In honor of International Women’s Day 2023, three pioneering founders of women-owned tech companies share their thoughts on gender equality and the intersection of women, cannabis and technology.
By Melissa Reid
Published on March 8, 2023
Let’s hear it for the girls!
International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global celebration of women’s cultural, social, political and economic achievements. And as it happens to fall in March, which is also Women’s History Month, the love is compounded. The theme for IWD 2023 is “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality,” which, according to the United Nations, “recognizes and celebrates the women and girls who are championing the advancement of transformative technology and digital education.” Additionally, the theme of IWD 2023 offers an opportunity to examine how growing economic and social disparities are impacted by the digital gender gap and spotlight the importance of protecting the rights of women and girls in the digital realm.
Since the dawn of the digital age in the mid-20th century, women have made untold unsung contributions to the development of our increasingly digital world. Grace Hopper was an esteemed computer scientist and one of the first computer programmers to work on the general-purpose electromechanical computer, Harvard Mark I; Radia Perlman, nicknamed the “Mother of the Internet” designed the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) and was instrumental in making today’s internet possible; Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician whose trajectory analysis was crucial to the success of the first-ever US space flight.
While women make up only 22% of artificial intelligence workers globally, digital technology is creating new opportunities for the global emancipation of women, girls and other marginalized groups, according to the United Nations. The digital age offers an unparalleled chance to eradicate all types of inequity and inequality, from gender-responsive digital learning to tech-facilitated sexual and reproductive healthcare.
Women in Weed
In the cannabis industry, women hold significant roles as entrepreneurs, breeders, producers, marketers, researchers and more. Women have also developed innovative technological solutions and programs to help move the sector forward. However, despite the progress being made, there’s still work to be done to achieve gender parity in the industry. According to the report “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the Cannabis Industry” by MJBizDaily, both cannabis company ownership and the percentage of women in executive-level roles have both shown stagnant growth from 2020-21, with both categories sitting around 1-2%.
The importance of showcasing and supporting women in historically male-dominated industries cannot be understated. According to psychologist Penelope Lockwood, women need to see female role models more than men need to see male role models.
“Outstanding women can function as inspirational examples of success, illustrating the kinds of achievements that are possible for women around them, says Lockwood. “They demonstrate that it’s possible to overcome traditional gender barriers, indicating to other women that high levels of success are indeed attainable.”
To celebrate our sinsemilla sisters, three women who are challenging gender bias and inequality share their thoughts on the intersect of women, cannabis and technology.
Founder, PayRio, Inc.
PayRio is a female-founded payments company that offers specialized payment solutions in the CBD, high-risk and health and wellness sectors. Founder and self-described “highly driven, long-term payments geek” Aubrey Amatelli has a background in payment processing, honing her craft at corporate giants including JP Morgan.
“80% of our business directly supports dispensary growth through card payments,” Amatelli says. “It’s our mission to normalize payments in the cannabis industry and we’re off to a great start.”
Amatelli says she has a lot of respect for cannabis and regularly uses the plant therapeutically. She says that her “love for the plant” led her to found PayRio with the goal to “bring feminine energy to the technology payments space, in an industry bursting at the seams with potential feminine power” and her goal is to “help that feminine power breakthrough and thrive.”
“The cannabis flower we all love and support comes from the female plant, which is restorative and receptive by nature; this same energy has a significant impact on technology,” says Amatelli. “Women in tech are also tied directly to increased revenue and innovation. Women contribute superior problem-solving and help close the skills gap. As the relationship between women, cannabis and tech grows, so will the cannabis industry—a common mission for us all.”
Amatelli believes that to positively impact gender equality in cannabis, it’s important to “spread the love and support for women-owned cannabis businesses.” Following women-owned businesses and vendors on social media platforms and purchasing products from their companies is a great way to show your support. But, she says, one of the most beneficial ways to impact gender equality in cannabis is to hire women and promote them from within. “Create flexible job requisitions and part-time roles that are conducive to women with children,” she says. “We can do this!”
Founder & CEO, Willow Industries
Willow Industries is the industry leader in cannabis kill step and post-harvest microbial decontamination technology using organic, ozone-based technology that reduces or eliminates contaminants from cannabis while protecting the plant’s medicinal properties. The Denver-based company has been named one of Inc. 5000’s fastest-growing private companies in America two years in a row and was recognized in the top 50 on the 2022 Financial Times’ list of The Americas’ fastest-growing companies. Fueled by her passion for innovation and dedication to health, founder Jill Ellsworth has made a career of creating solutions for better living.
For years, cannabis has helped Ellsworth “level out the emotional swings of being a CEO, without feeding into it, unlike alcohol.” When she needs to feel “Zen” but still function, Ellsworth reaches for low-level THC products.
Ellsworth founded Willow in 2015 and says back then, there were “very few women in the industry representing technology—especially hardware.” But she believes that this gave her a “competitive advantage” at the time.
“As time moved on, it has been really encouraging to see more women step into this industry as leaders and founders of tech companies and I know we will see less of a gender disparity as the industry matures,” Ellsworth says. “However, it takes women stepping into their light and being confident they can permeate a male-dominated industry. No one is going to give you that confidence. Have the strength and fortitude to put yourself out there and if that confidence radiates, people will follow.”
Ellsworth says she believes to see more progress in overcoming gender bias, women “need to continue championing for themselves” and that “no one will see your great accomplishments if you don’t promote yourself. Women-founded companies only exist if women seize the opportunity and continually persevere. Don’t give up and don’t give in. If you have a great idea and there is a product/market fit, make it happen,” Ellsworth says.
Ellsworth says we’ll continue to see a “dynamic shift” as more companies bring women into leadership roles. “Gone are the days when only white men make up executive suites and board rooms,” she says. “I feel confident that companies will start prioritizing women candidates for executive roles, so put yourself out there.”
Principal and CEO, Cryo Cure
Cryo Cure is changing traditional cannabis drying and curing techniques. Revolutionary freeze-dried technology removes the water content from harvested flower to preserve fragile trichomes and terpene potency at an optimal moisture level. The system dries and cures cannabis in as little as 13 hours, drastically cutting processing time from weeks to days. Before founding Cryo Cure, founder Tracee McAfee spent three decades building multi-million-dollar brands in the consumer products sector. McAfee’s diverse business background across new market sectors offers her a unique perspective to build and thrive in the cannabis industry.
“Cannabis doesn’t care about your gender and it shouldn’t matter to others, either,” McAfee says, who “adores all aspects of the cannabis plant” and microdoses flower to treat her PTSD and overall well-being.
McAfee says that she has been “very fortunate not to have experienced gender or age discrimination” in the cannabis industry. It saddens her when she “hears about other women that have had bad experiences in our space.” She acknowledges the hard-working women who are making big waves in this space and believes that if you share your “passion, experience and research with others and they see know what you’re talking about, respect comes no matter your gender.”
McAfee recommends using sensitivity and awareness because some women entering this space “may have been through a rough time in their past careers. Give everyone the fresh start and respect they deserve.”
Above all else, McAfee says she loves paving the way for other women to enter this exciting industry. “To be a tech leader—and in cannabis—is an honor I carry proudly,” she says.