to push things forward.
Yeah. Thank you so much.
Thank you for taking the time to come speak to me.
Thank you for doing this conversation.
Sure. No worries. Thank you.
Okay. Well thanks for joining me on that episode. I hope you enjoyed it. Jess is really doing some amazing things. She's extremely busy and involved in a number of projects and is often speaking at conferences and flying all over the world so clearly she's getting a lot of traction and she's a very open and easy person to speak to. So there's no surprise there. Hopefully she provides inspiration for any other young female entrepreneurs out there. So if you or anyone that you know fits that bill or any other bill please feel free to suggest them to me or get in touch yourself as I'd love to hear from you.
Just want to say a quick congratulations to George and Dom, the rugby players that won last week. Saracens Rugby Club, who they play for, won the European Cup on Saturday. Well done to you guys. As always if you enjoy the show please hit the subscribe button. Next week's episode is going to be about cannabis and the media. I've got a great journalist called Mike Power who is going to be my guest and he'll be filling us in on how cannabis is portrayed in the media. Okay. Well, I hope you enjoy your weeks and I'll catch you on the next episode.
In this episode I speak to Oxford PhD student, and cannabis advocate and entrepreneur, Jessica Steinberg. We discuss how women are represented in the nascent cannabis industry, and how she is galvanising a network to promote more gender equality as the sector develops.
Find out more about The Entourage Network - http://ourentouragenetwork.com/