As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Slothower, Co-Founder of Waveland. A desert girl at heart, Jen is a Tucson, Arizona-based certified sommelier and former financial analyst turned food marketing consultant and the co-founder of Waveland, a new loose leaf tea brand featuring a proprietary, broad-spectrum CBD blend. Jen began her early career in corporate finance, but in 2014, quit her well-paying corporate job and moved to Italy to pursue a masters degree in Food Culture & Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. To date, Jen has received recognition from the Jame Beard Foundation to pursue a scholarship in wine studies, became a certified sommelier and earned several accolades from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET). She and co-founder Bryan Hill launched Waveland in November 2019 to combine their excitement for the fast-growing CBD market and shared passion for healthy living.
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?
Dealing with gender parity is an issue in all industries, not just cannabis. Improving it should be ongoing conversation at all levels, but there are a few easy and actionable things individuals and companies could immediately implement that would have a meaningful impact.
The single most important action item is the development of a strong mentor network. Mentorship is commonplace within the traditional business world, an all female cannabis executives should embrace the concept. Mentorship provides women with coaching, guidance, and support, all of which will help them elevate their career. This one-on-one development time ensure the next generation of female leaders, who will continue to lessen the gender gap, creating a positive feedback loop. I take a lot of joy in helping support my female colleagues and employees as they develop new skills and navigate through career choices.
Next, it’s my strong belief that cannabis businesses need to embrace diversity within hiring. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to assume that you must hire someone with industry experience or who shares a similar background or experiences as your own. A strong candidate that is intelligent and eager, but lacks experience in cultivation or processing or other cannabis-specific skillsets is also one who can bring diversity of thought and creativity into your business. Cannabis is a nascent industry, and there is much room for innovation. Hire the woman who spent years working on organic farms in the south, but has never commercially grown cannabis – she’ll bring fresh ideas and practices to your business.
Finally, it’s important that women themselves adopt a growth mindset. Too often I see women simply accepting their roles and assignments, and not working to find opportunities to demonstrate their capability and intelligence to leadership. Executives should absolutely prioritize strong mentoring program, companies should keep hiring diversity at top-of-mind, but there is an onus upon women to stretch and grow. It’s certainly not fair, but perseverance pays off more than one might think.
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.
Be innovative. This is a very young industry, and there is ample room for discovery, innovation, and growth. It may seem that market saturation has been reached for many products, but most of them won’t stand the test of time. If you can develop a well-thought brand and product, support it with quality manufacturing and innovative methods, and market it to the right customers, there will be a place at the table for you.
Be laser focused. Pick one thing to focus on and make sure to do that one thing very well. To the point above, because the industry has so much room for innovation, it’s easy to get distracted by “the next great idea.” Don’t discount the idea, but file it away for later. Right now, ensure that you are successful with your current product.
Be iterative. Make sure you continue to iterate your product or offering, and be ready to implement improvements rapidly. The cannabis industry moves fast, and if you have the market edge, make sure you keep it by pushing yourself and your ideas further than your competitors.
Be true to yourself. At the end of the day, cannabis is no different than other industries, and consumers will choose products based on authenticity. Be authentic to yourself, your brand vision, and your value set. This will come through to your customers, and help differentiate your product (or yourself) from others.
Be open and transparent. Trust is a fragile thing, and whether you’ve worked hard to earn it from an employer or a customer, make sure you treat it carefully and respectfully. This is easiest achieved via transparency about your thought process, your vision, your values, and your goals.
Can you share 3 things that most excites you about the cannabis industry?
The most exciting thing currently happening within the cannabis space is being a participant in the wellness conversation. There is such a big push towards well-being, across all industries, and the discussion includes the foods we eat to the way that we treat our bodies to overall mental health. Cannabis and CBD brands are able to engage with consumers in a really meaningful way as it relates to wellness, be it mental, physical, or environmental.
Another fascinating trend is the development of high end, luxury cannabis brands. For much of its modern history, cannabis has existed on the fringes of society and was effectively a brand-free commodity. Happily, we’ve now seen cannabis firmly move into the mainstream, and it has been interesting to watch the stratification of the market. Creative excellence for branding and design within cannabis is now being awarded and recognized – it’s a new avenue for creative agencies to explore.
I’m also excited about the possibilities that hemp offers for creating regenerative agriculture systems. Hemp can dramatically improve soil health, and as a cover crop, reduces the need for herbicides. With my background in food studies, I am engaged with our food system and stories of our farmers and recently I’ve learned about the possibilities that hemp can offer our agricultural system. For example, the work that the Rodale Institute and others are doing around industrial hemp are critical to a more sustainable and fair food system.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry?
The single most concerning about the industry, especially from a hemp and CBD perspective, is the lack of FDA oversight. We need it and we want it! There are a lot of businesses out there trying to make a quick buck with CBD, and lacking oversight, it can be difficult to determine which products are legitimate and safe (and which aren’t). Consumers deserve transparency, and the “good” players within the industry deserve to stay in. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Again relating to CBD, I’m concerned that there are unrealistic expectations about its efficacy. CBD has a myriad of positive benefits, but it’s unlikely that you can completely cure yourself of serious ailments using “social doses” of CBD. There are too many claims being made about CBD being a miracle cure-all. I’m obviously a huge advocate, but I think it’s important for brands to avoid misrepresenting the health benefits of their products.
A third concern for me is the potential for the downsizing of the market. Right now cannabis and CBD are top-of-mind and consumers are eager to learn, experiment, and purchase. Like all new industries, it’s likely that some novelty will wear off and that we’ll see a market contraction. I don’t think that cannabis or CBD are hype or a fad – it’s here to stay – but I do believe that it’s an of-the-moment experience for a certain population. Subsequently, it’s important for brands that seek longevity to be having honest conversations internally about realistic long-term growth strategies.
If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
For the general cannabis industry, a critically important improvement is well-funded studies on use, effects, and efficacy of all cannabis and hemp products. Consumers are faced with a lot of information, much of it often conflicting. New consumers especially find it challenging to discover and rely on credible information sources. Let’s fix it by creating go-to institutional sources that offer thoughtful and accurate insight into the use and effects of cannabis.
Specifically relating to the hemp and CBD industries, I’d like to see national oversight (FDA or otherwise), which would help ensure product quality and consistency throughout the marketplace. Piggybacking off my previous point, national labeling and standardization are needed improvements to help bring hemp-derived products into traditional retail outlets. There is simply too little guidance available to consumers and brands alike, and it’s very challenging to cross-compare and evaluate products.
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?
Federal legalization of cannabis can’t come soon enough! Individual states are taking matters into their own hands, and there are simply too many diverse state laws. Forcing businesses to change their operations from state-to-state is nearly impossible and it makes growth exceptionally difficult. Cannabis needs standardization, and needs to be treated at a national level like the adult product that it is.
To my Senator: cannabis is not losing momentum. The movement is here, and it’s not stopping. The public is engaged and interested. Get ahead of it, and work to create a federal law that the government can stomach.
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?
Cannabis should not be treated any differently than cigarettes or alcohol. If we’re having a conversation about federal legalization, then we’re also having a conversation about potential cannabis consumers – and many of those consumers will be using cannabis for personal enjoyment. Smoking a joint after work will become as de rigueur as drinking a cocktail. Subsequently, cannabis should be regulated (not least of all from a public health and safety perspective) and taxed in a similar fashion as alcohol and cigarettes.
The social marginalization of cigarettes occurred decades after they were an accepted and regular part of popular culture. Will cannabis use become socially marginalized decades from now? It’s impossible to say, though my gut instinct is no. Cannabis use has already been socially marginalized for decades, and if federal legalization occurs, I think that there will be even less stigma than we see today.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If your dreams do not scare you, they aren’t big enough.” – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
One of the guiding principals I’ve used throughout my career and life is developing an internal sense of aspiration. I’ve experienced both success and challenge, but throughout it all I’ve never stopped wanting to grow, to learn, to stretch. That’s resulted in some big goals, and big dreams. Want to move across the world to for graduate school? Pack your bags and buy a plane ticket. Excited about a new and emerging industry, but not sure where you fit in? Ask questions and jump in with both feet. Have a new product or brand idea? Devote time to developing it. (Note: these have all been experiences of mine!)
It’s critical for personal growth to set your bar high and keep working towards jumping an extra inch each and every day. When you look back, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ve accomplished and how far you’ve come.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
I’d like to see the world work towards finding ways to sustainably feed the planet. The movements around organic agriculture and environmental wellness are wonderful starting points, but there simply isn’t enough buy-in from the general public to make a dent in moving away from inexpensive, chemically-farmed or mass-produced foods. I believe that hemp is a large part of this conversation, as a means to increase regenerative farming. It could be an important part of a holistic agricultural system, but we need to figure out a way to use more of the plant at scale, and to ensure that there is a strong value proposition at all points in the production and farming cycle.