Exchanging business cards decorated with marijuana leaves, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, legal experts and cannabis enthusiasts alike descended on the Yale School of Management on Friday for the first cannabis-oriented conference organized by an American business school.
The single-day conference was entirely student-run and brought together participants from all sectors of the legal cannabis industry to comprehensively analyze how the industry has performed in the infancy of its legality and where it is headed. Speakers repeatedly addressed issues of racial, gender and cultural diversity within the industry.
Head organizers Connie Lee SOM ’18 and Billy Marks SOM ’18 said they were inspired to organize an event that would provide a holistic overview of the cannabis space, its history and potential futures.
“We are both interested in cannabis for many reasons, including the impact of the war on drugs on communities of color, the growing concerns about environmental impacts and the proliferation of innovative products and services in this emerging industry,” Lee said during the opening remarks.
The conference began with a series of addresses from the CEO of a private equity firm, the director of a cannabis research initiative and the managing director of a venture capital firm. The speeches were followed by a moderated panel discussion on the legalization and regulation of cannabis. After the morning’s activities, attendees broke for lunch, engaging in friendly and occasionally contentious discussion about their different perspectives on the young industry.
After lunch, the large group split up for panel discussions on topics ranging from diversity to the potential for innovation in the field. Speakers drew from their personal and professional experiences in the cannabis industry, often touching on weighty topics like illness and mass incarceration, in discussions about legal compliance and taxation. Emily Paxhia, co-founder and managing director of Poseidon Asset Management, spoke on a venture capital and private equity panel, discussing the need for players in the industry to remain “squeaky clean” while under substantial legal scrutiny.
The private sector has shown increasing interest in the multibillion dollar cannabis industry as marijuana and other related products gradually become legal in states across the nation for recreational and medicinal purposes, said John Kagia, executive vice president of industry analytics at New Frontier Data, an analytics company focused on the cannabis industry. Grappling with a long black-market history and the debilitating and often racialized impacts of criminalization, many in the industry are now working to foster the cultural and legal acceptance of a long-stigmatized drug. Even without any further legalization, the legal marijuana industry will be worth around $24 billion by 2025, Kagia said.
Dasheeda Dawson, CEO of cannabis marketing firm MJM Strategy and a speaker at the event, told the News she entered the legal cannabis industry when it was still in its infancy and “desperate for help” in the realm of marketing.
“We are all educated in what I call ‘bro science,’ when you know something because it’s what your ‘bro’ told you,” said Dawson, who received a degree in molecular biology from Princeton University. She added that she is focused on the real science and the educational aspect of marketing, noting, “If we start there, we are already fulfilling an ethical responsibility we have to the consumer.”
Most of the speakers shared a health dose of disdain for current U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has repeatedly expressed a desire to ramp up what many believe to be a racially charged war on drugs. One of the speakers on the venture capital panel, Lauren Rudick, is a lawyer at Hiller PC, a firm currently suing Sessions over his stance on cannabis legalization. When she mentioned the lawsuit to the audience, it prompted a long round of applause.
“Black and brown communities have taken on the majority of the risk in the war on drugs, so it’s only right that we can now access some of the benefits of legalization,” said Ebele Ifedigbo SOM ’16, co-founder of Hood Incubator, an organization that seeks to give people of color paths to ownership in the legal cannabis industry.
However, Dawson said, racial minorities make up a very small percentage of the legal industry, and white men still control most of its financing.
Speakers also called attention to many of the ways in which women have participated — and in some cases been marginalized — in the cannabis industry.
During a panel discussion entitled “Women in Cannabis,” female industry leaders shared their personal experiences working in the industry and discussed their hopes going forward.
Kristina Garcia, the CEO of Women Grow, a networking organization for female leaders in the cannabis industry, said that during her time in the tech world, she was once told by a male colleague to “get back under the desk where [she] belonged.” She added that creating a more positive culture within the cannabis industry could lead to a ripple effect.
Giadha Aguirre de Carcer, the CEO and founder of New Frontier Data, said the newness of the legal cannabis industry presents women with the opportunity to be heard and create impact on both a personal and a public level.
“We have a lot of opportunities to look at other industries and see what they could have done better,” Paxhia said on the “Women in Cannabis” panel, speaking about gender equality. “We can surpass the negative perceptions of the cannabis industry by being an example.”
The panelists acknowledged that, although female leadership may be higher in the cannabis industry than in others, total gender equality is still far off on the horizon. Several panelists referred to the prevalence of “booth babes,” a derogatory phrase for women employed by brands at trade shows to sell products, and also pointed to the decline in the number of women entering the cannabis industry after it began consolidating a few years ago.
Attendees gathered in the Zhang Auditorium for a final panel on careers in the cannabis industry. Panelists discussed their trajectory from big banks and marketing firms to the industry. They touched on topics ranging from the perks and challenges of working in a brand new field to the awkwardness of telling one’s family about it.
“I think this conference is really important because it legitimizes the issue — an issue that in a lot of worlds is kind of an illicit topic or a fringe issue,” said Lucy Kessler FES ’18, who helped organize an afternoon panel on sustainability and previously conducted research on the energy impacts of cannabis cultivation. “I think it’s important that the SOM saw it as, for one, a major economic driver in the U.S., as well as abroad, but also looked at it in an interdisciplinary way.”
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