From Model to CEO, This Woman Is Revolutionizing the Cannabis Industry

Jessica VerSteeg never intended to work in the cannabis industry, yet as founder of the blockchain-based marijuana solutions company Paragon, she's now tackling all of the challenges the industry faces today — from taxation to transparency to information and more — all while using blockchain technology to revolutionize the world of weed. As a woman who's taking on not one but two male-dominated industries, we naturally had to talk to her — and she sat down with POPSUGAR for a wide-ranging conversation spanning from how to create a transparent, trustworthy marketplace for marijuana to the myriad challenges she's faced as a female entrepreneur.

But first, it's worth noting how VerSteeg's journey began. In 2013, she was dating an NFL player who was prescribed opioids to manage the pain of years' worth of football injuries. When he told VerSteeg that he was considering switching to marijuana because it was safer, she was staunchly opposed — in fact, she hated weed. "I always told him 'no way' . . . from the D.A.R.E. program — 'Drugs are bad, don't do it. Trust the NFL doctors, you'll never get addicted to those pills.'" But he did get addicted, and his tragic death from an accidental overdose changed the course of VerSteeg's life.

Image Source: Michelle Monique Photography

VerSteeg started researching safe, nonaddictive pain remedies and kept coming back to the same result: cannabis. "It hit me kind of deep because he had asked me multiple times if he could use cannabis to deal with his pain . . . I didn't even take the time even look it up and see if there was any truth to it." So she became determined to change the negative stigma surrounding marijuana, to make it more approachable and accepted and help others avoid the grief she was now overcoming through action.

In 2014, VerSteeg started her first company, AuBox, as an attempt to normalize cannabis. A subscription service for licensed patients, AuBox enabled individuals to have their medical marijuana sent straight to their homes without having to visit a dispensary. But for VerSteeg, the most important part of the company was the work she was doing to inform people about marijuana. "I made this box that had everything in it," she said. "It told the patients how to use it, showed the lab results, which showed the ingredients, and had everything that they wanted to know about how to use it: when not to use it, what not to mix it with. All the information that you don't really know when it's your first time using cannabis." She was fulfilling her mission of getting safe, natural medicine to people who needed it.

She was fulfilling her mission of getting safe, natural medicine to people who needed it.

But it was then that she hit her first major roadblock — she discovered that some of the lab results she was getting from her suppliers were fabricated. "It was shocking to me to think that I'm giving this product to patients, to kids with epilepsy, to patients with cancer, to grandparents with Parkinson's, and they're expecting this to be organic or pure CBD. I'm giving it to them because I just trusted this piece of paper as a lab result and it was photoshopped."

Creating Industry-Changing Technology

VerSteeg was determined to find a solution that would ensure that her customers were getting the products that they had ordered, and with the help of her husband — who was working in the cryptocurrency industry — came up with a solution: blockchain technology.

Blockchain data is incorruptible; it was created to record virtual transactions of all types. Think of it as a platform where one sender can share information straight to the receiver in real time, essentially a Google Docs for important information (or currency, which is its main purpose to date). Files sent using blockchain can't be altered, so by using it for AuBox, VerSteeg would know that the lab results she was getting came straight from the cannabis supplier. The technology worked, and she was able to prove that she was getting the quality products that she promised her patients.

Courtesy of Paragon

VerSteeg hadn't even realized that she had created a system that had the potential to completely transform the industry. "I realized, after a few months, that I was building something that the entire cannabis space could use, and if they use it, could make it legal: [the government has] made cigarettes legal, alcohol, opiates . . . and it's because they can literally track and trace all of that, and they can tax it. With cannabis, they can't track or trace it." Yet blockchain can deliver that trackability for the government, thus expediting the ability to legalize cannabis. The technology provides transparency on both ends — the government can efficiently track product for taxation and suppliers can operate legally, even using blockchain to ensure they're not being taxed on soiled product that they can't sell or are getting energy-efficiency tax breaks for growing with solar, for example.

Establishing trust between the government and suppliers is not an easy task, but with an industry that's still in legal limbo, VerSteeg feels it's the only way forward. "We need to build something that's going to bring this to a new level of transparency, that's going to make this legal. The only way we can do that is as a team — showing the government how we grew something, where we grew it, how much we grew, how much we sold. We don't need to keep hiding because all that's going to do is keep going back and forth to where we've been in the last few years, and that's getting growers burned."

Bitcoin For Bud

Transparency isn't the only problem that Paragon is tackling. Since weed is still illegal federally, companies that try to sell marijuana in all capacities, from farms to manufacturers, struggle to get funding. Banks that are federally insured still can't give loans to marijuana-related businesses. Even when business-owners do find funding, they have an even harder time finding banks that allow them to deposit their mass amounts of cash. Paragoncoin is a cryptocurrency that companies can use to buy equipment and supplies for their businesses, such as fertilizers and growing equipment — it's essentially Bitcoin for the bud industry. In addition to removing some of the cash problem issues, Paragoncoin is the fuel of Paragon's ecosystem, as it's required for adding data to smart contracts and is the exclusive form of payment for all services offered at Paragon Spaces. Operating a cash-only business is dangerous — many companies have to hire armed security guards to transport money — so this is just another way Paragon is making the industry safer and more reliable.

Michelle Monique Photography

Providing Safe Places to Create

Another major challenge most cannabis startups face is space to run their businesses legally. In her own experience with AuBox, VerSteeg couldn't find anyone who would rent her office space to operate, or if she did, it was in dangerous neighborhoods and insanely overpriced. Because of green zones (areas that cannabis companies can legally operate in, defined by their municipality), operating a business from your own home is typically not an option. "Maybe your next-door neighbor runs a daycare center; if so, you're violating the green zone law." Paragon's solution? Coworking spaces. Paragon is opening its first in LA, where it'll have a few buildings for companies to rent out and operate from, legally and affordably. "It's unfair if you don't have an affordable or safe place to work from, and I want to give that to them."

But it's worth noting that Paragon isn't just for suppliers. Consumers can use the Paragon app to get information about the products they're purchasing. "You'll be able to scan a QR code on the back of any product that's using our blockchain," said VerSteeg. "Let's say it's a chocolate bar — when you scan this chocolate bar in your app, you'll have the opportunity of choosing to see farming data or lab data." Consumers will be able to make informed choices right at the dispensary. "You want to know how it was grown? Was it indoor/outdoor? What are the genetics of the plant? Were pesticides used?" All of this information will be accessible in seconds with the app.

Courtesy of Paragon

She believes the most impactful way to change attitudes and the stigma surrounding marijuana is with information. "When you give somebody information — pure, true, honest, trackable information — you can't argue with it." Staying true to her roots, she believes if you educate people, you can help them feel more open-minded about cannabis consumption.

Being a Woman in a "Man's World"

With Paragon, VerSteeg is identifying all of the major challenges that are crippling the industry — and yes, she has a plan to crush them all. As a former Miss Iowa, a model, and an overall gorgeous human, I couldn't help but wonder what it was like to navigate two industries — tech and cannabis — that have been, for the most part, monopolized by men.

Image Source: Michelle Monique Photography

"I've seen firsthand that men don't think I know what I'm talking about," VerSteeg told POPSUGAR. "If I walk into a meeting and my husband is with me, they will think he's the boss. But I created this. When we walk into a meeting, every guy — because it's always a guy, there are very few women — always asks my husband the questions. Then when I answer, they look at me like, 'OK, you're his assistant. Thanks for answering,' and then they ask him the next question. And that's just shocking to me. I answered the question; now you can ask me the next question. But they don't. They still look to my husband."

Fearing that she wouldn't be taken seriously, she tried to conform and shrink herself. "Coming from being a lingerie model and embracing my sexuality, and loving being a woman, and my curves, and my hair. . . and then coming into this space, where I felt like I had to dumb down my look and act like a boy, I felt like I had to conform."

VerSteeg saw this as an opportunity to challenge the status quo and learned to embrace her femininity and unique perspective instead of hide it. "That's one thing I'm going to change. I've realized in the past six months I don't like this fake identity — I don't want to pretend I'm a grower when I'm not; I don't want to pretend I'm coding when I'm not. And I don't want to be walking around in a hoodie with black bags under my eyes all day when I want to wear mascara and I want to talk tech and I want to smoke a joint at the end of the day."

"I don't want to be walking around in a hoodie with black bags under my eyes all day when I want to wear mascara and I want to talk tech and I want to smoke a joint at the end of the day."

"I shouldn't be defined by how I look. To be a woman and to feel sexy is OK, and you should still be taken seriously." She's challenging the double standard that women in tech, and really any field, face every day. "My sister's a coder and she loves wearing hoodies; she never wants to wear a bikini, and that's cool because that's her, but that should be embraced for all women. We can be either way, the same way that men are able to be either way. You've got these men in suits, men in shorts, and men in sweatpants, and they are all taken seriously the same way."

Learning to Own Her Power

There's one story, in particular, that VerSteeg uses to perfectly highlight the challenges that women in business face constantly. During a trip to the World Economic Forum, she had the opportunity to meet the CEO of a major exchange, who was also one of the few people who could help get Paragon Coin listed on crypto-exchanges, allowing people to buy and sell it. She spent the entirety of her conversation trying to convince this man that she was, in fact, the CEO of her company while simultaneously trying to politely reject his advances and just take his derogatory comments.

"You get in this moment — so your mouth tastes like metal, you're sweating, and you almost — you become a little girl, and you're scared and uncomfortable". Almost every woman in business can relate to moments like this where you're stuck having to tolerate inappropriate sexual advances from a man of power for the sake of advancing your career.

Michelle Monique Photography

I asked VerSteeg what advice she has for women who want to get into the tech or cannabis industries or male-dominated industries in general. "No matter what anyone tries to tell you, remember that you have something unique to offer," she said. "Do not underestimate that; to be successful, it's crucial that you learn to like and to love yourself. Having this self-awareness, understanding precisely what you bring to the table, and having the confidence to carry it through to the end will ultimately help you navigate more effectively."

"You can be confident, savvy, and successful, but it starts with knowing who you are, what you're worth, and the uniqueness you have to offer," VerSteeg said. "Believing in your ideas, no matter how crazy they might seem, is integral to achieving any of your goals. Confidence and knowing your self-worth is critical." It's no surprise that a former beauty queen can so eloquently capture such an inspirational sentiment — be yourself and be proud of it; the world needs it.

Any cannabis products referenced above are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The writer is not a medical doctor, and their experience is based on personal use, the results of which may not be typical or intended. The legality of cannabis products varies by state, and readers are encouraged to check their local laws before purchasing and using cannabis products. Nothing in this article should be construed as advice regarding the legal status of cannabis products. Any views expressed in this article by a third-party sponsor are those of such sponsor, and do not necessarily represent the views of POPSUGAR.