The Challenges Facing Women and POC Founders in Cannabis

Chanda Macias, CEO of Women Grow, talks diversity and inclusion in marijuana

chanda macias
Chanda Macias lost her house because of financing issues while working to start her cannabis business. Adweek
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When it comes to diversity and inclusion, the cannabis industry is uniquely positioned to reconcile its own troubled roots. According to an ACLU report this year, Black Americans are almost four times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses. Yet today, the thriving legal cannabis market still has far to go to right those wrongs: Only 4.3% of cannabis companies have Black owners.

Chanda Macias, CEO of Louisiana-based Ilera Holistic Healthcare and founder of Washington, D.C. medical marijuana clinic National Holistic Healing Center, joined Adweek’s Elevate: Cannabis and CBD event on Wednesday to shed light on some of the obstacles that keep women and people of color from joining the ranks of the industry.

“Even though I was a biomedical researcher [and] had an MBA in supply chain management, what I didn’t know was the hurdles that were in front of me,” said Macias, who also serves as the CEO of Women Grow, an organization for women leaders within the cannabis industry.

Gaining approval for a cannabis business license in Washington, D.C., required proof of financial capital as well as real estate for the proposed operation, Macias said. She had to pay rent on a commercial property for two years—that couldn’t be used for any other ventures—while she “hoped that I would win” the license. That kind of expense is simply out of reach for many women and members of minority communities.

Macias stopped paying her home mortgage in order to keep the commercial real estate needed to qualify for the license. “I did lose my house,” said Macias, who noted that she has four children, and taking such a risk was an uneasy move for a parent, “but I gained my business.” The founder’s struggles continued: canceled leases, uncertain licensing, cashing in her 401K.

Traditional business loans are out of the question for cannabis entrepreneurs. Banks won’t take the risk of investing in an industry that is still classified as illegal on a federal level; cannabis businesses that offer THC can’t even open bank accounts or take credit cards, unlike CBD-only brands. So entering the industry takes personal wealth or venture capital that is often out of reach for marginalized would-be founders.

Macias said that mentorship is vital for women and POC founders. Groups like Women Grow, Minority Cannabis Business Association and the National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance offer networks that marginalized ganjapreneurs can call on for support. And startup incubators like The Initiative provide women, LGBTQ and POC founders with direct access to venture capitalists.

“The leadership is definitely changing, and we’re working more aggressively to be more inclusive,” Macias said. “There’s some progress. But you can’t really talk about cannabis until you talk about social justice reform as well. Breaking the pipeline to prison is important.”

@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.