At Sonoma County’s Garden Society, ethics meet timeless elegance–from artisanal Fair Trade chocolates to their signature full-spectrum pre-roll rosettes, each treat is handcrafted from responsibly sourced sun-grown cannabis. The garden may be where the magic begins, but the woman-led company is just as committed to sowing the seeds of gender equality in the cannabis industry. “Women and community are in the DNA of the business,” says founder Erin Gore.
For Gore, women supporting women is more than just a core value–it’s one of the pillars of her success. “It’s no secret that cannabis is a male-dominated industry,” Gore says, but she’s made it her personal mission to change that. “We have to ensure that women are at the table at every level of the ecosystem. And we know the more women succeed, the more women give back to their communities. It’s a no-brainer.”
When Gore began her cannabis journey she was already a seasoned business woman. Weed was her key to staying mentally and physically healthy while raising a family and managing a company valued at $100 million. And when her trips to the dispensary left her feeling disappointed, Gore decided to start making her own products. “In 2010 there wasn’t really a vocabulary around full-spectrum products, which, after getting hip replacements from college sports injuries, is what I really was looking for. I have a degree in chemical engineering, and so I started experimenting.”
When word got out among her circle of friends that Gore was making premium canna-goodies, they wanted in.
“My friend said ‘You have a weed factory you’re not telling me about? I want to come over,’” Gore says. “So we started having high holiday baking where we’d swap recipes, and I had a realization. Being a woman with a career, a mother, a best friend, a wife–I realized these women were all struggling in the same way I was.” Gore knew the potential to connect through cannabis went beyond her own circle. “There were fifty women in my house, and they were all there because they were inspired by cannabis. Two weeks later I quit my job and started Garden Society.”
The focus on building community around cannabis remains strong. Gore describes Garden Society’s consumer base as “cannaconfident,” but the company offers educational events called Garden Parties for the cannacurious. They offer opportunities to learn about the plant and explore the benefits of different products. Gore likens the parties to “a modern day Mary Kay.”
As Garden Society has grown, so has the mission. When the pandemic hit, Gore’s difficulty fundraising made her see the full scope of the challenges women face in the financial sector.
“We had a really hard go of fundraising. In cannabis you don’t have access to traditional services like PPP loans,” says Gore of her experience with co-founder Karli Warner. “We had men telling us that we must not be a very good woman led company because we didn’t have any women investors.” She had to walk away from a few bad funding options when she saw they were trying to take advantage of her company’s vulnerability, but as she put it “We’d rather be broke than have a bad partner.”
It didn’t come to that. “We found 20 different angel investors who believed in us. They enabled not only our survival but our ability to thrive,” says Gore. Though Garden Society was able to pull through, Gore knew other women-led brands weren’t so lucky. She felt that if they wanted to work in a more equitable industry, she would have to get to work changing it herself. But she also knew she couldn’t do it alone. So just like in the days of home kitchen baking parties, Gore started connecting with other female cannabis entrepreneurs.
“I find a lot of my friends don’t want to talk about financing,” she says. “We created this group to figure out what we need and how to help each other. We share our networks, and give constructive feedback.”
While technically many of these women are business competitors, they don’t look at it that way. The group has done everything from sharing their own fundraising decks, helping each other figure out how much to ask for in the seed phases, hosting accountability groups to help women check the needed boxes in the fundraising stage, holding practice pitch sessions, and providing access to investors.
“We need to keep diversifying as we figure out how to put women at every part of the equation, ” says Gore. Through peer-to-peer mentoring, female cannabis entrepreneurs are able to start recreating the types of networking systems that have long served to advance the careers of male entrepreneurs.
In the words of Wendy Berger, who is on the board of directors at cannabis giant Green Thumb Industries and is an enthusiastic participant in the peer mentoring group, “Women don’t have access to the same networks of capital–we’re just not where the conversations are happening. Only 2% of venture capital dollars goes to women.”
When Berger transitioned from industrial food distribution development into the cannabis industry, she hoped she’d be leaving the boys club politics behind. “This is a business which fundamentally should not have a glass ceiling. Women can really be at the top and occupy any position,” she says. But she was disappointed to find male-dominated business dynamics relatively unchanged.
Like Gore, Berger is determined to connect female cannabis entrepreneurs to the capital they need for their businesses to take off, starting with herself. “I created an entity called Women Backing Women, and I make all my investments through that entity,” she says. “I’m now spending 50% of my time helping women cannabis businesses advance, focusing particularly on women of color.”
One of their group’s notable success stories began when Berger got fired up at one of their meetings, calling out investment firms for excluding women from the stage during their business showcases. When the other women in the group urged her to take the investment firms to task, she did exactly that. After the meeting, Berger went straight to Roth Capital to see what the firm could do about getting more women access to startup capital. As a result, they agreed to give 25 female-led companies the opportunity to present to over 200 hundred cannabis investors.
Berger got her start in the industry when cannabis helped her manage a debilitating vestibular disorder, and hearing similar stories helps her see that the power of female networking extends beyond better investment opportunities. “My favorite part of the peer mentoring group is hearing the founders’ stories; so much of it comes from personal or family stories,” she says. “If I never told you about my disorder you’d never know–I lead a full life in part because of this plant.”
Women like Gore and Berger show that networks built on mutual admiration rather than competition are no impediment to good business–on the contrary. “These women are unbelievable,” says Berger. “There is no barrier that Erin will not knock down, and then take everyone through with her.” Gore is eager to return the compliment. “Social conditioning has meant that women can be very competitive. But it hasn’t been that way at all with this group,” she says. “I feel honored to be surrounded by such incredible women.”
Female cannabis entrepreneurs interested in learning how to join the peer to peer mentor group can email [email protected]ensociety.com for details.