Women Leaders of Cannabis: “Imagine that entering the cannabis industry is a one-way door and get comfortable with that possibility” With Jessica Passman of Hunter + Esquire
Consider what stigmas you may face when/if seeking to return back to a non-cannabis industry role later in your career. Imagine that entering the cannabis industry is a one-way door and get comfortable with that possibility.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Passman. Jessica is Founder of Hunter + Esquire® (cannabis executive recruitment + consulting) and The GIGG® (cannabis staffing). As founding partner of both companies, Jessica is the architect of process and flow. And that’s crucial. The cannabis industry is uncharted territory — and Jessica brings order to the chaos. A self-professed “problem solver,” she thinks quick on her feet and isn’t afraid to step out of the box for solutions and strategies that help guide the firms’ day-to-day operations. Jessica helps clients understand the complexities of the industry while advocating in their best interest. And it comes second nature to her. Prior to launching the company, she worked as an associate attorney at several top law firms, and provided outside general counsel to numerous clients through her own law practice. Eventually, her passion for business led to her role as Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel for a global networking organization exclusively for professional women executives and women business owners. In her role there, she wore many hats while creating the opportunity to evolve as both an entrepreneur and attorney. And if that sounds auspiciously perfect, you’re right. They’re precisely the roles she brings to Hunter + Esquire® and The GIGG®. Outside of the office, you can find her at the nearest yoga or Pilates class or diving into the world of organics and sustainability. When people ask Jessica to describe herself, she doesn’t hesitate to say that she’s analytical, passionate and open-minded, but also, a mom to two really incredible boys.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
My husband and I have believed in the benefits of the cannabis plant well before the legalization movement. Once legalization was being considered in Florida, we began brainstorming on what our entry-point would be. However, at that time (back in 2014) legalization didn’t pass.
In 2016, it was on the ballot again and this time medical-use legalization passed. We were in very different places in both of our careers at this time, but also in the same place in terms of good timing to seize the opportunity. I was in the process of moving on from an entrepreneurial venture and selling my ownership in a professional networking organization for women which I helped build from the ground up. My husband was working in Executive Search focusing on the CPG Food and Adult Beverage industries after working in Executive Search for 15 years previously in the Medical Device and Pharmaceutical industries.
While I was on the Advisory Board of a new skincare line and Of Counsel for a California-based law firm specialized in Healthcare and Life Sciences, I wanted and was ready for a new entrepreneurial venture. My husband had dreams of starting his own executive search firm. We agreed it was time for us to launch into something new together, and we knew that cannabis companies were in need of the type of very professionalized (talent acquisition and advisory) services we could provide.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have had a lot of very funny, and sometimes awkward, conversations with friends, family and acquaintances. Most people assume that if you work in the industry, you are working in some plant-touching capacity, you always have some form of cannabis product available to share with them and that you know everything about “all that is cannabis.”
I have learned to be very clear regarding what we do and what I know. In fact, the best learning lesson has been with respect to communicating. The more explicit and detailed the better, making no assumptions that the other person will get what you are telling them. Instead, communicating in a way that is so clear and transparent that nothing is left to interpretation or guessing.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
As a start-up, mistakes will be made as you are doing everything for the first time and constantly building and growing. I have learned to accept that and simply learn from my mistakes. We have to make mistakes in order to grow. Also, harping on mistakes is a waste of time and energy.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
I have become very popular with many of the women at our kids’ school, in our neighborhood and at my Yoga and Pilates classes who know I work in the industry. There is still a stigma associated with having a relationship with the cannabis plant, but people are becoming more open. I have this shirt that I love and wear all the time that reads “Cannabis Heals.” I receive so many positive comments when I wear the shirt. People seem to really enjoy the opportunity to share that they agree with the message.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Throughout my career I have been motivated by the challenge and paving my own way. There have been people along the way that have created obstacles to my moving forward. However, in looking back, those obstacles led me to make changes that have propelled me much farther than I would have gone otherwise. Long story short, in my last venture I worked closely with another woman. I had given a lot to the partnership and to the business. The time to move on had been long overdue. We had a falling out which pushed me to finally move on. Sometimes we need that push.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
YES! We are expanding our own in-house team at Hunter + Esquire and increasing our brand-building efforts as we ramp up for an exciting 2020. We are excited to embrace many more opportunities to assist cannabis companies with building out their teams and growing their organizations by transitioning more passionate and professional people into their key leader roles.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. 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?
Uncovering the root of the matter. Determining and understanding the “why” is necessary for any type of substantial change. On our end, many of our clients specifically request women executives. We have found that when compared to their male counterparts, overall women tend to be more risk-averse and less willing to take lesser compensation or accept a lesser title. Cannabis is a start-up industry, so compensation packages are lower than more established industries; and the industry is Federally illegal, so there is inherently more risk involved with this transition. While it is often a more difficult challenge to find the right woman, it is one that we embrace and excel at.
- Fixing the system from the ground up. Gender disparity is an issue that exists across all industries, it’s not only a cannabis industry problem. In fact, the cannabis industry is currently being built from the ground up as an example of how great an industry can be when it brings in more women executives than any other mainstream industry. However, we need to do a better job at focusing earlier on in terms of changing things at the juvenile or adolescent levels so that girls are in a better mindset when they are professional women with careers. It is clearly a difficult matter to fix. Ideally, we completely remove gender assumptions and differentiations and look instead to each child simply as an individual.
- Changing the Mindset. If you are a woman looking to enter the industry in any capacity, do what you need to do. If you want a certain role, make sure you have the skills needed for that role. If you want to start a business, make sure you have everything in order prior to presenting the idea to an investor. I never expected people to treat me differently, in a positive or negative way, because I was a woman. I always did my best and covered the bases in order to achieve my goals, regardless of how long it took or how difficult the road was. Be ready for the difficult road ahead. Achieving a goal takes work, and you have to be able to fall down and pick yourself back up and persevere. No one should expect anything to be handed to them. I know that I prefer to earn my way on my own merit. I want to be the best person I can be, not only the best woman.
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.
- It is a true start-up industry. One needs to be mentally prepared for constant change, wearing many hats, going back to performing “grunt” work from years or even decades ago and regularly making important business decisions with less information than you need or want!
- It is important to carefully consider all the pro’s and more importantly the cons to entering the industry, such as considering how working in a Federally illegal industry may affect you personally, professionally and financially. With Federal illegalization comes banking and taxing complications.
- Consider what stigmas you may face when/if seeking to return back to a non-cannabis industry role later in your career. Imagine that entering the cannabis industry is a one-way door and get comfortable with that possibility.
- Speaking with everyone that is influential in your life is important. There will often be times that having a support system will be key to your success.
- Last but not least, the fun one… are you ready to become the most popular parent at your kid’s school or guest at a party. Are you ready to be hit up constantly by your network for a job and with a constant barrage of questions about all things cannabis? Interestingly, we often advise our executive placements to hold off for a while on updating their LinkedIn profiles because it can be quite distracting during that all-important launch stage in their new cannabis career.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
- The positive ways the cannabis plant can benefit us seems limitless. The more the plant is researched, the more positive applications will be discovered.
- Being a part of history and the development of a new industry. I can’t imagine there being another completely new start-up industry opportunity in my lifetime. I truly feel like a trailblazer!
- Having a front row seat for witnessing what the industry becomes and how positive legalization momentum will continue to positively impact society.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
- Federal Prohibition. The legal climate is far too complex and disjointed for cannabis businesses and consumers. Federal prohibition has many negative implications including but not limited to: putting legal cannabis business at a disadvantage against the illicit market; preventing the necessary research and creation of education for the consumer; and allowing for sweeping + stringent regulatory standards to be created at a Federal level.
- The Nascent Nature of the Industry. The DEA just officially decided that a notorious fentanyl manufacturer’s synthetic marijuana product is safer and more medically valuable than actual cannabis. The good ole boy network running big pharma, and arguably some federal agencies as well, are dug in deep against our new industry. It is a very long road ahead…
- BAD ACTORS IN THE INDUSTRY. There will always be some bad actors, and those who get caught with their hands in the cookie jar in our industry are significantly setting back progress for all each time they demonstrate poor judgement on the compliance, ethics, integrity and corporate governance fronts.
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 would allow for stability, better oversight, proper regulation and would remove so many current barriers to success for legal cannabis businesses who are craving an opportunity to make broader and deeper positive impacts to society in the way of creating more jobs and tax revenue for our country’s crumbling infrastructure, improving people’s health & wellness, correcting social injustices suffered because of the failed ‘war on drugs’, and so on… Federal legalization implemented properly could add a level of legitimacy that the industry is currently devoid of. Clearly the majority of our American population wants legalization and laws can only exist out of congruence with the will of the people for so long.
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?
No. Cannabis is beneficial to the mind and body whereas cigarettes are poisonous and cancer causing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do.” I have always been able to find time to get what I need to get done. There is certainly a priority of things, but if it is important and needs to get done within a certain frame, there is no doubt that it will be done by the deadline.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could inspire a movement, it would be for people to truly see that we are living together on this beautiful planet earth. We are all connected and can only exist if we work together to care for our planet and for the betterment of everyone as a whole. Of course, the very long list of cannabis plant applications would be a battle cry for this moment 😊
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