Lessons from 3 Female Founders in Cannabis: Christine De La Rosa, Emily Paxhia, and Ophelia Chong
It takes a lot of courage—maybe even a little recklessness—to form a brand in the cannabis space. Curaleaf had the honor of speaking with the following three women, industry pioneers who opted for the road less traveled:
- Christine De La Rosa, social equity advocate and co-founder of The People’s Dispensary
- Emily Paxhia, co-founder of Poseidon Investment Management
- Ophelia Chong, founder of Ask Ophelia and Asian Americans for Cannabis Education
We asked these first-movers in cannabis five questions about their experiences. Their answers offer us insight into the unique challenges women leaders often face, where they find the strength to persist and thrive, the advantage of creating allies, and their overall experiences as powerful women in weed.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
De La Rosa: I'm most proud of being able to advocate and advise other BIPOC, LGBTQ and women-owned businesses. There are a lot of companies in cannabis racing to the top. I’m also one of those people who wants to race to the top! But I want to make sure I bring other people with me. There isn’t a lot of BIPOC women-owned representation in the cannabis, so one of us can't make it and not bring everybody else with them.
Paxhia: We had the vision that cannabis would become what we're all seeing it as today, which is a rapidly growing unbelievably dynamic industry. But in 2012, 2013, that was quite a contrary point of view met with a lot of criticism and concern. I'm most proud that in spite of that, we followed our instincts, stayed really focused, and leaned into growing companies and building this industry into something that investors run to instead of fear.
Chong: The accomplishment I am most proud of is changing the imagery of cannabis, dispelling the propaganda of what cannabis patients are not, portraying them as they are, real people, not cartoon comedy characters or images that only portray fear. Our collection was comprised of BIPOC, all ages, all walks of life, even children and pregnant women, all being shown in healthy and real situations.
What has been the most important contributor to your success in this industry?
De La Rosa: Other women! I could not have done or be where I'm at in my career right now if other women hadn't reached back and brought me forward, talked to me when I was having trouble, counseled me when I didn't know how to do something, and shared their experiences of both success and failure.
Paxhia: Staying extremely focused and dialed into the intentions of why we're doing what we're doing. Our core mission has gotten us this far and keeps us going. So it's been about staying true to the core intentions of building good businesses and the belief that if we have built good businesses, we will all win in the end.
Chong: The most important part of my journey in cannabis has been the community. I have not been in a community that is as all accepting with the mantra of “grow for one, grow for all.” I’ve made lifelong friends and learned how to sell a product that is illegal, all the workarounds and out of the box thinking is a blessing that cannabis brings to the table. We’ve sat down on our behinds too long, cannabis makes you think of ways to sell, ways to get it out to the public. What other business ties one hand to one leg and tells you to run? Only cannabis. And because of this, I am smarter, faster and adept at reading between the lines.
Have you ever felt excluded, misunderstood, or discriminated against because of your gender? How have those experiences impacted you?
De La Rosa: I was raising my first round of capital for the company, telling this investor that we have a social equity framework, and that we're building our company to center Black, Brown, and LGBTQ people. This guy's only half paying attention to me. Every five minutes, there's another white guy coming up to shake his hand. Then he said to me, “I don't invest in social welfare.” I just remember being so taken aback. But I was a woman. I wasn't that important to stop people from interrupting. My idea was also centered around marginalized communities, so obviously that wasn’t important at all. That moment really stuck with me.
Paxhia: If I'm introduced into a situation on my own, I have to start at a notch lower and I have to work harder than my male counterpoints to prove the value of my contribution to a situation. That is absolutely mitigated by my male allies who introduce me and make warm connections and preface why I'm somebody that should be at the table. I'm filled with gratitude that I have such an amazing network of male mentors and allies who understand the importance of pulling women along with them.
Chong: As a woman of color, it’s hard to tell where racism ends and sexism begins. I’ve mostly pushed it away and moved on. Also, I have the meanest stare on the block.
How do you recover from micro or macro aggressions in the workplace?
De La Rosa: I'll have to be honest with you. It’s hard. I got turned down so much. It was a tough road internally for me at the beginning. I had moments of self-doubt. I think every woman in any industry, that's trying to do something larger than what people tell us we can do has those moments of self-doubt. But I’m incredibly stubborn. And I'm glad that I'm resilient. I definitely appreciate that. My momma gave that to me, but also it just sucks that mediocrity doesn't have to be resilient. If you're white and male, you don't have to be resilient.
Paxhia: Sometimes it feels really overwhelming, but I think that that's where we can be the arbiters of our own strength. Either I can let that feeling overwhelm me and drag me away from things in the future, or I can just dust it off and set aside my own limiting beliefs. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing to do. I've had moments where I’ve certainly felt like I just wanted to retreat. I’ve had that feeling that maybe men weren’t taking me seriously. There are some men who, before they understand that you're a smart person, will make a joke at your expense, assuming you don't get it. And you have to sit there in some of those contexts—in a room full of men—and hold grace and not rise to that in a counterproductive way. You have to find the things that serve you too.
Chong: How do I work with aggression in the office? I learned from a young age, the person you hate in school turns out to be your best friend when you go up and talk to them. I’ve made friends out of enemies (or just people who didn’t like me) by saying hi and listening. For the worst cases, talking to a superior helps and puts them on notice. Most of these people are just angry or unhappy and need to make others feel like them. By listening to them, you create an opening for them to release that hurt.
What advice do you have for women looking to start their own cannabis business or join the executive team of a cannabis company?
De La Rosa: Take advantage of all of the free content around cannabis. There's tons of free content out there. Sign up for the newsletters and the webinars. Those aren’t going to help you create the company, but that content will help you understand and hone your idea. I would also tell them to find a mentor and ask for an hour. There's a lot of knowledge in the cannabis industry from female founders, female C-suites, female advisory boards. Just find that person who aligns with what you’re wanting to do.
Paxhia: Start with your strengths. Do a truthful examination of your strengths and the areas where you need additional support and then surround yourself with people who fill in those gaps. I met a woman who was a programmer at Google and she wanted to come into cannabis to launch an edibles company. And I said, “Well, are you an avid baker? Are you a foodie?” And she said, “No. I just like to eat cannabis edibles.” I thought, she has this amazing technical acumen and is going to abandon all of that. Instead, do a real assessment of your strengths and see what you can leverage in cannabis.
Chong: My advice for anyone entering the cannabis industry is to take your best skill and add cannabis. Learn all you can about cannabis laws and design parameters if you are a designer. Learn the cannabis tax laws if you are an accountant and so on. Always start with your foundation and build your house on top of it. A strong base equals a strong career. I’ve had over 6 careers in my lifetime and each one was built on the past one. With that, I am a photographer, artist, award-winning designer, publisher, educator, and now weed slinger.