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Cannabis: A new job frontier for women?

Interesting coincidence. The White House Summit on Working Families last week issued some statistics that underscored continuing challenges of gender inequality in the workplace. At around the same time, at the Cannabis Business Summit in Denver, a group of female business executives pointed to some of the new opportunities available for women entering the burgeoning marijuana industry.

These women, many of whom have been working in the legal side of the cannabis business for years, have been making names for themselves not only as pioneers in a fast-evolving industry, but also as the vanguard for a rising female representation in the cultivation, testing, marketing and sales of marijuana.

"It's a brand new industry, and I feel like we have a great opportunity to strive and to reach out to women for opportunities they maybe they didn't think of, because it is marijuana," said Genifer Murray, CEO of Cannlabs (SDSPD), a full-service marijuana testing lab.

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"This is, if you will, a land grab," she added. "There is a lot of opportunity here -- why not for women?"

As marijuana comes out of its outlaw past and into some form of legalized sale in at least 22 states and the District of Columbia, it is also attracting women from very diverse backgrounds.

"I think we're pretty square," laughed Jessica Billingsley, co-founder and chief operating officer of MJ Freeway, a firm that creates "seed to sale" tracking and business software for the cannabis industry. Billingsley and company CEO Amy Poinsett previously worked in software.

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"I wouldn't describe ourselves as having come from a counterculture background, so to speak," Billingsley said. "When we first started, we got a lot of, 'Who are these two women in suits?' And now, if you look around at [the cannabis business summit], everyone's in suits."

And it appears many women with scientific backgrounds are also gravitating towards work in the marijuana industry.

"Yeah, it's crazy," said Cannlabs' Murray, who has a degree in microbiology. "When we were hiring for a senior lab position and our lab tech positions, the amount of resumes that came in from women -- I was so happy!"

Murray is also encouraged by the number of young women she's seeing who are getting into science, and in turn the cannabis industry.

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"These women were able to look at the opportunities of a new industry and say, 'You know what? I will be a cannabis science expert by the time I'm 27,'" she added. "If I go through pharmaceutical or environmental, it's going to take me 25 years to do the same thing."

Brandy Keen, vice president of sales at Surna (SRNA), a company that purchases cannabis-related intellectual property, observes that her industry has a mixture of women from traditional and non-traditional professional backgrounds.

"I think maybe this industry, being a little bit more of a liberal industry, it would segue into women maybe being more comfortable having a voice in the industry," she said, "so I think that probably contributes."

Keen's professional background was in semiconductor sales, but she was drawn into the cannabis industry because of a personal issue.

"My husband has epilepsy, and used to take a drug that said on the warnings, 'We do not know how this drug works.'" she remembers. "And that was always terrifying to me, that he had to take this drug that we really didn't know what it was doing to his brain. And so we moved to Colorado and he started using cannabis oil, and he has not taken that drug in three years."

Keen acknowledges not everyone will prosper as the cannabis industry expands. "And the only way to predict who the winners and losers are," she said, "are the people who have a solid business model and solid management, and are doing the right things."

But she's also encouraged by the number of women who are opting for a career in cannabis. "There are a lot of women who are very smart, very confident, running very difficult businesses to run," she said, "and doing a damn good job at it."

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