How Female Founders Thrive in the Complex Cannabis Industry

Photo: Courtesy Company.

Despite challenges, the cannabis industry is showing its growth potential–and women are paving their own way.

When it comes to breaking ground in a new business, it doesn’t get more fertile than cannabis these days.

As the plant is now recreationally available in 21 states and medically legal in 38, it is proving a hot space to launch businesses–particularly, though, perhaps surprisingly, among women. On Inc.’s Female Founders 200 this year, several women-led companies boasted successful cannabis concerns–from handling hiring and providing funding to growing the plant and then selling it infused with chocolate.

“I’ve never felt a disadvantage in cannabis because I’m a woman,” says Karson Humiston, the 30-year-old founder of Vangst, a Denver-based hiring platform for job seekers in the cannabis industry. “If you’re going into cannabis, you’re progressive, and people are inclusive.”

But even cannabis remains male dominated. Only 22 percent of women held executive positions in cannabis as of 2021, down from 37 percent pre-pandemic, as per a 2021 Women and Minorities in Cannabis report. Cannabis also remains federally illegal, which has contributed to the stigmatization of the industry and hurt founders’ ability to raise funding, as financial institutions have kept their distance.

Still, with continued legalization progress is indeed on the way. Here’s how some of this year’s Inc. Female Founders managed to drive ahead:

A Growth Industry

When Humiston founded the concept of Vangst in 2015 on the campus of St. Lawrence University, it was known as “Gradujuana.” At the time, she says, people told her she was ruining her career by pursuing a business that was associated with cannabis. But after logging $31.5 million in venture funding and more than $5 million in annual revenue with 1,500 employers tapping Vangst, those same people have asked her how they can score in the cannabis industry. Her company slogan, “Proud to Work in Cannabis,” is one she sings aloud.

“The stigma has changed dramatically, and it will only continue to be more and more accepted as time goes by,” she says.

Karson Humiston with her team at Vangst.


Hearing these kinds of cannabis success stories inspired Brett Heyman, the 43-year-old founder of luxury fashion accessories company Edie Parker, to launch a weed brand. In 2018, her New York City-headquartered company began selling the plant itself, along with smoking accessories, under the name Flower by Edie Parker. Amicably known as “Weedie” Parker, her brand puts a feminine spin on traditional weed products, whether it’s a vase-shaped bong or the smokable plant in pretty packaging. She’s even intersected fashion and cannabis, launching a clutch-bag with a built-in lighter.

Despite revenue in the seven digits, Heyman notes the heady association hasn’t always helped her non-cannabis brand, as she says she lost customers on the fashion side. “Over the last four years, there’s been a cycle–we’ve lost a lot of people that are interested in the brand,” she shares. “Whereas Flower, which we have separate metrics for, is just growth.”

Certainly, cannabis has gotten a bad reputation. The illicit market, worth $2 billion in New York state, alone, continues to thrive, in part, as not having to submit to testing or regulations can contribute to a more competitive price point than the regulated market. Even so, the regulated cannabis market, valued globally at $17 billion as of last year, is expected to clock in at as much as $100 billion by the end of decade.

Humiston is bullish on the regulated market. Vangst promises its job seekers they’ll only get placed in legal cannabis storefronts. All workers undergo licensing as well. Heyman assures her company’s smokable cannabis goes through regulated testing protocols, too.

The Price of Legislation

The legalization of recreational use of cannabis has been good news for normalizing it as both a consumer good and a trade, but at the same time, new laws mean new regulations. Heyman won’t sell the plant in the state of New York yet, given the state’s unorthodox rollout of licenses and the restrictions businesses face in getting their shops up. Currently, only eight fully regulated, licensed dispensaries stand in New York, as per the Office of Cannabis Management, despite more than 60 licenses issued since late last year. Even medical marijuana companies are still waiting to enter the adult-use industry.

A campaign for Flower by Edie Parker.


While Heyman sells in Illinois and Massachusetts currently, she has plans to launch in Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio and Maryland this spring. “It’s really hard to launch in multiple states–it’s capital intensive, it’s labor intensive,” she says.

Kristi Palmer, 37, of Kiva Confections, an Alameda, California chocolate and gummy-edibles manufacturer, faces similar challenges. California’s recreational regulations, which were written in 2018, noted that licensed cannabis businesses could only work with other licensed storefronts. Palmer’s business, which was already eight years old at that point, went from 1,200 to just 10 dispensaries.

Palmer had to quickly raise money for her previously bootstrapped company, so she could hire more professional leadership to steer the business through uncertain waters and expand into other states. She and Kiva’s co-founder–also Palmer’s husband–eventually found venture capital investors and established enough credibility to raise debt, too. Palmer declined to publicly reveal the total amount raised, but her plan worked. Kiva products are on sale at dispensaries across 10 states, including Arizona, where state mandates require the plant be grown locally.

More Work Ahead

Kiva’s chocolate edibles.


Palmer, Heyman, and Humiston all agree that their gender has been seen as less of an obstacle. If anything, the industry has welcomed them. But as Heyman notes, there are still a lot of women yet to enter. Women of color, especially, make up only a fraction of the entrepreneurs in cannabis.

“Cannabis is open to all folks, and it does attract a diverse crowd, but I don’t think that diversity is making its way through the ranks,” Palmer adds. “Women are breaking through, just not in the numbers that I would hope.”

These women entered the industry in its prime, and as pioneers, their successful trajectories stand as proof that other women can, and should, break into cannabis while it’s ablaze. “In the cannabis industry, there’s been females that start businesses, there’s females that are running businesses–that’s an impetus to get more females into the industry,” says Robyn Tannenbaum, the co-founder and president of AFC Gamma, a West Palm Beach, Florida-based company that invests in real estate, including the assets owned by cannabis businesses.

In the meantime, though, these founders hope that cannabis can become as common a vice as alcohol. Nineteen states continue to levy a cannabis tax, sometimes even known as a “sin tax,” because of marijuana’s potential to hinder decision making. The percentage varies across states, but is as high as 37 percent in Washington. That, Palmer says, is a clear indication that cannabis is nowhere done being destigmatized.

These women clearly have more work to do.