The legal marijuana industry is an opportunity for anyone, no matter their race, religious backgrounds, ethnicity or gender, as long as they have a good knowledge base on business and work ethic. Women Grow was one of the most influential groups on the cannabis industry, period. It did not matter that it was focused on helping women in particular, it was setting an example for all of the industry.
Jane West, the very successful entrepreneur, started Women Grow. Apparently many founding members have now been alienated and a lot of the women that joined were under the impression that Women Grow was a non-profit business when in fact it was not.
In February 2016, Grammy-winning singer Melissa Etheridge delivered a keynote address to 1,200 attendees of a leadership summit hosted by Women Grow at a lavish opera house in Denver.
The buzz and excitement were palpable, reflecting Women Grow’s speedy rise to prominence in the national marijuana industry, its growing influence and its success uniting female cannabis professionals.
“There was just a ton of positive energy,” recalled Sara Batterby, former chair of the now-shuttered Women Grow chapter in Portland, Oregon. “There was a real feeling of camaraderie. We were doing something important, and people were noticing.”
The future seemed bright for the company, which had built a powerful, well-known brand after launching as a for-profit venture in 2014 to empower women in the marijuana industry by providing networking opportunities, mentoring and business support.
But less than a year after the summit, Women Grow started to stumble.
Dozens of chapters closed, the number of local Women Grow events shriveled, key individuals left and the company’s reputation soured in some circles, with several former founding members and chapter chairs levying harsh criticism at the business.
What led to the turbulence?
Over the past few months, Marijuana Business Daily spoke with more than 20 cannabis professionals either currently or formerly connected to Women Grow, including its founder and current CEO.
“I feel like our biggest growing pains were a result of how quickly we grew,” said Jane West, who founded the company and now serves as a member of the board and partial owner.
“We did our best every step of the way to try to learn, to get feedback from all of the cities and rectify the problems and keep creating a strong foundation. And yet, it’s definitely challenging when you grow that fast.”
To be sure, the business seems to have rallied in recent months, as several new chapters have launched. The company’s current leadership says Women Grow’s financial position is improving and that its dues-paying corporate and individual membership numbers are up over a year ago.
Many industry professionals also believe in the company and think it can recover, while even critics say Women Grow has brought immense value to the industry.
But whether the business can fully regain its stature is an open question, in part because of the ill will it has created.
Women Grow was incorporated as a limited liability corporation in May 2014 in Colorado by Amy Dannemiller, who is better known by her adopted industry moniker, Jane West.
Later that year, she brought on Jazmin Hupp, who became CEO of the company in early 2015.
The concept for Women Grow, West said, emerged from Women 2.0, a for-profit California-based “community-driven” company that is dedicated to empowering women in the tech industry, according to its website.
But to start Women Grow, West relied on contributions from women she met through the Women’s Cannabis Business Network (WCBN), an informal monthly breakfast meeting of marijuana business executives that were connected through the National Cannabis Industry Association.
Those involved in WCBN were quite supportive of West’s endeavor, which they saw as a way to develop a more widespread mentoring and networking program for women in the marijuana industry.
Czarkowski said she and others who initially contributed money to Women Grow thought the idea was to operate it as a nonprofit, like WCBN.
In total, Women Grow raised $30,000, according to West (other sources involved in the early days told Marijuana Business Daily the sum was above $50,000).
One of the early decisions that would later come back to haunt West was her choice to make Women Grow a for-profit endeavor as opposed to a nonprofit.
West said she took that route for one main reason: flexibility.
“I spent most of my career working for nonprofits, and I’m hyper-aware of the limits nonprofits have, the limitations of assets they can own and how they can grow that really restricted the companies I used to work for,” West said.
West said she was clear about the status of the company from the outset, and none of the sources with whom Marijuana Business Daily spoke said they encountered any deliberate deception.
But some women also said the for-profit aspect wasn’t specifically identified, and that a fair share of members believed it was a nonprofit.
“It was first created like a nonprofit,” said former Women Grow CEO Leah Heise, referring to the company’s structure in which a centralized national office (it was moved to Delaware from Colorado last year) oversaw chapters in various cities. “Even I believed it was a nonprofit when I became a member.”
That misconception, even if unintentional, caused hard feelings with a number of women who worked as volunteers for Women Grow. They viewed giving their time as a contribution to a philanthropic cause, instead of to a company that is technically dedicated to making money.
“For a long time, all of us, we all thought it was a nonprofit, and then one day, we magically realized it was for-profit,” recounted Jackie Subeck, a former vice chair of the Los Angeles Women Grow chapter. Subeck worked with Women Grow from August 2015 until February 2017.
“Then the question came up, if it’s for-profit, then how come I’m not making money? I’m putting in 40 hours a month easily, as a volunteer, and we’re in the hole,” she said. “Then it was kind of like, ‘Wait a minute.’ It changed the whole way we looked at it.”