Business

Rocky Mountain High: The Women Leading Denver’s Legal Cannabis Industry

When cannabis became legal in Colorado, the legal weed market was a wide-open frontier for new entrepreneurs and executives who’d never owned or run a business. In 2012, Colorado became one of the first states in the country to sell legal recreational weed, and Denver’s legal weed industry became a focal point for new businesses. Many of the top female entrepreneurs and executives in the legal weed business are in Denver’s marijuana industry.

The cannabis industry is unusual — at the outset, it boasted a slightly higher percentage of female entrepreneurs and executives. In 2019, Marijuana Business Daily (which was founded by a woman) reported that nearly 37% of the senior-level jobs at cannabis companies are held by women, far above the national average of 21 percent. (Though, another survey found that only 17% of the women were directors or executives).  

As Jamie Perino, one of the women on our list of Denver’s top female entrepreneurs in Denver’s legal weed industry says, “There is a serious opportunity for future growth. For women, that is a great thing. We have the opportunity to be drivers of an industry worth billions of dollars.”

Here’s a list of the top female entrepreneurs and executives in Denver’s legal cannabis industry.

Wanda James, CEO and Co-Founder, Simply Pure

Wanda James is one of the biggest names in the cannabis industry nationwide. And in Denver, she looms even larger. She is the first African American woman to own a legal dispensary in the state. Before entering the business, she worked with then-Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s administration on Colorado Amendment 64, the groundbreaking ballot initiative allowing the legalization of marijuana. James has also been an advocate for removing jail sentences for cannabis-related offenses. Her dispensary, Simply Pure, initially started as an edibles company in 2010; its creation was spurred by her brother’s 10-year jail sentence for cannabis possession. Simply Pure’s success has made James one of the top female entrepreneurs and executives in Denver’s legal weed industry.

Kelly Perez, CEO and Co-Founder; Courtney Mathis, Co-Founder and President, KindColorado

Denver power duo Kelly Perez and Courtney Mathis combined their talents and backgrounds to form KindColorado, an organization that aims to connect cannabis businesses with communities. Perez served as the human services policy advisor to Governor Hickenlooper during the creation of Amendment 64, which made cannabis legal, and is an expert in racial justice and health equity issues. Mathis comes from the nonprofit sector, where she has 15 years of experience working with brand messaging. She’s helped cannabis businesses bridge the gap with the nonprofit sector. Together, they make up two of Denver’s top female entrepreneurs in the legal cannabis business.

Khadijah Adams, CEO and Vice President, C. E. Hutton

Another top female entrepreneur in Denver’s legal weed industry, Cassondra (aka “Khadijah”) Adams is the CEO and Vice President of C.E. Hutton, an investment firm with a focus on raising funds for minority-owned businesses in the legal cannabis industry. She’d been a cannabis investor privately and publicly since 2014, as the co-founder of MIPR Holdings, LLC, which C.E. Hutton acquired. As a co-author of the Minority Report, which analyzes minority-owned companies in the cannabis and hemp industries, and via her other project The GreenStreet Academy, an online class about investment in the cannabis industry, Adams has focused on educating the communities most affected by the War on Drugs throughout her career. While there are many female entrepreneurs and executives in Denver’s legal cannabis industry, there are great strides that still need to be made to rectify the racial disparity of the ownership of cannabis businesses between people of color and their white counterparts. Many women of color face bigger barriers (access to money and resources being just two hurdles) than white entrepreneurs. African Americans comprise only one percent of owners of dispensaries in the legal weed industry, according to a Buzzfeed article.

Sarah Woodson, CEO, Kush & Canvasses

One top female entrepreneur in Denver’s legal weed industry is taking a creative approach to destigmatizing marijuana. Sarah Woodson’s event company, Kush & Canvasses, marries art and cannabis in an art class. She supplies art supplies, including paints, paintbrushes and canvasses, for her customers, but the weed is BYOW (bring your own weed), so long as it is in vape or edibles format. The classes have different themes (some food-based) throughout the week. (For instance, she has one called, “MaryJane and Mimosas on Sunday afternoons,” which is probably necessary after attending “Roll Up” Sushi & Spliff Rolling Class” on Saturday nights).

Jane West, founder of Women Grow and CEO of Jane West

Called one of the most “widely-recognized” female personalities in cannabis by Inc., West was an early innovator in the cannabis space. She began by hosting cannabis parties at her home, and later, founded Women Grow, a cannabis networking organization for women, after being fired from her job for being shown on national TV vaping weed. Women Grow now has chapters in more than 44 cities and more than 21,000 subscribers. The top female entrepreneur in Denver’s legal weed industry said: “I identified quickly that there is no patriarchy in this nascent industry and I saw the opportunity to make cannabis the most inclusive, diverse sector of the American economy.” She has since launched her eponymous collection of cannabis products, including glass (bongs, pipes), travel cases, vape pens, coffee and CBD capsules.

Amy Andrle, Co-Founder, L’Eagle Services

A dispensary loved for its “clean,” pesticide-free, certified organic and strong weed, L’Eagle uses ethical and sustainable business practices. Andrle and her husband set up shop in 2009 without any investors and have had so much success they’ve launched a full-service consulting company in the cannabis space. In addition to their well-loved “flower,” she’s launched a CBD-only line of body care products called L’eela, which includes hydrating oil, face serum and a pain remedy rub.

Cassandra Farrington, Co-Founder & CEO, Marijuana Business Daily

Many industries have a publication tracking the ins and outs of the business, and Cassandra Farrington identified early on that marijuana’s growing industry was going to need its very own trade publication, and started what she hoped would be the Wall Street Journal of the legal cannabis industry. “We’re not a lifestyle publication or a culture magazine or a celebration of the plant type publication,” said Farrington. “We are truly all about the dollars, cents, actions, partnerships: the business side of the industry.” Like other trade publications, MBD expanded to include a conference, the Marijuana Business Conference and Expo, which is the industry’s largest, with more than 35,000 attendees in Las Vegas. (There are now multiple conferences and expos, including expos for investors, for Latin America, Europe, and hemp, which also has its own daily).

Nicole Smith, Senior Vice President of Manufacturing at Harvest Health & Recreation

One of the top female entrepreneurs and executives in Denver’s legal cannabis industry, Nicole Smith co-founded Mary’s Medicinals, which made the first transdermal cannabis and CBD products in Colorado. (It also had the distinction of having the first patent in the country for legal marijuana). After overseeing an eight-state expansion, she was hired by cannabis extract producer Evolab, as its CEO. She shifted to become President of CBx Sciences, which was bought by Harvest Health and Recreation. Now Senior VP, she continues to oversee marketing for the company.

Linda Klumpers, Ph.D., Founder and Director, Tomori Pharmacology (dba Cannify)

With a background in neuroscience and clinical pharmacology, Klumpers saw an opportunity to flex her expertise in a burgeoning, wide-open market. She founded Cannify to research the clinical effects of marijuana and help match patients with the right kind of cannabis product using a detailed quiz that is the culmination of research by Klumpers and her team of scientists. The 15-minute test recommends dosages and types of products based on answers backed by scientific research.

Kristi Kelly, Executive Director, Marijuana Industry Group

Kristi Kelly’s experience in the marijuana industry is vast: Her first foray into cannabis was as an owner/operator of a cannabis business. Later, Kelly was a founding board member of Fourth Corner Credit Union, which was the world’s first bank to serve cannabis businesses. (Since many banks will not work with the product as it is still federally illegal, the industry has found creative solutions, such as creating its own financial institutions). She joined Marijuana Industry Group as a business owner. With more than 400 businesses as members, Marijuana Industry Group is one of the largest and oldest trade organizations for licensed cannabis businesses, playing a key role in lobbying for cannabis in the state. Kelly signed on as executive director in 2016. She says: “I parlay marketing, communications, and government affairs experience towards the reputation of legalized cannabis, in addition to supporting legal cannabis policy.”

Jamie Perino, CEO and Co-Founder, Euflora

Perino entered the cannabis space from architecture and construction. In doing so, she left behind a male-dominated industry and joined one that has a comparatively higher number of female executives and entrepreneurs. She launched Euflora, which, thanks to her background in architecture, has an eye-grabbing design. The stores (a few are even in malls) are known for displaying the weed in glass containers, with tablets next to each product dispensing key information to the customer. One store in Denver’s Rino art district is dubbed “the 3D Cannabis Center” and features a room where customers can view cannabis being grown and cultivated. Perino’s success in this space is one reason she’s one of the top female entrepreneurs in the Denver legal weed space.

Writer and editor Tricia Romano is the former editor-in-chief of the Stranger. She has been a staff writer at the Seattle Times and columnist for the Village Voice. She is currently working an oral history about the Village Voice for Public Affairs. You can also find her at Patreon.