Few female entrepreneurs have enjoyed the kind of widespread accolades and recognition in the cannabis industry as Nancy Whiteman. Often called “The Queen of Legal Weed,” Whiteman is founder of the Wana Brands Foundation and CEO and co-founder of Wana Brands, North America’s leading cannabis edibles brand available in 15 states and throughout Canada.
Whiteman says Wana Brands’ mission is to create efficacious products that deliver customized experiences for health and wellness or recreational effects. The company places a strong emphasis on delivering quality products. “That’s the only way to provide consumers with real value and to differentiate yourself in the space,” she says.
Since starting the company in Boulder, CO in 2010, Whiteman has witnessed the cannabis industry’s profound—and undeniable—evolution firsthand.
“It was like the Wild West—no requirements to test for potency, no child-resistant packaging and no rules about pesticides or solvent usage or levels,” she says. “Now we have a far more regulated, safe and sophisticated industry.”
While the landscape is very different today, Whiteman says much still remains the same, and she advises company leaders to be realistic about what they can do.
“It’s important to focus on not getting out over your skis,” she says. “If you’re going to be in the cannabis industry, you better be able to roll with the punches, adapt to change and find that exhilarating rather than draining.”
Unlike most of Colorado’s other original cannabis brands, Wana Brands is thriving with no signs of slowing down. In 2021, Wana agreed to sell to Canadian titan Canopy Growth for an all cash payment of $297 million. Shortly after, she took $50 million of the proceeds to launch the Wana Brands Foundation (WBF), which takes Wana Brands’ mission of enhancing lives through cannabis a step further.
WBF allocates at least five percent of the endowment every year towards charitable initiatives, such as research and education, food security, shelter, safety, mental health, sustainability and social justice. While Whiteman is able to give back through the nonprofit, her primary role is working as Wana’s CEO, continuing to push the brand’s strategic vision forward. (Despite the acquisition, Canopy and Wana essentially operate as independent companies.) Whiteman’s leadership is instrumental in their growth into new and emerging markets. She also handles the development of strategic partnerships and licensing agreements in the US and abroad.
Whiteman says this year’s corporate goal is “making market share; not taking market share. Despite all the challenges, there are a number of bright spots in the industry. The key is to grow the market rather than to join the race to the bottom in pricing.”
When it comes to being a female chief executive, Whiteman says she hasn’t faced as many challenges as the vast majority of other women-owned businesses due to the fact that she was “able to bootstrap Wana Brands and never had to take on equity or debt.”
“That said, as the market has grown, it favors the group of people who historically have had the easiest access to capital, and as such, the leadership of the industry has become whiter and male,” she says. ”And the fact is female entrepreneurs receive only about two percent of venture capital funding compared to their male counterparts. So, we certainly have some work to do there.”
For other women trying to make it in the cannabis industry, Whiteman advises them to “figure out your first step and see where you can go with it” and not to waste time ‘crossing t’s and dotting i’s’, because the industry changes too much, too often.
“Sometimes people call me ‘Wana’s fearless leader’ and I laugh to myself. No entrepreneur worth their salt is fearless—it’s a scary thing to do,” she says. “My advice is simple: Don’t waste your time conjuring mythical attributes—trying to be the smartest, the most confident—because it’s just not realistic. Be resilient, be persistent and be accepting of the fact that fear and anxiety are part of the process. And don’t judge yourself for feeling that way.”