Legal pot in Canada has sparked a massive, sometimes wild growth industry. But in one aspect, the new boss is the same as the old boss, to paraphrase The Who: Almost all public cannabis companies are run by men.
Alison Gordon is the only exception. The CEO of 48North Cannabis Corp, Canada’s first licensed producer to focus on the female market, she’s also the sole woman to lead a publicly traded pot producer anywhere in the world.
Gordon, who grew up “not super-religious” in Toronto, came to the industry late. An award-winning marketer, she founded the non-profit Rethink Breast Cancer in 2003 as “the young women’s breast cancer movement” (from its manifesto: ” We think chutzpah and style bring positive energy to the cause”). After years of brand consulting in the medical-cannabis space, Gordon joined 48North in 2013. The company now employs 55 people across Canada; it also has one of just three licenses the government of Canada has issued to date to sell cannabis.
The single mother of two boys, Gordon talked to the Forward from Toronto.
There’s a gender imbalance at all publicly traded companies in North America, but especially in your industry. Wouldn’t you think cannabis would be more progressive that way?
It’s not just the industry. When I joined the space in 2013, it was a risk to go into cannabis, even in Canada. No one knew what was going to happen. Even though I saw possibilities as an entrepreneur, when I decided to leave the organization I had run for 15 years, I thought ‘Oh my God. What if I have to go back and get a corporate job? What would my resume look like with a weed startup?’ Women have a harder time taking that kind of career risk.
Cannabis is also now highly capital-intensive. That’s not an area where women have had equal representation. I sometimes catch myself at head of a boardroom table, surrounded by men, raising millions of dollars, and I look around and say, Who am I? [laughs]. Banking and finance is a very male world. Finally, cannabis has had a particular stigma for women. For some, acknowledging cannabis use means a fear of having your children taken away, and even fear of a negative mark in custody cases.
The Forward’s covered many cannabis pioneers who happen to be Jewish. Why do you think we’re so present in the industry?
Several reasons, I think. First, there’s now a massive finance component to the industry. Jewish people have a long history in that. Second - without any evidence - I’ve noticed Jewish people disproportionately are cannabis users. When I was younger, alcohol was not part of my life of my friends’. It wasn’t part of our culture. Third, you need an entrepreneurial spirit to succeed in this business. You have to be willing and able to pivot, look at things critically, understand where things are going. Jewish people in North America have that history. That’s how we learn and teach - looking at all the angles. Cannabis requires that. Everything changes all the time.
What was your first contact with cannabis?
I tried it in high school. There was something about the way it fostered creativity, fun, and laughter that appealed to me and my friends.
But I didn’t think about it as an industry until a close family friend - an older Jewish woman from Montreal - was diagnosed with stage-4 ovarian cancer in 2008. As she became more palliative, her doctor applied through Canada’s medical cannabis program. I had no idea that program existed, though I was a user. This gold bag arrived with what was basically an irradiated shake [irradiation eliminates microorganisms]. I was like, what? You can just get this in the mail? I knew you could get much better stuff. And I told myself, someone needs to rebrand this the way we rebranded breast cancer.
What does “rebranding” mean for cannabis?
In 2014, I realized that this is a consumer packaged-goods industry. People thought I was nuts. Now, that’s what all of these businesses say. I always had this vision that it wouldn’t just be medical products or flour or whatever.
With legalization now a reality in Canada, what does the future look like for the industry?
The future is really, really bright. When the US reschedules the drug, it’ll be a very big move. But in Canada, the opportunity is right now. Maybe only the natural resource sector is as big. We have a massive advantage over the US because we can be a public company and you can’t. We can access public markets. Toronto is the epicenter of the industry now. So you have companies like mine building and growing quickly. It might be harder for companies in US to catch up. We’re opening facilities and getting licenses around the world. We can export to any country that has a medical program. We’re in interesting times for sure.