During the first week of February, over a thousand women (and a handful of men) from Canada, Puerto Rico, and across the United States gathered in downtown Denver for the 2016 Women Grow Leadership Summit. The event had a herstorical purpose – to connect, inspire, and empower women to lead the new legal cannabis industry – and had a tremendous, even transformational, impact on those in attendance. Here are eight reasons why I’m glad I was there:
There are some conferences where the speakers are too polished. We’ve all seen these types: they put on the affectation of being genuine and their phoniness is transparent, or they’re performing an identity that doesn’t match their message. They’re simply not relatable, and often they’re not even likable; no one wants to be told how it is by a pompous know-it-all or by someone pretending to be just like you and me. At the WGLS, each presentation had a rawness that was both captivating and inspirational. While these were a slate of the most prepared, dynamic, and articulate people I’d ever seen assembled at one event, they were all incredibly real, refreshingly authentic. I knew many of them were seasoned public speakers, that they’d honed these talks for weeks and had coaching and feedback. Yet, it was as if they were in conversation with the room, responding in the moment to the energy they encountered. Speakers shared their failures as candidly as their biggest successes, they showed and sparked all range of emotion, and they took big risks to impart important wisdom. If they had a unifying message it was this: the people on stage and the people in the seats aren’t that different (except maybe Melissa Etheridge…). Or, as Sara Batterby, CEO of Hi-Fi Farms put it: “You got this, baby.” That is a huge gift to an audience.
If you want to see for yourself, watch Women Grow co-founder Jane West‘s Lightning Talk, “Cannabis Cured My Impostor Syndrome” here:
2. A spirit of generosity.
In fact, an economy of gifting arose spontaneously at the WGLS. Whether it was a group of women inviting someone they’d met on the elevator to share some cannabis or an industry expert offering her advice to a group gathered after a panel, no one was holding back their best stuff. No one was locking away best practices or acting as gatekeeper to the secret of success in the cannabis industry. When legendary venture capitalist Jeanne Sullivan transformed onstage into Wonder Woman, it was clear that whatever tips she was offering, you’d better write them down. There truly was the sense that “together, we have more power” and that everyone has something to offer and something to learn. Information and joints were passed freely; we were encouraged to ask for what we needed. Speakers recounted intensely personal, and sometimes painful, stories; business owners offered samples and advice to participants curious about how cannabis topicals might relieve their migraines. This generosity springs from a place of abundance and compassion: there is enough for all of us, and I want to share it with you.
3. Real dialogue about real diversity.
Women Grow has made great progress toward inclusivity in their short existence. In addition to their mission of empowering women in cannabis, they’ve demonstrated a commitment to reaching and engaging queer communities and communities of color, and they work to make spaces where everyone feels included: seen, heard, and respected. For this conference, Women Grow offered scholarships, tiered pricing options, student discounts, and even free tickets through giveaways and bundled packages, all of which enabled many who wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to attend. They also brought the dialogue around diversity to the foreground with their speaker choices and panel topics. We’re all more cross-culturally competent after hearing Kiana Hughes talk about changing the cannabis conversation, and we’re all more motivated to dream big after hearing how hard Renee Gagnon fought for her business and her identity as a trans woman. We know that it’s challenging enough to be a woman in cannabis; it is incredibly important that we all consider the ways intersectionality impacts many members of our community, as well as the role race, gender, and class have played in the war on drugs. We must never stop working to become an equitable and inclusive industry that embraces real, not just cosmetic, diversity. I have so much gratitude for the women who showed up and stepped up to lead conversations around these issues, who risked being uncomfortable in order to name the injustices, who made room for everyone to have a seat at the table, and who made that table a place we all wanted to be.
4. Deeper connections.
Certainly everyone expects to leave a three-day conference with a stack of new business cards and a list of connections with whom they want to follow up right away. Women Grow never fails to deliver on this expectation; they are the fastest growing networking group in the industry. But at the WGLS, equally important were personal connections, the connections you made among the ideas in your head when you heard someone else’s perspective, the creative impact of being in the room with the right people at the right time. There is a deeper bond that is generated with the physical connection of sharing cannabis with a new friend, hugging a stranger because her words moved you, or passing a tissue to the woman seated to your left when you notice she too is crying at Moriah Barnhart’s powerful story of healing her daughter with cannabis. These are the connections that keep us going; these are the connections that feed our souls.
5. Balance of work, play, and wellness.
The cannabis business frequently blends the boundaries of work and play, and that’s exactly what brings many of us to the industry. But tip the scale too far in either direction, and an awkward tension results. It’s hard to make the most of a conference when you’ve partied so much that you can’t absorb information, and events that don’t include time to unwind can feel overwhelming and perfunctory. Women Grow hit the right note here, adeptly balancing the work and play of the conference with a focus on wellness and personal equilibrium. Dinners and parties allowed time for catching up with old friends and making memories with new ones; complementary shuttles to Mindful enabled attendees to stock up on their favorite cannabis products or try the limited edition Women Grow Ready Pen, made from a mild live resin with a unique THC:CBD ratio. Early morning yoga with instructor Kristin Ehasz was a wonderful way to start the day, and mindfulness and movement practices throughout the conference gave us much needed moments to pause, breathe, and center ourselves in the midst of the week’s excitement.
6. The format.
As advertised, there really was “no bullshit.” Thursday’s lightning talks required presenters to be on their A-games; with only ten minutes each, they had no time to waste. Speakers were overwhelmingly successful at distilling the essence of their messages and delivering them in entertaining ways. And if you weren’t particularly interested in the present talk (or if you really had to use the bathroom), you could duck out for a few minutes and come back to a new speaker, new topic, and new energy. The panel discussions on Friday allowed participants to choose their topics, delve deeper into conversations of interest, ask questions of experts. The event was well coordinated, tightly executed, and chock full of opportunities to learn. Women Grow went to great lengths to ensure that there was something meaningful for everyone.
7. An emphasis on affecting social change.
At a lot of industry events, the focus is on money making. The WGLS was more holistic; it struck a delicate balance, weaving financial success, personal fulfillment, health and wellness, and the continued progress of our movement toward the legalization of cannabis into an interconnected web. Despite the ease with which we procured and consumed cannabis in Denver, we all recognize that we have a long way to go until the war on cannabis is over and that we are the privileged who get to fight it from outside a prison cell or a hospital bed. Activists and leaders such as Betty Aldworth of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Shea Gunther of 4Front Ventures spoke to the symbiotic nature of the cannabis industry and agencies pushing for social justice, harm reduction, and changes in the way we understand public and individual health. Vicente Sederberg’s Steve Fox, who encouraged us to work for large-scale change, called on women to lead “a transition from an alcohol-dominated society to a cannabis-enhanced culture.” As resonant was Lauren Gibbs’ (Women Grow/Rise Above Social Strategies) message that it is up to us to unravel negative stereotypes about cannabis through education and candor about our choices in our everyday conversations and interactions. #WomenKnow that cannabis is safer, and we won’t give up until everyone else does too.
8. So you aren’t crushed by FOMO.
Last May, when my social media feeds were full of photos and quotes from the first Women Grow Leadership Summit, I had the worst FOMO of my life. Sure, there was a hint of jealousy (in all FOMO, there’s an element of “I want to be seen there…”), but this wasn’t an illusion generated by a “grass is greener” mentality. It was a deep and abiding “I want to be there…I need to be there,” and it was recognizing the urgency of this desire that helped me make it a priority for myself. Those of us in prohibition states, where there’s not yet an industry and it’s hard to build momentum, must experience the energy that comes from a bustling market and driven colleagues in order to know that we can keep going. But this urge is not exclusive to us. We all deny our desires and work for others’ ends and sacrifice what we want and need on a daily basis. We can all benefit from a change of pace, of scenery, of consciousness from time to time in order to reaffirm our commitment to our individual and collective work. And we deserve those moments, those experiences, those opportunities to say, “I was there.” Thank you, Women Grow, for helping us give these gifts to ourselves.
photo credits: Jenn Lauder
video: courtesy of Jane West