LGBTQ CEOs get real about the diversity problem in Canada’s cannabis industry

Note from the editor: This article first appeared on Forbes.com.

Canada’s relatively young cannabis industry has an executive-level diversity problem, and it starts with investors. Renee Gagnon and Whitney Heckford, two queer-identifying female CEOs, say being out and a woman in weed makes it more difficult to attract capital.

In 2019, the number of female CEOs in the Canadian cannabis industry was nothing to boast about: just seven of the 99 companies with publicly listed data had women in the top position. As the industry has matured, that number has declined. Legalization may have promised a chance to shatter the glass ceiling, but with fewer women to look up to, more and more are actually choosing to walk away from the industry.

“These challenges didn’t exist when I was a man”

As a cannabis industry pioneer, Renee Gagnon is all too familiar with the way women are being pushed out of executive-level positions.

“When you look at any industry, any segment, and especially a controlled and regulated environment, the number of females that have been allowed to get funded is a handful,” says the serial entrepreneur and CEO of Hollyweed North. “Very few of them last longer than a year before they’re replaced by their board, and always replaced [with] another man.”

An openly trans woman, Gagnon says the problems she faces today in the industry, “didn’t exist when I was a man.” The founder of the federally licensed cannabis processor came out as trans in 2015 when she left her role as CEO at Emerald Health Therapeutics, one of the first five firms licensed by Health Canada to grow medical cannabis.

Gagnon spent some time away before working closely with Women Grow, a Denver-based organization dedicated to fostering female leadership in cannabis. It was her chance, she says, to try and translate some of what she had learned about the market in Canada to women that she knew, “would eventually be culled from the herd by white-guy money.”

Upon reentering the industry with Hollyweed North in 2016, the company didn’t receive its federal license until late 2018, just as the market faced a major meltdown. Attracting purely Canadian capital “while chasing a burning marketplace,” she says, has proven to be difficult.

In the legal market, Gagnon says the barriers for female entrepreneurs and people of colour are much greater than they are for men. The (mostly white, mostly male) executives that they are competing with may not have any previous involvement in cannabis, but they likely come from large corporations and have pre-existing c-suite experience often deemed more valuable than practical experience with the plant.

“There’s always money for those guys if their resumes are right. But they have bigger issues to worry about than diversity, and again women’s issues take a backseat,” she says.

“Women had their rightful place in this industry five years ago, and it’s been totally destroyed entirely thanks to capital placement. The fact is, if you’re not investing in women, you’re not going to hear women’s success stories.”

“I’ve been told my business would be more successful if I was a male”

Whitney Heckford is the founder and CEO of MyBud, a social platform and app geared to cannabis consumers and cultivators that provides users with the education to grow their own cannabis. She financed her firm after being approached by investors who came from other male-dominated industries, bringing with them all the unwelcome associated traits of being part of an old boy’s club.

“It definitely hasn’t been easy,” says the entrepreneur with a background in finance, cultivation and genetics. “I’ve been told before that my business would be more successful if I was a male… I’ve heard that women are too emotional to run Fortune 500 companies; we’re are too emotional to be able to scale a start-up.” These lines, she says, prevent those at the top from tackling the problem of diversity.

She recounts another occasion during a business meeting in which a man gushed at length about her appearance, telling her she “really did have great genetics.”

“This kind of inappropriate sexual harassment is unfortunately very present within our space,” she says. She counters this unwelcome behaviour with a no-bull approach: “How I got over it, is I just stopped taking shit from anyone, to be frank.”

MyBud’s recently reappointed board of directors is led by women, a move Heckford is particularly proud of. “It’s important to practice what you preach,” she says. “We're not going to break the glass ceiling unless we come together and realize that there is a problem, and be the solution.”

Whitney Heckford is the founder and CEO of MyBud. (Courtesy photo)

Her advice to other women, queer-identifying people, and people of colour looking to enter the cannabis industry is to fight for their rightful place in the room. “Don’t be intimidated,” she says. “It’s about demanding a seat at the table, demanding respect and dignity, and not settling for anything less.”

For Heckford, this also means being cautious about who she accepts financing from and ensuring they align with her ideals and worldviews.

“When we were doing our financing I turned down money because there is a difference between good money and bad money, and I recognized that,” she says.

“There might be easy money on the table, but it’s not always good to take the easy money. Sometimes it’s good to work a little bit harder and make sure that the people that back you are in line with your visions and morals.”