By Summer Westerbur

In an MJBiz 2022 special report, “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the Cannabis Industry,” women’s leadership in cannabis declined dramatically from 36.8% in 2019 to 23.1% last year.

How did the cannabis industry get here? An industry that began as an activist movement surely should not rank below other industries in gender equity.

Historically, white men have had disproportionate access to capital and connections. Business requires capital and cannabis is a young industry which means many businesses are start-ups. Access to capital increases opportunity and men have more access to both financial and social capital.

The last year has been an incredibly challenging time for the cannabis industry, and we’ve seen unprecedented consolidation. Corporate consolidation inevitably leads to fewer women in leadership positions due to the gender balance of most corporate boards, perhaps a partial explanation for the decreasing number of women in c-suite and leadership roles.

2022 delivered a regulated cannabis market to many new states that legalized. We saw states in the northeast, like New Jersey, prioritize women-owned and social equity license applications. These programs continue to lack the funding required to make them successful, but these states are certainly improving regulations. Licenses can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal, application, and consulting fees so these programs need a funding component to be truly successful. Florida increased its annual licensing fee to $1M, virtually destroying any hope of an equitable state industry.

So how can we bring more women into leadership and ownership roles?

Invest capital into women-run businesses

Investing capital into women-run businesses is the most obvious way to help women become business owners. Women have less access to capital. Additionally, professional development programs can help women with mentoring and coaching reaching leadership positions. Recruitment from within an organization is an effective strategy. Advertise in women-centered organizations and women-led non-profits.

Review your board. Does your board of directors reflect the general population? Women are offered fewer board positions than men. If you have eight men and two women, consider adding women. If you are offered a board position, consider recommending a woman for the position.

Professional network. Next month, write down every referral you send. Each time you refer a client to an insurance agent to purchase a liability policy or an attorney to create an employee handbook, track it. At the end of the month, count the number of referrals sent to women.

Networking events are important for building professional networks. Historically, these have frequently been hosted at male-centric venues, like golf courses. Try avoiding golf courses, strip clubs, and other male-centric venues. If you’re a guest at a networking happy hour, pay attention to who’s in the room – and who’s not. If it’s mostly men, discuss the gender imbalance with the host. People will often do better when the problem is brought to their attention.

Refuse to speak on panels

Before you accept speaking on a panel, tell the event organizer you do not speak on all male panels and ask them to ensure women are speaking. Consider providing the names of qualified women you know who could speak on the topic. If the panel is already organized, consider recommending a woman from your organization to speak on your behalf.

The fight for gender equality can’t rest on women alone. Gender equality will only become a reality when everyone takes action. Both men and women in the cannabis industry can let the world know women are valued by having women represented in your organization’s leadership, board, and professional network.

Summer Westerbur is the founder of Kairos Insurance Group, a boutique insurance agency providing employee benefits in over a dozen states. She serves on the Tri-State Regional Board of Cannabis Chamber of Commerce. Summer can be reached at