Dismantling the patriarchy is never easy, but five years ago, a nascent cannabis industry stood on the precipice with a highly-talented bench of female executives on its roster of C-suites and bold promises of equality to the next generation of women. Such a force of nature were the women of cannabis, who at the time held roughly 36 percent of all executive positions in the business, Newsweek conjectured that legal marijuana could be the first billion-dollar industry not dominated by men. Statistically speaking, soothsayers at the time had the receipts to back this up.
But as more mainstream operators from corporate America invaded the space, they reformed their boy’s clubs and refitted the glass on America’s highest ceiling. By 2019, the cannabis industry had regressed, as only 27 percent of all C-suites had a woman in charge.
“In terms of public figures and still more women in the cannabis world, whether it’s on stage at [MJBizCon] or launching their own brands or whatever it is, we’re seeing more women,” said Chloe Steerman, an Account Executive at Colorado-based Grasslands, a journalism-minded PR agency in the cannabis space that’s gone to great lengths to elevate the voices of women into leadership roles. “We’re just not seeing them in those positions of leadership and positions of power.”
Steerman, who came to Grasslands via Philadelphia and began her career as PR and Social Media Coordinator before her talent, quickly found her moving up the ladder recalled the hullabaloo over cannabis being a female-led industry back in 2016. Like most traditional corporate spaces, she told the PotNetwork in a recent interview; men have begun to dominate the narrative.
Every broken ceiling begins with a slight crack, however, and at Grasslands, there are several. Outside of uncomfortable situations at post-networking industry events — a prominent issue too often overlooked by the hoi polloi of weed — Steerman said she celebrates a culture of respect and equality at Grasslands. She told The PotNetwork that in the boardroom, she’s one among equals.
“Seventy-five percent of our staff across Grasslands is female,” said Steerman. “We have 11 or 12 full-time staffers right now. So with regards to what we’re doing at Grasslands, I think that’s exactly represented within our team.”
Steerman’s role as a leader is very much earned, both at Grasslands, and in the wider cannabis industry at-large. Her efforts to reshape and redefine the narrative of one of the world’s most demonized plants have not only earned drawn her attention on the corporate ladder but have also found her praise among her colleagues. Earlier this year, Marijuana Venture Magazine honored Steerman as a 40-under-40 rising star in America’s first-of-its-kind cannabis industry.
“I’m so thankful for [Marijuana Venture’s] acknowledgment of somebody behind the scenes because Chloe is immensely forward and present when it comes to our clients and when it comes to our colleagues,” Grassland Founder and CEO Ricardo Baca told The PotNetwork.
“Oftentimes you’re never hearing from an account director at an agency in this kind of way,” he continued. “And I think it’s really progressive of Marijuana Venture to make this acknowledgment.”
Like many in the cannabis world, Chloe Steerman began her career in more traditional spaces. After working in the PR trenches on the East Coast, mired in B2B and B2C industries along with restaurant groups, hospitality, education, and finance clients — all work she found to be fun — Steerman hopped a plane to Colorado in 2016 to take advantage of the burgeoning green rush.
Her first stop was the Rosen Group, a full-service cannabis PR firm based out of New York with an office in Denver. There, she cut her teeth with a variety of dispensaries, product brands, and tech companies in the space. “[I’ve] seen a lot of change across the industry having walked through some stumbling blocks with our clients as well as some milestones,” she told The PotNetwork.
But Grasslands would be a whole different experience for Steerman. For starters, the company bills itself as a journalism-minded agency, which may elicit eye rolls at any other firm, but not at the house that Baca built. Ricardo Baca was the first “marijuana editor” brought on by a major publication to cover the cannabis space, and his work led the way for the entire field of cannabis journalism.
As an editor at the Denver Post who spent three years producing The Cannabist, the Rocky-Mountain area’s highly-popular marijuana rag, Baca could have succumbed to writing low-brow puff-pieces that blur the line between journalism and PR, an issue with so much of today’s cannabis media. Instead, he dove headfirst into the Woodward and Bernstein school of reporting, providing a real service, and bringing a sense of legitimacy to the cannabis space.
Baca brought that hard-nosed news with him when he founded Grasslands. According to the company creed, they communicate directly, listen actively, and always take notes. As Steerman told The PotNetwork, the bullpen at Grasslands is populated with former journalists who sit next to PR and media professionals.
And that journalism mindset filters down to the stories that Grasslands tells about the cannabis industry as well. The PotNetwork spoke with Baca and Steerman against the backdrop of ongoing national demonstrations countering police brutality, which forced long-overdue conversations about race and power in America. Baca expressed his belief that the cannabis industry could no longer remain silent on these issues.
“I think one of the biggest stories that’s going to come about is to see if this notion — this idealistic notion actually comes true, that cannabis can actually be a different kind of industry,” said Baca, referring to the idea that many have of cannabis being built on a foundation of social justice. “I’m kind of over the lip service of people talking about how cannabis is a different industry, because ultimately what we’re seeing with each passing year is that this equity within the ownership and management structure of these cannabis businesses is trending more and more similar to every other industry, which is not good news for women and other minorities.”
“It’s just this is not the way it was envisioned to be,” he continued. “This was supposed to be a different kind of industry.”
In the meantime, though, Grasslands is doing its part to elevate a diverse group of employees within the cannabis space. It is that forward-thinking mindset that has allowed the hard work and talent of Chloe Steerman to persevere and push through.
Her time at Grasslands has been marked by many successes as she’s worked diligently to reframe the narrative of cannabis and help transition the plant to the mainstream. She’s helped brand names from Denver, like Coda Signature, break out in a crowded California market and solidified legends like Willie Nelson in household names with brands like Willie’s Reserve.
For Steerman, it’s all about taking on new challenges. “[I enjoy] supporting the cannabis community at the local level, but also telling a story nationally about a brand who is coast to coast and looking to become a national cannabis brand in an environment where cannabis is federally illegal.”
And taking on new challenges also means continuing to push back against that glass ceiling in cannabis, not only for herself but for the generations of women that come to the industry after her.
“For me personally, as a woman in leadership — not even within the cannabis space just within the business world — it means a lot to be in a position of leadership, but with regards to the Cannabis space specifically it’s wanting to make sure that there are opportunities for other women who want to help shape this industry and making sure there is a role for women to get their foot in the door as well.”
Originally published in The PotNetwork June 5, 2020