Meet 3 Women of Color Lighting Up the Cannabis Industry

In the United States, women hold just 21 percent of executive positions at companies, regardless of industry or company size — but according to a recent survey from Marijuana Business Daily, that number jumps to nearly 37 percent for women in the cannabis industry.

The recreational cannabis industry in the US pulls in more than $7 billion each year, and as more states pass laws in favor of the use and sale of cannabis, business- and legal-savvy women entrepreneurs are eyeing opportunities that allow them to participate in the emerging industry while staying true to their longtime passions. The cannabis industry is growing at a rapid rate, and these three entrepreneurs have all found ways to pursue their interests while getting a piece of the green rush.

The Advocate: Shanel Lindsay
Photo courtesy Shanel Lindsay

The Advocate: Shanel Lindsay

Massachusetts attorney-turned-entrepreneur Shanel Lindsay created a cannabis business worth millions in just three years — and she did so without ever selling weed. With her company, Ardent, Lindsay focused on ancillary products and devices designed to help users get the most out of fresh and cured flower.

At the heart of Ardent is the NOVA Decarboxylator, a device that uses a scientific process to properly activate the THC and CBD in marijuana to prepare it for use in everything from food and cooking oils to tinctures and capsules. Cannabis must be decarboxylated over a specific amount of time and with a certain level of heat before it can be added to your favorite brownie recipe, and Lindsay's company has taken the confusion out of the process.

An active medical marijuana user for years, Lindsay first used cannabis to treat painful ovarian cysts brought on after the birth of her son. "I wasn't thinking about a cannabis career because there wasn't a cannabis industry yet," Lindsay told POPSUGAR about her early days growing and preparing cannabis for her personal use. She'd been making her own medical marijuana for 10 years before she took her medicine to a nearby laboratory and learned that she was wasting 30 to 40 percent of the flower's THC because she was preparing it incorrectly.

Lindsay then commissioned the lab to do further testing, took the data, and developed the NOVA Decarboxylator with the help of engineers. She drew the prototype for the device, found a company to manufacture it, and brought the world's first personal decarboxylator to market by 2016.

As a business owner, Lindsay is at the forefront of Massachusetts's cannabis movement, but it was her own run-in with the law that made her more aware of just how imbalanced marijuana laws and policy could be.

"I was always concerned about the legalization piece of it because, even though the laws were beginning to progress, they weren't protecting everybody, including me," Lindsay recalled. In 2008, the state of Massachusetts decriminalized marijuana, yet in the Summer of 2009, while driving to the law firm where she worked, Lindsay was pulled over for a minor traffic violation and arrested after the officer spotted marijuana in her purse. Her arrest could have ended her career had she been arraigned in front of the judges she often faced with her clients. At the police station, she explained to the officer that her arrest was excessive and a violation of her civil rights since she possessed less than an ounce, warranting only a $100 ticket — and she prevailed. Lindsay's legal savvy helped her get out of being arraigned and she was never charged with committing a crime — but it also exposed how important it was to serve those that have suffered under harsh marijuana laws.

"If you're in this industry and you're benefitting off of prohibition and the fact that this is an exploding marketplace because it has been illegal for so long, with that comes an obligation to push this thing forward and to help the communities that have been harmed because of this," Lindsay explained. For her part, she started working on her state's Guidance for Equity Provisions with the help of her alma mater, the Northeastern University School of Law, and formed the nonprofit Equitable Opportunities Now in 2016 to inform people of color about how to become active participants in Massachusetts's legal cannabis market.

Lindsay is currently working on commercial-size versions of the NOVA Decarboxylator and wants to develop a fund for women and people of color who want to launch cannabis brands. "People should look at this as the biggest economic opportunity in our lifetime," Lindsay said. "I would encourage all women to think about how they can be an active and a positive participant in the space. Whatever someone is good at, there's a need in this industry."

The Entrepreneur: Nidhi Lucky Handa
Photo courtesy Nidhi Lucky Handa

The Entrepreneur: Nidhi Lucky Handa

Nidhi Lucky Handa has always had a desire to follow in her family's entrepreneurial footsteps, but it wasn't until she noticed a lack of cannabis products that reflected her lifestyle and appreciation for luxury that she began to form the idea for a business of her own. A Massachusetts native, Handa studied sociology and political science at Columbia University, launched her career in New York, and relocated to Los Angeles to work as a talent agent. As she hit her 30s, she found herself drinking less alcohol and turning to cannabis to unwind, but her interest in cannabis quickly advanced when Californians voted in favor of recreational marijuana in November 2016.

"I'm drawn to new and emerging industries," Handa told POPSUGAR. She repeatedly found it difficult to shop cannabis brands that aligned with her casual use and affinity for high-end goods. She also noticed brands rarely lasted on dispensary store shelves and was curious as to why they were failing.

"I understood early on the reason why a lot of folks fail in this industry is because they are unable to grasp the regulatory environment and supply chain issues. Issues that are very specific to this industry," Handa said.

Without a business plan in mind, Handa let her curiosity lead the way. She reached out to compliance professionals early on to help guide her into making the best business decisions, and once she landed on the idea for LEUNE, a line of sleek cannabis products geared toward productive, high-functioning consumers, she brought in seed money from friends and strategic investors. Handa launched LEUNE on marijuana delivery app Eaze in November 2018.

Today, a year after Handa launched LEUNE, it is an eight-person team and growing, with the brand currently offering pre-rolls and pastel-hued, all-in-one vaporizers. Handa sees LEUNE as a solution for those who may be intimidated by a cannabis industry that, as she pointed out, has historically marketed to and been led by men.

"I was hearing a lot of anecdotal stuff about cannabis and how you have to market it. I didn't believe any of it," Handa said. "I don't believe that this is an industry where the only way to get people interested in your product is with booty shorts and bikinis. I don't buy it as a woman or as a marketer."

In building a brand that's thoughtful and purely recreational, Handa noticed that cultivators making products — not people interested in building long-term brands — supplied most cannabis goods. She has experienced firsthand just how much opportunity exists for anyone interested in launching a cannabis company, but she insisted that for any emerging brand to survive, an emphasis on products that put the consumer experience first must be a priority. "We should all keep our standards high," Handa advised. "Every part of the industry is evolving right now."

The Epicure: Amanda Jackson
Photo courtesy Amanda Jackson

The Epicure: Amanda Jackson

Any chef worth her salt can pair food with fine wine, but personal chef Amanda Jackson wants to challenge more chefs to learn the increasingly popular art of cooking with cannabis.

Born on 4/20 and raised in a small town in Georgia, Jackson grew up going to high-end restaurants, experiences that helped her develop an early appreciation for great customer service. She admittedly struggled in school due to ADHD, and while she studied African American history and music therapy in college, she was kicked out of school because of her low GPA. Bartending and serving jobs helped her buy time, but when a coworker gave her Anthony Bourdain's memoir, Kitchen Confidential, she knew she was meant to be in the kitchen.

"I wanted to play in the fire," Jackson told POPSUGAR. She eventually went to culinary school and landed her first kitchen job making sauces and barbecue side dishes. By 26, she was an executive chef in a Tallahassee restaurant, but with the opportunity to lead a kitchen came sexual harassment from one of her sous chefs. Feeling undervalued in restaurants and in need of a change, she eventually moved to Los Angeles and was immediately drawn to high-profile cannabis chef Andrea Drummer.

Photo courtesy Amanda Jackson

"I came from a state where cannabis is illegal so it's very hard to learn how easy this is," said Jackson, who began cooking with Drummer soon after moving to California. After two years, Jackson developed her own client base — which includes Jackie Aina and Heather and Terry Dubrow — and added cannabis dinners to her list of services.

For Jackson, marijuana is just one ingredient that can be used to elevate dining. She has created menus for plant-based diets, Keto diets, and alkaline diets, but in cannabis cooking she sees an opportunity for chefs to serve up unforgettable moments for diners. "If you enjoy a blush red wine, maybe you enjoy a fruity, citrus-y sativa, and if you want it really bright, we can put it in butter," she explained. "Add some lemon zest and now you've got this sativa cerebral high with this food that you really enjoy. Dining is supposed to be an all-sensory experience, and if you're a little high, we can take that up a notch."

Up next, Jackson wants to develop a cannabis bed and breakfast concept and write a cookbook to help fellow chefs learn how to add cannabis to their cuisine in a meaningful way. She hopes that by being a visible black woman cooking with cannabis, her success in the industry will inspire other women to consider nontraditional culinary paths of their own. "It's helpful to see more people that look like you doing this. As black women, I want to see more of us not so weed-shamed," she shared. "It doesn't matter what space you're in, if you're where you're supposed to be, you'll figure it out."

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.