Kicking Grass and Taking Names: A Conversation with Three Inspiring Female Cannabis Leaders

October 23, 2019

Volume 2, Issue 5

Panel discussion with several prominent women in the cannabis industry.

Panel discussion with several prominent women in the cannabis industry: AC Braddock, CEO of Eden Labs; Autumn Karcey, CEO of Cultivo, Inc.; and Tracy Ryan, CEO and founder of CannaKids and founder of the 501c3 SavingSophie.

In June 2018, “Cannabis Crossroads” focused on three pioneering women in cannabis science (1). Just over one year later there seems to be several different views regarding gender trends in the C-suite levels of the cannabis industry. One fact that cannot be ignored is that several strong women dove head first into the cannabis industry, reaching the top of their respective fields and empowering others to succeed.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with three such women-leaders in cannabis cultivation, medicine, and science: AC Braddock, CEO of Eden Labs; Autumn Karcey, CEO of Cultivo, Inc.; and Tracy Ryan, CEO and founder of CannaKids and founder of SavingSophie. The messages they shared transcend opinions, surveys, and statistics and suggest that underpinning the emergence of these women as key opinion leaders is an unprecedented surge of growth, determination, opportunity, and self-support that is unavailable elsewhere in corporate America. These leading women entrepreneurs are not sitting back nor asking for permission to grow. There is nothing small-scale about them. They are leading the way and they are not looking back.

You each have been leaders in your fields for well over a decade. Can you please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us about the work that you do in the cannabis industry?

AC Braddock: I am AC Braddock, CEO of Eden Labs, a 25-year-old botanical extraction technology and product development company. When I became CEO in 2009, I recognized that legalization on a medical platform for cannabis required unquestionably safe concentrates for both producers of these products and patients. As more states legalized, I saw the necessity of being politically involved to help legislators and regulators wrap their heads around what this industry was and help direct them down a path that would create a solid infrastructure for growth. In conjunction with legislation, it was necessary to force a conversation within the industry on safe extraction technology to allay regulatory fears about product creation and consumer safety. It’s almost 2020 and the need to unite around the medical science and ending prohibition has not gotten less timely, it has become imperative.

Autumn Karcey: My name is Autumn Karcey. I initially started in the industry as a cannabis cultivator for approximately 10 years. Currently, I am the CEO of Cultivo, Inc., a design and construction management firm located in southern California. Cultivo specializes in the design and implementation of largescale cultivation facilities and manufacturing laboratories.

Cultivo sets itself apart by utilizing our many years of cultivation and building experience combined with good agricultural practices (GAP) standards and good manufacturing practice (GMP) processes and other applicable certifications to bring premium quality cannabis and hemp products to market.

Tracy Ryan: My name is Tracy Ryan and I’m the CEO and founder of CannaKids, a California oil line that was created after my infant daughter, Sophie was diagnosed with a brain tumor at just eight-and-a-half months old. We serve patients of all ages who are suffering from serious diseases such as cancer, autism, and epilepsy. I’m also the founder of our 501c3, SavingSophie, which we are using to raise money to fund our clinical research that we currently have going on at one of the top universities in southern California working alongside Dr. Anahid Jewett. What makes us so special is this research that we currently have ongoing and the discoveries that we are making by studying the blood of the patients who are consuming our CannaKids oils. We are up to 16 patients enrolled and we’re filing our third patent as we speak. We’re extremely excited because we are beginning to understand the mechanism of action and why the cannabis plant is doing what it’s doing in these cancer patients that we are seeing miraculously get well and stay well, as long as they stay on the oils. We’re hoping that this is going to lead us to many more findings since we are working on immunology and how cannabis is affecting the immune system.

Years ago, there seemed to be a “Wild West” atmosphere in the cannabis industry. Today there appears to be a new ecosystem of networking and legitimacy developing. Can you please share your thoughts on the transformations occurring in your field?

Braddock: Yes, legitimacy is increasing, but it’s still wild! The legitimacy is coming from the growing awareness around the plant’s health benefits, but especially how it is mitigating the need for hard pharmaceutical drugs that ravage people’s health. I believe people want to find cost effective and natural ways to prevent illness and improve health rather than treating symptoms with a one-pill-fits-all solution. The reason it is still “wild” is there are so many new entrants in the industry who do not follow the medical science of the endocannabinoid system, plant genetics, or healthy growing and processing procedures, but instead follow the money or “business as usual.” The bottom-line reason that the industry is still wild is because cannabis is still illegal federally. We need to take cannabis off of the Controlled Substances Act, allow public access, support small business, and release the prisoners of this war on people. It is criminal that it is criminal.

Karcey: It’s important to note that analytical testing of cannabis didn’t exist until recent years. I believe once the market became educated on issues such as pesticides and heavy metals in cannabis, the industry pre-legalization, split into two sectors: One where you had responsible operators and irresponsible operators. As a consumer, it was the challenge of “knowing your operator” in mature markets like California. You had a high concentration of cultivators so it was easier to know and trust your local growers. That was not so easy in places like New York and Chicago where there was less of a concentration of cultivators. Many cultivators would ship contaminated or below grade product out of state to a less mature market. I believe this was a big reason that so many states passed legalization. 

Legalization by design was supposed to create accessibly for consumers and raise quality standards by creating a chain of custody, combined with analytical testing, to provide safe medicine to patients and recreational users in various legal markets. The downside to this is that currently licensed producers in the U.S. are allowed to select and submit their own samples with virtually no third-party checks and balances in place. This creates multiple loopholes for any license holder to illegitimately bypass testing standards leaving operators to lean on their own morals and standards.

Ryan: I have seen such an incredible shift over the last six years since I got into the cannabis industry, it’s almost hard to describe. The type of conferences that we are seeing now and the type of individuals that are coming out to network are top-in-class. Take the Cannabis Science Conference, for example. It’s literally focusing on the leading minds in research, science, technology, and beyond. It’s the greatest key opinion leaders in the field from all over the world that are gathering under one place. In attendance you’re seeing doctors, lawyers, medical professionals of all kinds, governmental employees, politicians, and celebrities. You name it, they are showing up in droves to learn more about this plant and support the legalization of it and the mission of it moving forward as a plant medicine. 

It’s incredible to continually also learn about the science and how that is evolving over the years because where we are today is light years beyond what we saw when I originally got into the field. When I first started, no one was even talking about using medical cannabis for serious issues and diseases, much less for children. I’m very excited to see what the coming years are going to show us because with the way the science is moving now, it is only a matter of time before we start to watch medicine as a whole be changed because of the efficacy of this plant in so many different indications.

Are there more sources for funding being made available to women entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry? Are technologies lower cost or more accessible today? What other traditional barriers to success have you seen changing over the past few years?

Braddock: The NY Times has reported that for every $58 million men receive in investment money in any industry, women only get $1 million and because cannabis is a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the industry has severely restricted access to banking. This means the primary source of funding is private equity, which adds another layer of difficulty and expense in acquiring funding for women and people of color. So, sisters are doing it for themselves by creating financial networks to fund other women and work on social equity.

Competition in technology has significantly increased as more companies are created specifically for the cannabis industry, but also because noncannabis related tech companies are moving into the industry. New entrants typically lower pricing to compete with established companies, but good tech in any industry is not cheap. The field will eventually shrink and costs will stabilize as the market stabilizes.

Traditional barriers stem from an attempt to control a market or people and from holding onto knowledge or solutions for self-interest and self-enrichment. This kind of business model is being replaced in the modern business are solving social ills, promoting transparency, educating, and giving back. A modern business breaks down the barriers created by the old “business as usual” mindset.

Karcey: I self-funded Cultivo with $10,000 of my own money. I believe it was a right time, right place scenario. We started five years ago when there were virtually no design build companies in the space. Today, there are hundreds. The down side to that is many are new companies without experience.

Technologies in the cannabis space are typically overpriced unless you have a team that knows how to associate pricing and source products that work. At Cultivo we are what’s known as an “Owner’s Representative”-our business model does not allow us to incentivize third party products because our goal is to provide the best value for our client.

Traditional barriers to success have changed with more states and countries legalizing cannabis. However, with state taxes, city taxes, and cost of operations, it has become very expensive to become a licensed producer and keep costs to where it is affordable for consumers.

Ryan: As far as whether or not there is more money available to women entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry, I don’t really have the stats on that, so I can’t really speak to whether or not more women are being funded. But I know that more women are running companies in this industry. It’s very exciting, as we’ve always been a female owned and operated business and we’ve always had a higher percentage of women that we employee within the CannaKids organization. I also really love that it’s the female cannabis plant that brings forth all the medicinal values and there’s this really cool connection there between this plant and women in general.

In my opinion, cannabis is a very loving and nurturing plant that is bringing forth a lot of healing in the world to patients everywhere. I know about 95% of the calls that we receive into the office are from women as the advocates for the patient. To see so many businesses that are female owned and operated is very inspiring. It’s great to see women finally taking their seats at the board table and using their voices to drive such an important cause forward.

While there were early reports that the cannabis industry was more open to gender and racial equality, there remain many white, male dominated businesses that have not supported diversity. In my opinion, these female-unfriendly environments just encourage women to start their own cannabusinesses and succeed on their own. What are your experiences here and what motivated you to become an industry leader?

Braddock: You are absolutely correct. It is the men that can make a rapid change in diversity and equity, but we can’t wait for this deeply rooted cultural boulder to move uphill. Women are moving ahead on their own or with men who get why it is important and more profitable to have intellectual and cultural diversity sitting at the table. The founder of Eden Labs is this kind of man and because of my long history as an entrepreneur, I was able to recognize that here was an opportunity to not only find a creative, enjoyable, and supportive work environment, but also be in a position where I could lead by example on the two things nearest and dearest to my heart and soul; supporting equality of all kinds and promoting plant medicine.

Karcey: The legalization effort initially started as a grass roots movement out of places like Colorado with a fairly low financial barrier to entry. Many minority and female operators were able to start small businesses. Around five years ago, we had statistics of female leadership in the cannabis space in the 40 percentile. As legalization grew into multiple states and became somewhat normalized so did options for traditional private funding. Many private investors are typically spearheaded by rich white men who hire their buddies. In recent years, we are seeing female and minority leadership decline at a steep rate in a very short amount of time.

I don’t think I was ever motivated to be an industry leader; I just wanted to build buildings and implement certain standards that did not exist yet in cannabis.

Ryan: It’s really exciting for me as a female CEO to see more and more women step up and take their careers into own hands. It was because of working for some not-so-great white, male bosses over the years that were always quite older than me, that I decided to start my own company in the first place. I really kind of had a thumb put down on me for far too long and my creativity and my ability to really soar had been stifled. I also endured a lot of sexual harassment over the years, unfortunately, when it was more acceptable and more common before the whole #MeToo movement began.

When it comes to racial equality, I’m really happy to see more social equity programs popping up, but there needs to be more. There are way too many people of color that have been imprisoned because of simple cannabis charges. It is time for these people to be released from jail for using a plant that is extraordinary for medicinal purposes and also for more social equity programs to be developed so that people of color can also have their shot at a seat at the table.

How has cannabis science impacted you, and how have you seen cannabis science evolve in the past few years?

Braddock: Cannabis provides humanity a platform to become a better race by improving our health care systems, supporting environmental awareness, and calling attention to social inequities that are blatantly and purposefully cruel. The science continues to improve on many levels, but it is also being held back by the politics of prohibition and our medical system's “business as usual” tactics to control medicinal plants and products that don’t fit into current business models of paying for clinical trials to patent outcomes.

Karcey: Cannabis science has impacted every way I look at the plant, from the types of building materials we use, to the cultivars we select, to the extraction methodologies implemented in our buildings.

Cannabis science is currently the biggest buzz word in medicine today. I’ve personally witnessed many medical miracles in humans and animals and I believe it is potentially the most effective medicine in the world for saving human and animal lives and improving overall quality of life for those suffering from medical issues.

Ryan: Cannabis science has completely changed my life; it’s changed how I look at medicine and it’s changed how I look at the world. With the discoveries that we’ve been able to make alongside Dr. Jewett, it has given me so much hope for the future. Not just my child but for children and adults all over the world. Now that we’re really starting to understand the mechanism of action with this plant and why it is that people are seeing these profound responses, we believe that through our science, we’re far enough ahead now that we’re going to be able to really start understanding what cannabinoids, as we’re able to bring more into the laboratory, are causing these profound responses in the human body. Science has been made very difficult to do, unfortunately, because of the federal government. We are really struggling working towards getting a Schedule 1 license for research. It’s going to be a very lengthy process and in the interim, the only thing that we’re able to bring into the lab is Win55 (synthetic cannabinoid) that is a receptor agonist which works against the receptors like cannabinoids that is covered under the Farm Bill. But we need to be able to study a lot more of these molecules. We need to be able to look at all of the molecules in the plant. Unfortunately, the government is just really still standing in our way. However, the science is still moving forward and we’ve found workarounds for that.

We are studying the blood of patients who consume cannabis and their immune function and now looking at the synthetics, that is also helping us to really wrap our head around what exactly is happening so that we can be more prepared for those other molecules once we bring them into the lab and knowing what to do with them. I have no doubt that within five years time we are going to see a profound shift in the way this plant is treated, understood, and looked at as a medicine and I’m just really blessed and honored to have some part in that.

You have forged new paths for others and set an example for what can be achieved with great drive and perseverance. What roadblocks remain for women in your field, and what needs to happen to move things forward? What excites you most, and what scares you most about the future?

Braddock: The roadblocks for women, people of color, and any start up are primarily financial. These sectors of the industry are significantly challenged without banking and private equity’s tendency to overwhelming fund men in business. Without financial support, organizations that fight social inequities, craft businesses, trade organizations, and so forth, are challenged in effecting legislative action as well as competing with larger well-funded companies that can afford to pay for shelving space, large marketing campaigns, multi-state locations, lobbyists, and who roll up small businesses to increase their perceived “value” in IPO’s. Our country does not support a small business model in general and if you are a woman or minority, you are challenged to the breaking point, but this industry does call out these inequities better than most and I am hopeful this industry will affect the cultural changes that will make the world a healthier and more politically stable place.

Karcey: It’s true the cannabis space remains male dominated; this is also true for construction. Knowing this, I chose both industry’s and combined them because it’s what I’m most passionate about. I never cared that the statistics were stacked against me. I work with mostly men, which I enjoy. Roadblocks will always be there, this is true for most industries. I’ve found that if you work hard and you’re great at what you do, people will respect you for who you are as a professional. However, breaking through to any level of respect in this industry takes many years of blood, sweat, tears, and tenacity.

The thing that excites me most about the cannabis industry is how fast it’s advancing medically.

The thing that scares me most is watching smaller operators with many years of valuable experience pushed out by big businesses that care more about money than the positive impact this plant has for our planet and its inhabitants.

Ryan: Luckily, I have been in a situation where I, as a female, haven’t endured a lot of roadblocks to date. However, I do believe there needs to be more mentorship programs out there for women who aspire to become CEOs. I was already a CEO when I got into cannabis and had my own media agency that I’d been running for many years. I had that experience already locked in, but had I not had that experience, there really aren’t many programs I could have jumped right into to help train me to become the entrepreneur that my dreams may have set me up to be.

What most excites me about this industry is how fast it’s moving and how passionate people are becoming about this plant. I’ve met so many people who have heard me speak or have read our story that quit their career path and decide to move into the cannabis space because they believed this to be such a profoundly important movement to contribute to.

What scares me the most is the politics around this plant. What has happened in California has devastated our industry. We’re still suffering and struggling to get our brand back to where it was before recreational legalization. It has become so difficult and expensive to operate that many of the businesses have died. There are also stats out saying that by 2024, that from the cannabis industry in California, $8.4 billion will be credited to the underground market while only $3 billion will be accredited to the legal market.

I’m really hoping that the federal government gets it together and completely deschedules this plant, so that we’ll have better access, fewer laws, and definitely much lower taxation. Currently, the taxes are so high in California-for example, around 35% to 40% in certain instances-and the patients just can’t afford it anymore.

Reference

  1. J. Crossney, Cannabis Science and Technology1(2), 52–54 (2018).

About the Interviewees

AC Braddock is the CEO of Eden Labs, an internationally known and respected 25-year-old technology company that specializes in research and development of products in biofuels, flavorings, environmental remediation, functional foods, natural products, supplements, nutraceuticals, distilling, and more. While Eden Labs serves many industries, in 2009 Braddock envisioned that the purity of supercritical CO2-derived products would be a necessity for the legalization of medical applications for cannabis and cemented Eden’s reputation as the pioneer of extraction for healthy cannabis concentrates.

Autumn Karcey is the CEO and founder of Cultivo, Inc., a firm specializing in cultivation and lab facilities design, located in southern California. Karcey takes a logical, consistent, and scientific approach when she designs cultivation sites. She combines the use of modern clean room technology, industrial agricultural equipment, custom fabricated equipment, high-end security systems, and sensor systems to create world-class facilities of enduring value.

Tracy Ryan is the CEO of CannaKids and the founder of SavingSophie.org. After her infant daughter’s brain tumor diagnosis in 2013, Ryan dedicated her life to helping patients with her line of CannaKids’ medical cannabis oils. Now in full swing with preclinical human trials involving CannaKids’ cancer patients, including an animal model trial on her own daughter, it’s her mission to bring non-toxic drugs to market for patients suffering from cancer and other life altering diseases.

About the Columnist

Joshua Crossney is the columnist and editor of “Cannabis Crossroads” and a contributing editor to Cannabis Science and Technology magazine. Crossney is also the president and CEO of CSC Events. Direct correspondence to: josh@jcanna.com

How to Cite This Article

J. Crossney, Cannabis Science and Technology2(5), 32-37 (2019).

Editor's Note: The print version of this column that appeared in the September/October 2019 issue was edited for length. 

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