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Illinois women working to break cannabis industry’s so-called ‘grass ceiling’

Cannabis remains a largely male-dominated industry in Illinois, but a group of women are working to change that.

Cannabis remains a largely male-dominated industry in Illinois, but a group of women are working to change that. | AP file photo

Dina Rollman and Wendy Berger-Shapiro saw their chance back in August 2014, a month before Illinois started taking applications from people who wanted to grow or sell medical marijuana.

Here was a new industry, Rollman thought, where women had a chance at a level playing field. So they started Illinois Women in Cannabis.

“I wanted women thinking, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where you have a brand new industry come to your state that’s never existed before, that’s not male-dominated because it’s too new to have a glass ceiling,” she said.

Illinois Women in Cannabis — a nonprofit that boasts about 200 members, men and women alike — currently organizes social and educational events across the Chicago area. The group hosted its third annual summer mixer July 19 at Bottom Lounge on the Near West Side, bringing together pot professionals and some of the top players in the state’s grass game.

Because the legal weed industry is so new, there’s little data on the so-called “grass ceiling” for women and minorities in leadership roles.

However, Rollman and Berger-Shapiro both conceded that men now own the vast majority of the state’s marijuana cultivation and dispensary facilities.

Some of the barriers to entry have been really tough because you need to be really well-capitalized,” Rollman said. “There’s a lot of room for improvement, let’s put it that way, in terms of having women-owned businesses.”

Dina Rollman, co-founder of Illinois Women in Cannabis. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In 2014, Rollman was working as a litigation attorney at a Chicago law firm and courting her first client in the pot business, Green Thumb Industries, which is better known as GTI. The Chicago-based company currently owns dispensaries and cultivation centers in five states — Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Maryland — and plans to expand to Ohio and Florida.

Rollman is now the company’s chief compliance counsel, while Berger-Shapiro serves as an independent director at the company and was an early investor.

They are among five women in leadership roles at the GTI, which sponsored the mixer. Fifteen men make up the rest of the company’s leadership team. But Berger-Shapiro, a real estate developer by trade, claimed there’s “no old boys network” controlling the state’s burgeoning pot industry.

“The more this industry grows, the more opportunities there are for women,” Berger-Shapiro said.

Illinois Women in Cannabis co-founder Wendy Berger-Shapiro. | Provided photo

She and Rollman are confident that those opportunities will open up when the state legalizes pot for recreational use, something Rollman thinks hinges on the election of Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker, who has vowed to do just that.

Rollman ultimately hopes to expand Illinois Women of Cannabis from a network of like-minded professionals to an advocacy group that can lobby for those sorts of legislative changes.

In the meantime, the group’s leaders want to continue empowering women like Amanda Guerrero to find success in the cannabis industry.

Guerrero was merely a curious pot smoker when she began exploring the legal cannabis industry in 2015. She had grown tired of her nanny job and was looking for a “good out.”

That’s when her father, a retired Chicago Police officer who had invested in a marijuana dispensary, encouraged her to give the pot business a shot.

“I was just really trying to find my place in the world,” Guerrero said as other attendees lit joints and passed weed vaporizers. “If my cop dad who used to bust me in high school for smoking weed is telling me to get into this, I should take a serious look at it.”

Amanda Guerrero (left) and fellow Illinois Women in Cannabis member Kalee Hooghkirk. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

After going to a few cannabis networking events, Guerrero secured a job at Cannamed Talent Solutions, a pot industry recruitment firm that was based in Streeterville. In 2016, an investor in the now-defunct company encouraged her to attend a meeting at Rollman’s former law office.

“It really was an impactful moment when I got connected to the ladies of [Illinois Women in Cannabis],” Guerrero said. “Without these ladies, without this industry, I’m very confident I would not be who I am today and I’m just so eternally grateful.”

Guerrero now works for Denver-based Vangst, an industry-leading staffing firm. The company is helmed by founder and CEO Karson Humiston, a 25-year-old woman who was featured in Forbes’ vaunted 30 Under 30 issue last year.

Despite relocating to Colorado, Guerrero still finds time to connect with fellow Illinois Women in Cannabis members.

Yasmin Pena, the only woman working as a gardener at Cresco Labs’ Joliet cultivation center, joined the group during the July 19 summer social.

Like GTI, Chicago-based Cresco currently operates dispensaries and cultivation centers in multiple states, including Illinois, Massachusetts and Ohio. The company has also announced plans to expand to California, Nevada and Arizona.

While studying horticulture at the College of DuPage, Pena convinced an instructor who had visited Cresco to invite someone from the company to speak to her class.

“I just networked from there,” she said.

Yasmin Pena, the only female gardener at Cresco Labs’ Joliet cultivation facility. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

Pena praised Cresco’s “family-oriented” corporate culture and likened the company to “the Nike of cannabis.”

Cresco’s executive leadership team currently has 10 members, all of whom are men. While Pena said she’s abundantly aware of the gender gap in the cannabis industry, she also sees women making substantial headway in certain areas, like management and production.

For now, she looks forward to competing with her male counterparts to see who can grow the best weed, although the work can often be grueling.

“I’m the only girl with [seven] dudes,” Pena said. “I have to lift 120 pounds like the dudes. I have to lift water. Everything that those seven dudes do, I have to do.”

Nevertheless, Pena said she felt “less lonely” after meeting more female cannabis workers at the Illinois Women in Cannabis event.

“There’s other women here and they may not be in gardening, but I have a support system,” she said.

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