This is an opportunity for society to right the many wrongs that prohibition has created over the years. There is significant money being made that can be used to make amends for the damage that the system has caused, specifically to certain populations. This is a major reason why federal legalization needs to be on the critical path.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janine Penman.
Ms. Penman is a pharmaceutical researcher turned cannabis entrepreneur. She brings to the cannabis industry two decades of professional experience developing new prescription medicines, focusing on understanding and fulfilling unmet patient needs. Having completed two graduate degrees in psychology, Ms. Penman uses her training as a social scientist to understand cannabis consumers and create unique, valuable cannabis products for them. A true believer in the meme that knowledge is power, Ms. Penman is currently co-developing a graduate-level certificate in General Cannabis Studies with Union Institute and University, where she is an adjunct instructor.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
I was approached at a wedding (the place where you never do business) in Manhattan (the place where [you never stop doing business) when the legal cannabis industry was first gaining notoriety. Colorado, Washington, and Oregon had just passed recreational use laws, and Canada’s cannabis stocks were booming. Friends had heard about potential cannabis investments and asked me to vet the market for the most lucrative opportunities. I was a pharmaceutical researcher — and cannabis was medicinal … in part, right? I was skeptical, at best. As it turned out, there was a huge opportunity, not only for them but for me. Researching the cannabis market landscape was mayhem, with little information available from largely dubious sources. The need was glaring for professionals to bring knowledge and organization to a burgeoning industry that, consistent with its illicit legacy, was currently throwing up a middle finger to the status quo.
My friends were thinking: a dispensary in Key West as early retirement. I was thinking: why the hell am I still slaving away in the male-dominated pharma industry? My research and marketing skills were clearly in high demand by an industry I didn’t even realize was there. From that moment forward, I was a cannabis businesswoman.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We had just received a permit to process hemp and had been in business for only eight months. The company was literally still in startup mode — not a single business transaction yet completed — and on Labor Day weekend of that first year, all of my credit cards were canceled and bank accounts closed. Not only were my hemp business accounts closed, but also all of my personal and pharmaceutical business accounts. In total, ten accounts in my name at this bank were terminated. The reason listed in the bank letter I received six days later: credit card use for unacceptable business practices. I had bought a falling film evaporator the week prior. For this, my bank severed its relationship with me entirely: persona non grata.
My take away: The world remains generally ignorant of the cannabis industry, and the responsibility falls on us as business owners to consistently display the highest levels of professionalism. We are tasked with proactively spreading accurate and positive information about the legitimacy of our businesses, for our own preservation and to ensure a positive business landscape for those who follow us.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I made the rookie mistake of not realizing that in the cannabis industry “business meeting” meant a legitimate occasion to consume the merchandise during working hours. Lesson learned: the sober person in the room has the pole position. As a businesswoman and consummate professional, that person is always me. Competitors beware.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
Absolutely! Everyone reacts differently, but it’s always positive: laughter, curiosity, wonderment. My mother in conversation with her college friends… F: So what does Janine do again? M: Oh yes, well, she grows and sells cannabis. Cue silence. Having grown up in the 1970’s culture, my mother finds it fascinating. Actually she really enjoys the word cannabis because it sounds so professional. They always called it to weed, pot, MJ — but now it’s cannabis. Cannabis. She just loves saying it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am incredibly grateful to so many people for supporting me in becoming the businesswoman that I am. This journey has been so convoluted and, in truth, only one individual is the reason I am here: me. I do have many to thank. I thank my first business partner for weathering all of the pitfalls of the industry alongside me, and in the process showing me exactly the business person I do not want to be. I thank all of my friends for continuing to ask me when I am going to get a real job, thereby reinforcing to me the joy I experience daily from the very real job I have created for myself. I thank my family for always telling me I was brilliant when clearly I was not, and telling me that they believed in me, as they desperately hoped with their inside voices that I would not fail miserably.
Every entrepreneur has these people in their lives in one form or another, and these are the people we should thank, not because they define us, but because they force us to constantly question ourselves and our decisions, i. e. they help us define us. We are the outliers, not the status quo, and the successful entrepreneurs feed off of that uniqueness.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! We are launching a new product line of cannabinoid-rich hemp smokables and concentrates on newly engineered packaging designed to preserve freshness and aromatics. As a businesswoman, I look to fill unmet market needs, and I am so excited about this new product line because I know it will fill a need for a wide range of consumers. Often owners want to produce the products that excite them when really it is all about the consumers. Successful brands are made for them.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to this report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?
This is simple: stop seeing gender. If we want parity, then we need to stop talking about men versus women. I honestly do not recognize gender in my business. The best person I identify as a woman, yes, but I sign my emails JP just to ensure that gender is never a factor — positive or negative — in my business interactions. So #1: take gender out of the conversation and create a neutral ground. Then you never have to wonder if people are doing business with you, or not, because you are a woman.
The real barrier is opportunity. Women have less exposure to business opportunities. We are passed over for start-up funding, not selected for leadership positions and our ideas are not as often seen as winners. Where this comes from I have no idea, but it is a major factor in why we see fewer women business owners in every industry that isn’t a traditionally female industry. So #2: take care to create opportunities for women to take leadership positions in the business. I always seek out women-owned businesses first, but may the best business win. Being a woman should never be the reason someone does business with you, but it should be the reason they consider you first.
Women are more creative, more clever and are better listeners than men. Anyone of these attributes alone puts women in a business power position, but these are “soft” skills that many women don’t recognize as assets. Spoiler alert for men: they are powerful assets. Use them! So #3: take your so-called soft skills to the business table. The most powerful person in a room is the one who is listening, not talking; the one who is creating, not copying; the one who is outsmarting, not asserting. As a woman, you are the most powerful person in the room. Remember that, and use your innate skills to create an opportunity for yourself.
You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each.
Myth 1: If you know a lot about weed, you know a lot about the cannabis industry. I know very little about weed, but I know a lot about business. Be a business person as your job, and a lover of the plant as your recreation. The two are not synonymous.
Myth 2: There are special insider secrets that only insiders know. Don’t let people already in the industry scare you into thinking they know something special that you don’t, and therefore you can’t play in their sandbox. Standard business rules apply. Be a smart business person and you can create your own sandbox, then invite others to play with you.
Myth 3: The industry is full of fair and just people because we all support the cannabis cause. This industry has liers, cheaters and self-absorbed business elitists just like every other industry. Just because everything is “green” doesn’t mean that you don’t have to watch your back. Common sense applies: beware of bad actors.
Myth 4: The industry is exploding and anyone can become an overnight billionaire. The industry is exploding theoretically, but any implied promise of overnight success is the start of a fool’s errand. The beauty of the industry is that you can become a billionaire; the reality is that it does not happen overnight. Ingenuity and dedication are fundamentals, and you will reap the benefits of participating in our new industry if you put in the work that is a successful entrepreneur inevitably requires.
Myth 5: Cannabis is a cureall. While I am a believer in the potential, let’s take a step back. Hemp reportedly has 50,000 uses, and cannabis has been providing relief to patients with varied illnesses for longer than we have been recording it. Nonetheless, be responsible for your promotion of the plant and products, and stick to statements that are backed by science for now. Want to make grander statements? Make more scientific discoveries to back them. Grandiose claims do nothing to cement the legitimacy of our industry among the less educated or skeptical.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
- The cannabis industry has the potential to change the way we approach and treat some of the most terrifying and tragic medical conditions of our time. By creating the cannabis industry, we are unlocking new and more effective ways to manage the treatment of diseases and conditions, and we are just starting to understand this plant in ways we never could have without the increased access the newly emerging industry has proffered. As a researcher, the potential for new medical discoveries is by far the most exciting thing.
- Cannabis is a completely nuevo, multi-billion dollar industry that — unlike .com, A.I., or space tourism — requires no highly specialized and technical skillset to access. If you have the desire and determination, you can be a business person in the cannabis industry. That is unique and empowering, as it opens the door for anyone to become a successful business owner and earn a place as a part of world history.
- This is an opportunity for society to right the many wrongs that prohibition has created over the years. There is significant money being made that can be used to make amends for the damage that the system has caused, specifically to certain populations. This is a major reason why federal legalization needs to be on the critical path.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
- This industry has become quickly polluted with bad actors and promises of get-rich-quick opportunities. I have to stay constantly vigilant of the bad actors in conducting my own business in order to protect my business, my employees and my customers. There is such phenomenal business opportunity in cannabis, and it is still an open landscape, but more legitimate and honest business people need to come forward from other industries to support the cannabis industry through its initial start-up and into sustainability.
- Most states have regulations that prohibit someone with a drug conviction from participating in the industry. This is unacceptable because it serves no defensible purpose and is simply a continuation of marginalization targeted toward low SES and minority populations. Rather, I think the industry should be embracing these populations as a method of reform. The notion that these populations would somehow act illegally if allowed to participate in the now-legal cannabis industry is a conceptual bridge that cannot be logically defended. If that is not the concern, then this just is another form of punishment that is simply unwarranted.
- The industry has already become a rich man’s game. I saw this firsthand through participation in the initial licensing process in several states, where applicants have assured transparency in the review process, support of local business people, and diversity. When awards were made, the favor went all toward multi-state operators with deep pockets. The deeper the pockets, the grander the favors. In reality, those businesses used their monetary influence to claim positions of power in the cannabis industry; once awarded that power, they largely failed to perform or flipped their licenses for a substantial profit. Worse than this being grossly unfair, it severely damaged the industry by keeping out the real entrepreneurs who would have worked hard to create quality for consumers. By enabling these microchasm monopolies, states deprived consumers of much-needed competitive landscapes where the best products thrived and prices remained competitive. States need to recognize the value.
What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?
I am 100% for federal legalization. Like alcohol and other forms of adult recreation, the decision should be within each state regarding what is permitted within its borders. The federal government exists to ensure the general public welfare, and cannabis has not shown to be any more detrimental — arguably much less so — than alcohol or other adult recreations to the general public. I would argue that federal prohibition is actually damaging the public welfare. Important medical research is drastically impeded; significant tax dollars are being forfeited; useful social and health outcomes data is absent: all because of federal prohibition. Instead of collecting tax dollars that could be used for positives like social programs [cash+], the federal government is spending money criminalizing cannabis and then chasing the cannabis criminals it created [cash-]. This is ludicris and needs to end. Whether you are a consumer of cannabis or not, the logic in federal legalization is irrefutable.
The beautiful thing about the U.S. is that we have the ability to choose where we live, and those partial to cannabis should have the luxury to live where they can access it without threat or stigma.
Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?
As a researcher, I need to see more data on cannabis consumption and its impact on lung health. At the moment, not enough is yet known about inhaling cannabis to deem it “safe” — but as an industry we can ensure that it is clean. Cigarettes contain putrid chemicals that lead to poor lung health, as well as nicotine, which is highly addictive — a double threat. Cannabis smokables (if unadulterated) contain neither of these, and it must remain that way. This is why regulation for purity and quality are so critical to the success of our industry. Countries such as Switzerland and Belgium are allowing hemp smokables as smoking cessation products, which suggests that, according to those governments, non-THC cannabis is potentially helping people overcome deadly cigarette addiction.
I believe that cannabis should be regulated to ensure it is fit for consumption. The vaping crisis has shown us the ugly and deadly truth about what can happen when consumables are not regulated for quality and safety. I want adults to feel safe in consuming cannabis, and although I believe companies should have the pride to produce only quality products, the reality is that some level of regulation is both wise and warranted to ensure our consumers are protected.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
No quotes, but my favorite poem has always been The Road Less Traveled by Robert Frost. I chose it as the first poem I ever recited, for my 7th grade English class. How prophetic that was. I seek out the unique and challenging because that inspires me. I create my own meaning rather than following others and trying to fit in with the masses. This is why I became an entrepreneur; further, why I am drawn to the risks and rewards of this new industry. I look back on all of my choices and realize how many forks I have come to; more importantly, how I always choose the road less traveled by. It truly has made all the difference.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Uniquely equal. The entire professional career I have been judged on tangential attributes — my gender, my age, my degree, my physical appearance, my (lack of) ability to assimilate into the professional masses. We need to check all of that misleading BS at the door and start appreciating each other on the individual brilliance that lies between the ears (read our minds and our ideas). The ways that we judge each other have become untenable to the point that people no longer want to be seen as their real selves; we fabricate our images for public consumption. Even diversity has become faux, as we use more politically correct markers to make the same superficial judgments. Equality is exactly that: equal; no competitive comparisons; no apologies; just authenticity and beauty in individualism. Mutal respect is not new; it is the Golden Rule, re-explained for more meaningful consumption in the modern world.
This applies to the nascent cannabis industry, of course, where we have the opportunity to prevent discrimination before it becomes deeply rooted; but this movement has much farther reaching applications in every industry, and for every cause.
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!