High times: Behind the scenes at a women’s pot conference

June 2, 2015, 3:03 PM UTC
Photograph by C. Roese Ramp

Now that marijuana has gone from illicit hippie drug to (sort of) legal medicinal plant, pot is beginning to acquire the same trappings that go along with any other industry. That means the emergence of boutique-style dispensaries, branded designer strains, “budtenders,” and, yes, business conferences.

The first ever Women Grow Leadership Summit took place at Cordillera Lodge in the Rocky Mountains in mid-May. Women Grow is dedicated to training—or “cultivating”—women to be leaders of the cannabis industry, a business the Arcview research group has called “the fastest growing industry in the U.S.” Now that marijuana is medically legal in 23 states (plus the District of Columbia) and fully legal in four, the organization asserts that it’s time for women to claim their place in the pot business.

The Summit sold out quickly, drawing 121 women from 20 states, with ages ranging from 23 to 68. They defied the tired old pothead stereotype, with lawyers, doctors, farmers, dispensary owners, research scientists, financiers and CEOs all in attendance.

Every conversation began: “What do you do in the industry?” By day they attended panels and made deals, and by night they let loose—dancing with abandon and gathering in groups to try new marijuana strains, massage oil and edibles.

The heart of Women Grow is its founders, Jane West and Jazmin Hupp, two bold women in their thirties who some have called “genius entrepreneurs.”

West was formerly Amy Dannemiller, who, for eight years, ran the western division of the National Youth Leadership Forum on medicine. In 2014, in her off time—and with pot legal in Colorado—she began producing monthly cannabis dinners under the name Jane West. When CNBC interviewed her for a special about marijuana in America, she said, “I’m a successful business professional, a mother of two young boys, and a regular cannabis user, and that’s normal.” She’d received accolades and promotions at work, she said, proof that “my cannabis use didn’t affect my job performance.” But when she appeared on national TV smoking a joint, she was fired.

She became Jane West full time, and started Women Grow with Hupp to educate and empower women in the industry.

Hupp said at the Summit that she was “raised by hippies,” and grew up with cannabis considered a normal part of adult life. After college, she started several companies in retail, e-commerce and media, gaining expertise in product design, branding and customer experience.

At the opening dinner, Hupp welcomed people, saying her secret goal is that “you lead this new, billion-dollar industry. Its about f–king time we led something!” There were hoots, catcalls, and applause. Hupp told the women to get to know each other, “because to get to the next level, we need a network of women you like and trust.”

On Saturday morning there was yoga and a hike, during which Daniela Vergara, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, said she’s doing research to map the marijuana genome. She needs $75,000 to fund her project, “and I don’t know how to raise money,” she said.

Advice came that morning from a panel on “Creating Your Fundraising Deck.” Jessica Geran of Dutchess Capital and Emily Paxhia, of Poseidon Asset management, the “financial girls” in short black dresses and gold jewelry, spoke about how to prepare data and persuade investors to sign on.

There were panels on how to build a national brand, “kick ass as a conference speaker,” and post Instagrams that will be “thumb stoppers.” A compelling panel was “Cannabis for Aging,” with Sue Taylor, 68, an African-American who was formerly a Catholic school principal. She’s now the Commissioner on Aging for Alameda County, Calif., and educates seniors about the “healing properties of cannabis.”

Taylor said doctors are seeking her out “because they know the medicine they’re prescribing for senior care is not working, and cannabis that’s not psychoactive can help.” In many care facilities, she said, patients cry and scream at night, but with proper dosage of cannabis, “they’re happier and sleep better.” She’s also seen it alleviate arthritis and Parkinson’s disease.

Heather Manus, who goes by “Nurse Heather” and has blonde braids that fall below her knees, threw her arms around Taylor. “I love what you’re doing,” she said. “Nurse Heather” is on the board of the American Cannabis Nurses Association, which has 3,000 members who are working to establish cannabis-nursing as a specialty in nursing schools.

At a party that night, women danced full tilt, snaking about the room while a D.J. played “Smooth Operator.” They formed a circle and cheered as Sue Taylor, in a red blazer and spike heels, shimmied to the floor, and “Nurse Heather” swung her braids above her head. West said it was great being able to “dance and not get hit on.”

The last day, as people rolled their bags out the door, West and Hupp said the Summit had been more successful than they’d dreamed, and that they were confident it would have a strong impact. Vergara, the biologist, had met two investors who want to help fund her research. Many participants said that, to their surprise, they’d had more fun, were less inhibited, and could create more business when the group was all women.

West asked Hupp, “Should we have men at our next summit?”

In a second, they answered in unison: “No.”

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