On a foggy San Francisco evening in July, hundreds of women wove their way past a homeless encampment under a freeway to the headquarters of a marijuana delivery service app.
Inside, the headquarters fit the expected aesthetic of a start-up: an open courtyard, string lights against nicely rusting steel walls, the smell of fresh white paint and maybe sawdust, couches, a basketball hoop and enough empty space to comfortably house a few elephants.
But, the women fit no expected aesthetic. They came from across the Bay Area, across all major demographics and with widely varying reasons for attending. There was a septuagenarian opening her first dispensary, two best friends starting their own gluten-free edibles company, a woman incarcerated for nearly a decade for growing cannabis, a lawyer who just loved to smoke weed and many women looking for a job or professional connections. It was a monthly meeting of Women Grow, a national network to support women entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry, and Bay Area co-chairs Amanda Conley and Shabnam Malek brought the women together.
Each meeting features a speaker, and last July, a woman who co-runs a prominent investment fund spoke on how to effectively pitch a cannabis business to investors. Before a room full of women — and some supportive men – the speaker asked, “How many people in the audience are interested in starting their own business in the cannabis industry?”
Two hands, belonging to Conley and Malek, seemed to rise higher than the others from the front row.
“Now how many have already successfully started such a business?”
Conely and Malek were two of the few who raised their hands again and looked at each other and laughed.
But they haven’t started just one such business — they’ve started four in under a year.
In October 2014, they launched the Bay Area chapter of Women Grow after a speaking engagement in Las Vegas connected Conley with Women Grow’s national leaders. In early 2015, they formed Synchronicity — a women-only cannabis club in San Francisco that hosts “sample and share” parties and will soon launch a monthly subscription box containing cannabis products specially selected for women — with two other women. And in May 2015, they formed their own intellectual property law firm called Brand & Branch that mostly serves cannabis companies.
Malek and Conley’s work together culminated in the launch of the National Cannabis Bar Association (NCBA) this June to create a network for cannabis lawyers navigating complex state laws that vary across the nation. Through the NCBA and Brand & Branch, Conley and Malek are poised for breakthroughs in cannabis law.
They will be collaborating with the California Secretary of State’s office on improving the policy for the handling of cannabis trademark applications on the state level. And they are talking about challenging old laws and creating new laws if (and when) California legalizes adult-use marijuana.
“We’re realistically talking about how to challenge the Controlled Substances Act,” says Malek. “Any one of us could be the one to have a case before the court of federal appeals.”
The two are quick to credit their success to the supportive nature of the cannabis industry and the women cannabis professionals before them that have paved the way. But these two business partners are leaders in their own right, channeling their seemingly boundless energy toward carving out places to empower female cannabis professionals. For example, Synchronicity only features products from companies who employ at least one woman who can present their product at the parties in an effort to pressure companies to diversify. Under their leadership, the chapter of Women Grow highlights the powerful women already leading in the industry. Half of the board of the National Cannabis Bar Association is women lawyers, with potentially more in the future. And yet, says Malek, “I don’t think it should make us complacent.”
Spaces to support women in the face of continued discrimination are still crucial, Conley and Malek agree, for providing constant inspiration, energy and connections.
“I feel like Women Grow has changed our lives,” says Conley, “and the reason that Women Grow has succeeded so well is because the cannabis industry is a somewhat new industry, and it’s full of — for the most part — good liberal people who have realized that we don’t want to make a lot of the same mistakes in terms of lack of diversity and marginalizing women and people of color that other industries have made.”
While running their chapter of Women Grow, as well as their three other organizations, Conley and Malek often debate gender politics amongst themselves, trying to ensure they enact the most effective and considerate policies.
As they led July’s Women Grow meeting, the efficacy of their calculated intentions was evident. In the filtered glow of sunlight through warehouse doors, the women and men that Conley and Malek had organized sat in circles. They scooted in closer together, shoulders touching and bodies leaning in, to hear each other over the din of happy conversation echoing against steel walls. They passed around new vape pens, offered each other jobs and laughed easily — female and male voices balanced – and identity both reinforced and surpassed.
Collaboration sits near the center of Women Grow’s purpose, something that Conley and Malek embody. They consider their partnership akin to that of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey or Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg — and the emphasis on comedy is no mistake.
When asked what comes next for these two, Conley deadpans, “World domination.”
Have you attended a Women Grow meeting? Tell us about your experiences.