Leah Heise is sitting in a green room behind the stage of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, by a wide mirror that takes up the entire wall beneath a row of round-bulb makeup lights. Countless performers have prepared for the stage in this room, but now it's Women Grow's turn to shine.
Women Grow, founded in Denver in 2014, was created to connect entrepreneurs in cannabis with other thought leaders and empower the next generation of cannabis businesswomen. The organization is hosting its annual Leadership Summit in Denver right now; women and men from all over the country came to share their stories, network and learn more about what it means to be an entrepreneur in cannabis.
We sat down with Women Grow CEO Heise to learn more about the organization and her plans for 2017.
Westword: You became the CEO of Women Grow in June. What were you doing before that?
Leah Heise: I am a regulatory-compliance attorney and I was counseling people in the State of Maryland on how to comply with the new medical regulations and put together a team to dispense licenses in Maryland. I was researching, working, building clients, and I initially found Women Grow as a way to build my client list.
There are so many business leaders here! It's great to see so many faces in the crowd representing so many states around the country.
Yes! They're all different around the country, but when it's a new market, what seems to happen with Women Grow is it becomes the place where people connect with each other to create relationships, whether it be your distributor or security firm or you're just trying to figure out your place in this industry and how to transfer your skills to the cannabis industry. Women Grow becomes the place where people can figure that out and figure out how to take this skill set you have, or even this passion or ambition, and bring it forward. It creates these little communities in new states, which is great, and then in the older states — the states where they actually have businesses up and running — then the education gets to be a little different and more of a business-to-business thing.
I was surprised to see how many men are here today.
Membership-wise, we're almost 40 percent male. Women Grow is emerging [as] a real industry association. What tends to happen is people come here to connect and, of course, the men who are here believe in diversity and inclusion across the space. Women Grow was initially started with a full focus on women, and of course we are actively supporting women, but we are also very supportive of having our businesses reflect the communities they serve — whether you're a white man, a person of color, LGBTQ, all the way around. We just set aside the barriers to be inclusive, and that's what it's become. Everybody has a seat at the table — it's important that everybody has someone else who looks like them.
What are some of your favorite stories or themes you've heard from the people involved in Women Grow?
The impact that I see with people, especially females with either their own personal health issues or the health issues their children or someone in their life may have, it really propels a lot of people to become advocates for this plant. A lot of the advocates you meet have these stories of what they've suffered or what their families have suffered.
There's a woman I met in Georgia. Cannabis is totally not legal in Georgia, but she has epilepsy. She didn't want to be on her epilepsy meds while she was pregnant. so she started to use CBD — just CBD, which is allowed in Georgia, I believe. And so she continued to use it throughout her pregnancy. She did not have seizures, didn't have anything — it was great. She had the baby at a public hospital in Alabama, and they took her baby away from her because that baby had cannabis in its blood.
Did she get the baby back?
She did. It took her nine months to get her baby back, and her mother had to become the caregiver of that child because they wouldn't release it to her. It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous that someone who's using the plant could have that happen — and that's where, even in the legal states, there are huge disconnects with the regulations and the laws. There are so many changes that need to be made. Regulators can't think of everything, but they don't think about changing any of the Child Protective Services laws when they legalize cannabis. CPS is still going to come after you.... Nothing is done in this cohesive manner, and you don't realize that your kid can be taken away from you or, as a lawyer, my license could be taken away from me.
What are some of the other major issues facing the cannabis industry in terms of new regulations or improving regulations?
Technology is going to be huge. There are going to be big technology plays. We really need a good seed-to-sale system. We just saw that with MJ Freeway and the crash. I think we need to be really careful about creating redundancies and backup systems and ways of managing that seed-to-sale requirement. It's a reality of the world today. The banking industry could go down tomorrow.... If something gets hacked, what do you do? I think as business owners, people really need to be thinking about that cyber-terrorism, cyber aspect, and how it can really just crush your businesses. MJ Freeway was a big eye-opener. Some technology things are going to have to be put in place. People are brilliant. The people in this space are brilliant. We'll figure it out.
With the political climate, especially the national political climate, is Women Grow considering getting involved with advocacy?
Women Grow is not an advocacy group because we're a for-profit organization, so what we tend to do is give people a place to discuss the issues and raise awareness of the issues, but we don't take a particular political stance. That is not something that will always be true. It's in my vision for Women Grow in the next five years that we will create a social-advocacy arm, but right now there are really great groups in this industry, like NCIA, Marijuana Policy Project, that are already doing amazing, groundbreaking work. So we'll focus on cultivating cannabis entrepreneurs and defer to others leading that charge.
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What do you think about Trump? I know a lot of people have feared Jeff Sessions and his administration.
I would be shocked, from someone who is as savvy a businessperson as Donald Trump is, that he would come in and invalidate an entire industry.
What gives you hope moving forward?
The women. The power of the women coming together, I mean, this is our time and we're ready. We're ready to lead.