It's Not Too Late for the Cannabis Industry to Be More Inclusive, Akerna CEO Says

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July 31, 2019

The cannabis industry still has time to take the high road on diversity and inclusion, Akerna CEO Jessica Billingsley told Cheddar on Tuesday.

"It's a moment in time where, as an industry, we have the choose what direction we take," Billingsley said. "Do we have women and minorities represented as we move forward? ... These are questions that we are struggling with as the industry matures."

Billingsley has had front row seats to the development of the cannabis industry since 2010, when she founded cannabis compliance technology company MJ Freeway, which merged with special purpose acquisition company MTech in June to form Akerna ($KERN). As the first and only female CEO of a Nasdaq-traded cannabis company, Billingsley said her unique status has had its own set of advantages and challenges.

"Well, you're often the only woman in the room and that does make you memorable. But the challenge is that, again, you're the only woman in the room and sometimes that can pose issues when people wonder, 'Oh is it appropriate to ask you to a work dinner,' or is it appropriate to go here or go there," she said.

Although still a nascent space, cannabis has become much like other industries ー in other words, predominantly white and male led. As the cannabis industry has matured, the percentage of women in positions of power has rapidly dwindled. Some attribute the slide to the rapid pace of change, others to the influx of venture and private capital (which traditionally finds its way to the coffers of male-led companies). Billingsley said it's a little of both.

"I think what we are seeing is the industry is growing faster than it can support only promotion of internal talent. So we do find companies that are sourcing talent from outside the industry, and if you are looking at the industry and across capital intensive industries, you are going to find that to be traditionally white male dominant. And I think it's as simple as the pool that we are pulling from is already stacked," she said, adding that no "nefarious" forces are at work.

Whatever the case, the numbers are discouraging. According to data from Marijuana Business Daily, the percentage of women in executive roles at cannabis companies has spiked and fallen intermittently since it first began surveying the cannabis industry in 2015. From 2015 to 2017, executive roles filled by women dipped 10 percent, underscoring a worrying trend: as markets in states like Colorado and Washington mature, female leadership dwindles under the pressure of competitive markets, Marijuana Business Daily reported in its Women & Minorities in the Cannabis Industry report. As of 2019, the number had rebounded slightly with the introduction of new legal markets. Now approximately, 36.8 percent of senior executive roles in cannabis are filled by women.

And while the newness of the cannabis industry makes it subject, perhaps, to a higher degree of scrutiny, Billingsley emphasized it's far from the only industry that struggles with inclusiveness.

"I think this is a trend that's cross industry and not only a trend in cannabis," she said.

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