Women Leaders of the Cannabis Industry: “Adapt As You Go”, With Bridget May and Kim Howard of Green Bee Botanicals
ADAPT AS YOU GO. The legal cannabis industry is in its infancy in California. It’s kind of like cycling in the dark in unknown territory; you need to be prepared and nimble, and even when you are, you’ll still hit something unexpected. When it happens, fix it and move on. I originally wanted to make cannabis tinctures for anxiety, sleep, and other health issues, because tinctures are a great delivery method for those who want a quick effect without the smoke, plus herbal medicinal tinctures have been used for centuries. But by the time I had everything I needed to launch my business, there were already a lot of brands making high-quality wellness tinctures. So I got creative and changed my business plan, which led me to something different and better since no one else was making cannabis skincare.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Green Bee Botanicals founder Bridget May and co-founder Kim Howard.
Bridget May and Kim Howard are partners at Green Bee Botanicals, a small San Francisco-based company making clean, organic, plant-based skincare and topicals infused with high-quality cannabis. Bridget is a former biotech analytical chemist pursuing her passion for natural plant medicine, and Kim is a former non-profit fundraiser and tech marketing VP reconnecting with her roots in social justice. Both had profound “Aha!” moments when they discovered the endocannabinoid system, and are committed to educating people about the health benefits of cannabis.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
I distinctly remember the first time I found a copy of John Lust’s The Herb Book in the break room of the coffee shop where I worked in my early 20s. I felt like I’d found a witch’s recipe book. I already intuitively believed that plants are the key to good health and had long been experimenting with healing myself with plants — ginger for settling a sour stomach, echinacea to ward off a cold, chamomile tea for sleep — but Lust’s book opened up a whole world to me and was the start of a lifelong self-education about plants and their healing powers.
I earned degrees in fine art and biology/botany and worked in biotech for 15 years of learning lab and chemistry skills in a highly regulated environment. One of the more interesting biotech companies I worked for as an analytical chemist used algae to make alternatives to palm oil, fuel, and traditional cosmetics. On the side, I continued my botany studies and learned through a friend that CBD with small amounts of THC could help me with anxiety and sleep. It worked! Intrigued, I ventured down the rabbit hole of cannabis research and peer-reviewed scientific studies. When I learned that we have an endocannabinoid system that regulates most major organs and systems in the human body that works hand-in-glove with phytocannabinoids in plants — particularly cannabis — it was so astounding that it was life-changing.
I became obsessed and began experimenting in my kitchen, making cannabis extractions with high proof ethanol, and creating balms and lotions for myself and my friends. Everyone who tried my formulations loved them and encouraged me to start a business. I launched Little Green Bee in 2015 and miraculously made it through the tumultuous years following Prop 64. I finally quit my biotech job in 2018 and re-launched as Green Bee Botanicals in 2019. It was the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s a lot of work but I’ve never been happier and more myself.
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? [Bridget May]
Partnering with my childhood friend Kim Howard before re-launching Green Bee Botanicals under the new California laws is the biggest unexpected good fortune I’ve had to date, and I’ve had many.
Kim and I grew up in downtown San Jose, were best friends in high school, and studied abroad in France together in college. She officiated at my wedding and I officiated at hers. We’ve both lived in San Francisco for decades, and our friendship ebbed and flooded as long friendships do. We got really close again when we took dance classes together five years ago. She had just helped sell her family’s 25-year-old technology analyst firm, where she was marketing VP and was taking a break from work. We’d talk while walking to and from class — I about the highs and lows of getting a cannabis business off the ground, and she about freelancing and getting back into the non-profit world to do some good.
I hired her as a marketing and branding consultant in 2018 and we had so much fun working together. We have a long history as troublemaking co-conspirators when we were younger (I’ll save that for another story), so it was a pleasure to discover that we “adult” well together too. So well, in fact, that I asked her to become my full-time business partner and co-founder, and she said yes! That she’s as amazed at the endocannabinoid system as I am making this all the sweeter.
What makes us such good partners, most importantly, is that we trust, respect and care about each other. We’re also grateful for each other’s strengths and recognize our own limitations. We have a lot in common but we’re also very different — in temperament, personality and skillsets. I have the science, chemistry and botany background to make our products and handle manufacturing, R&D and quality control, while Kim focuses on HR, marketing, sales, PR and operations. We do the fundraising, strategy and business collaborations together. Our differences make us stronger together (kind of like THC and CBD!) and our shared passions — plant medicine, building community, social justice, the environment, empowering girls, art and more — make it natural and fun.
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? [Bridget May]
At the time this was not funny at all but I almost set my kitchen on fire when I was setting up my first lab in 2015. Back then I was hand-making each product myself under Medical Marijuana and Cottage laws. Now that we make our products in small batches in a pristine commercial lab in Berkeley, I can tell you it’s much, MUCH easier and safer to do the latter. Lesson learned: Always have a fire extinguisher handy.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry? [Bridget May]
Yes. At my last pharmaceutical job before going all-in with Green Bee, most of my co-workers were pretty conservative and straight-laced. I was a free-thinking, tree-hugging (really!), vegetarian who commuted everywhere by bike. (Still am.) I didn’t dare tell a soul there that I was dabbling in medical cannabis on the side. I occasionally printed scientific papers on cannabinoids on the work printer, and one time someone beat me to the printer and I was mortified and sure I was going to be called out.
Not long after that, I was walking by the office of a Formulations Group co-worker who I had recently worked with on a project, and she called me in and told me to close the door. My heart raced, my palms started to sweat and I flushed. “I think we have something in common,” she said. “Errr…” I stammered. “I found your website,” she added. It turned out she was also working secretly behind the scenes to start her own cannabis company and wanted to brainstorm and possibly collaborate! We still have a good laugh about that. Her name is Monica Vialpando and she now runs Vialpando LLC doing formulation for many leading cannabis brands. I helped her formulate early-to-market cannabis topical and infused beverage and we even got interviewed together by Jo Nuding for her Casually Baked Potcast #84.
During my exit interviews, I was open and upfront about what I was leaving to do. What did I have to lose at this point, I thought. My co-workers were not only supportive; they were even envious that I was pursuing my passion. And my boss, without prompting, told me to get in touch when I was ready for investment!
None of us is 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? [Bridget May]
The first person who helped me navigate this convoluted cannabis path and to whom I’ll always be grateful is Claudia Mercado, who now runs Calibueno, a delivery service in Oakland. We were washing our hands next to each other in the bathroom at a Women Grow event back in 2015, and we introduced ourselves and started talking. Claudia’s knowledge and circle of friends and colleagues is inspiring. She promptly introduced me to Andrea Brooks, who was just starting her now-booming delivery service, SAVA, the first company ever to sell Green Bee. I feel incredibly lucky to be one of the first brands on the SAVA menu and even luckier to be one of the brands that made a comeback after the new regulations went into effect in 2018. Andrea and SAVA continue to be very supportive of Green Bee and we collaborate regularly. She is a huge reason for our early and continued success.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people? [Bridget May & Kim Howard]
We’re working on formulations for a whole new product line…shhh, it’s a secret! We plan to reach more people, become more mainstream, and help normalize and de-stigmatize cannabis by creating products people use for everyday health and wellness: skincare. It is way past time we decriminalize this amazing plant that helps so many people in so many ways.
We’re also collaborating with many of our favorite women-owned brands, such as Society Jane, SAVA, Community Gardens, Quim, Garden Society, Cosmic View, MJ Lifestyle and Lush for Life on experiential events and parties, co-marketing, volunteering, fundraising, and the like. We discovered early on that when we work together to pull each other up, we all win.
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? [Bridget May & Kim Howard]
- Support each other. Connect with women who want to start a cannabis business or already own one. Share reliable sources; introduce them to your contacts; if they ask for advice, give it; become a mentor; connect regularly; share your experience, especially the pitfalls. Follow each other on social media, give each other public and private kudos. Celebrate and rally each other.
- Invest in companies owned by women and people of color, whether as a consumer or investor. Research companies online and through your network to see who owns and manages them, how diverse their board is. Serve on the board of women-led companies and organizations.
- Teach girls that they can do and be anything they want. Invest in non-profits and educational institutions that inspire girls here and around the world to be independent, strong thinkers, such as Girls Inc.
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. [Bridget May]
- BUILD ALLIES. What helps me most, by far, is the information, education, support and mentorship I’ve received from colleagues in the cannabis business. Contact here and an encouraging word there does so much to help a start-up avoid mistakes and to fight off the worry and panic. Starting a new business is notoriously difficult, but a cannabis business in California is a breathtaking rollercoaster. You need to be able to respond quickly to all kinds of challenges, like regulation changes (some of which make no logical sense), or having your bank close your business account, or a PR fiasco even if it’s not related to your particular brand, such as the vaping crisis. Having allies to help bolster you along the way is truly invaluable.
- ADAPT AS YOU GO. The legal cannabis industry is in its infancy in California. It’s kind of like cycling in the dark in unknown territory; you need to be prepared and nimble, and even when you are, you’ll still hit something unexpected. When it happens, fix it and move on. I originally wanted to make cannabis tinctures for anxiety, sleep, and other health issues, because tinctures are a great delivery method for those who want a quick effect without the smoke, plus herbal medicinal tinctures have been used for centuries. But by the time I had everything I needed to launch my business, there were already a lot of brands making high-quality wellness tinctures. So I got creative and changed my business plan, which led me to something different and better since no one else was making cannabis skincare.
- TRUST YOUR GUT. No, really. The potential partner that you have a funny feeling about but you’re not sure why? It’s probably not a good idea to work with them. The vendor who was charming but made you feel uneasy? Ditto. The answer that first came to your head? Trust it. Multiple mentors of mine — all women — have stressed this tip in particular. Don’t second guess yourself. Honor your intuition and heed it.
- THE STIGMA IS REAL. Even though cannabis is going mainstream, it’s easy to forget when we’ve worked in the business for years and most of our friends work in it, that some people, and more importantly, some businesses still treat cannabis like it’s dangerous. I’ve been rejected by printers, money wiring services, and others. We laugh now at our naivité when we tried to open our first business bank account and told them outright that we work in cannabis. “Next.” (The lack of access to banks is crushing small businesses and needs to change.) Keep the cannabis stigma in mind when working with vendors and partners, and ask colleagues how they’re resolving these issues; you’ll get some creative and surprising tips!
- KEEP A POSITIVE OUTLOOK. There’s a lot in the newly legal cannabis industry that can be disheartening, from label regulations changing right after you’ve spent thousands of dollars at the printer to seeing fellow small businesses struggle, to know there are still thousands of people in jail for cannabis possession. Sometimes I want to crawl back in bed and stay there. But that isn’t going to solve any problems or heal any people or make my business successful, so every day I intentionally focus on the positive. I don’t know how anyone can make it in this business if they don’t.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
- Justice and equity programs [Bridget May & Kim Howard]
The most important thing that excites us about cannabis going legal is getting people out of jail. The fact that tens of thousands of people are still in prison for possessing cannabis is disgraceful. We support the Last Prisoner Project and Equity First Alliance, both as individuals and as Green Bee Botanicals, because they’re doing amazing work to get cannabis convictions reversed, related records expunged, and to provide support for former prisoners to help them get their lives back.
We’re happy to see that Illinois just pardoned 11,000 people and we’re hopeful that AB-1793 will pave the way for more than 220,000 Californians to clear their cannabis convictions. We’re glad that the number continues to grow of states that no longer impose jail time for low-level cannabis possession (26 of 50 as of December 2019). We’re happy that the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act at least got to the committee, as it’s a sign that the end of a federal prohibition of cannabis is near. But there’s still a ton of work to do to even begin to rectify the many wrongs done in the name of “the war on drugs.” It’s important that all of us — especially those of us building companies in the cannabis industry — get involved in justice and equity programs directly, indirectly or both.
2. Helping heal people [Bridget May]
Working in an industry that has the potential to heal a lot of people inspires and excites me. I got into the cannabis industry to take to the masses the plant remedies I make and use myself. My love of plants and the wonder I feel every time I learn about how they can help us to keep our bodies and minds in balance makes me happy. Cannabis is just one of many healing phytonutrients in our herbal apothecary, but cannabis is a powerhouse plant because of its abundance of cannabinoids that bind so exquisitely with our endocannabinoid system.
Despite federal restrictions on cannabis research in the US, there’s a growing body of scientific evidence that supports the countless anecdotes from generations of people about the health benefits of cannabis. There’s proof that cannabis has been used medicinally for centuries. Cannabis wouldn’t be used therapeutically for centuries if it wasn’t actually therapeutic. Even the US’s own National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports cannabis has many proven medicinal uses, including pain, anxiety, PTSD, nausea, sleep disorders, skin issues and more. Imagine the evidence we’ll have once the US lifts its ban on cannabis research! If you add in the potential for relieving the opioid crisis by giving people a safe alternative to over-prescribed painkillers, the help cannabis could do for our society is immense.
3. The supportive cannabis sisterhood and a growing number of women investors [Kim Howard]
Green Bee Botanicals is women-owned, women-run and women-funded. Our goal is to stay at least 75% funded by women and people of color not only because we want to give them and ourselves the ground-floor investment opportunity typically reserved for white men, but also because women-owned businesses receive only a tiny fraction of the investment pool. We want to change that. Study after study shows that businesses led by women are often more capital-efficient and deliver higher revenue per dollar invested. In a word, we’re a better bet. Read this Forbes article for some great stats backing this up.
As for the sisterhood, we are inspired every day by the support we get from fellow women-owned cannabis businesses, and we return it wholeheartedly. We wouldn’t be where we are today without our partners and co-owners Lilli Keinaenin of Changemaker Creative and Heather Whiles of Maconha Services. We partner with equity owner and advocate Raeven Duckett in Oakland, a well-deserved Supernova Woman who (thankfully) loves cannabis skincare. Childhood friend, artist, cannabis activist and equity owner Jessica Tully of Weden in Oakland (now part of Manifest7) is outrageously encouraging and connects us to people who are game-changers. Sharon Krinsky and Andy Greenburg of Society Jane are two of our favorite business partners — they even threw a launch party for Green Bee! Cyo Ray Nystrom and Rachel Washtien of Quim give us advice about new markets and how to avoid pitfalls. Erin Gore and Karli Warner of Garden Society generously share their knowledge, contacts, and advice. Ditto for Leah Cerri of Lush for Life events, Nicole and Christine Skibola of Cosmic View, Marcia Gagliardi of my milligram, Jennifer Skog of MJ Lifestyle, Monica Gray of Nice Guys Delivery in Marin and so many more. The sisterhood is real.
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? [Bridget May]
Inequality, testing, and taxes.
Most concerning of all is the tens of thousands of people still in jail for cannabis possession. My #1 reform would be taking cannabis off the list of Schedule 1 Drugs, which the US defines as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The reality is the opposite! As part of this reform, I’d make sure everyone in jail due to a non-violent cannabis offense is released and their records expunged. And I’d set up a fund to help them get their lives back.
Next, I’d take on cannabis testing. I appreciate that the testing requirements for cannabis products in California are so strict because it ensures our products are safe, clean and effective, and what you see on the label is what you get. However, because the regulations were written by regulators and not scientists, they often don’t follow scientific logic. This leads to a ton of wasted time, money and product in the cannabis industry. One example of this is that labs are required to test only one replicate (sample) per batch of cannabis products, but the standard protocol should be to test at least three and take the average to control for variations in test methods.
Cannabis taxes in California are an even bigger clusterf&*# than our testing regulations. Regulators and politicians don’t understand the market well enough to tax it fairly without dooming it, nor how to transition an illegal market into a legal one. It feels like they want the cannabis industry to fail in California. As a start, I’d reform the cannabis tax laws here so that the legal cannabis market is more competitive with the illicit market. We need to give the businesses who are doing their best to comply with a real chance to succeed. In the end, California will also reap big benefits.
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? [Kim Howard]
We need to pursue federal legalization of cannabis because the reason it was outlawed in the first place comes down to one word: racism. In 1994, journalist Dan Baum tracked down President Nixon’s disgraced advisor and Watergate–co-conspirator, John Ehrlichman, who admitted that Nixon’s top enemies were blacks and the anti-war left. Ehrlichman confessed: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or being black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
A few years before that bombshell, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Harry Robbins “Bob” Haldeman, admitted to Christian Parenti, author of Lockdown America: “[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
These admissions come straight from the mouths of the policymakers who instigated the “war on drugs.” Drug policies in America are irrefutably racist. And our legal system is institutionally racist. On top of all that, they’re also ineffective and a colossal waste of tax-payer money. We’ve spent over $1 trillion on the war on drugs over the last 40 years! Hello? Earth to the White House: We’re not winning. By legalizing cannabis at all levels of government, instead, we could:
- Generate billions of dollars in taxes for individual states and the feds
- Redirect our limited law enforcement resources to more important, more dangerous assignments
- Protect consumers by mandating safety and testing standards
- Create jobs with all the money we’d save and create
- And most importantly: stop harming people who aren’t doing anything wrong
We’d also add that cannabis is not only not harmful; it’s healing.
We encourage everyone to support organizations that are helping to expunge records and get people out of jail. From the Last Prisoner Project, an organization Green Bee Botanicals contributes to: “As the United States moves away from the criminalization of cannabis, giving rise to a major new industry, there remains the fundamental injustice inflicted upon those who have suffered criminal convictions and the consequences of those convictions. Through intervention, advocacy, and awareness campaigns, the Last Prisoner Project will work to redress the past and continuing harms of these unjust laws and policies.”
What’s the point of legalization if the ruined lives of people who were convicted aren’t made whole?
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? [Bridget May & Kim Howard]
Both. Cannabis should be regulated and as easy to buy as cigarettes, but should not be taxed or marginalized like cigarettes. Tobacco smoke is a toxic mix of more than 7,000 chemicals and is linked to 80% to 90% of lung cancer deaths in the US (CDC).
At the other end of the spectrum, cannabis is a powerful, natural plant that can heal the body and the mind. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found conclusive evidence in 2017 that cannabis is effective for the treatment of chronic pain, chemo-related nausea and vomiting, MLS-related muscle spasms, as well as evidence for improving sleep, anxiety and PTSD symptoms, among other health benefits. Do cigarettes do that? No.
And the reason cannabis helps the human body in these ways goes back to our endocannabinoid system (ECS), receptors of which can bind with phytocannabinoids in cannabis. Depending on the type, amount, and quality of the phytocannabinoids, they can bring balance to the parts of the body regulated by the ECS, including our skin, gut, nervous system, immune system, and others.
Cannabis heals. It should be affordable and accessible to those in need. Cannabis is a plant that deserves to be added back to the Western herbal apothecary.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? [Bridget May & Kim Howard]
We love Anne Frank’s simple message: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Anne Frank is so inspiring. She lived in a terrifying and tragic time and still found a reason to be hopeful and to try to be helpful and brighten the lives of those around her. We’re still in awe that she believed we are all inherently good. Her optimism and courage motivate us, not just in running our business, but in everyday life. She was mindful of — but not overwhelmed by — the misery that surrounded her and instead focused on beauty, kindness, character, and hope. Who isn’t inspired by that? She “paid it forward” for millions of people, including us.
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. :-) [Bridget May & Kim Howard]
We would inspire people to believe that what you focus on, you attract more of. In other words, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Some people dismiss this as woo-woo positive thinking or refer to it as the mystical Law of Attraction, but it’s actually just plain science. A neurophysiologist discovered the Reticular Activating System (RAS) in 1949, and figured out that it helps our brains filter out the billions of bits of data coming at us every second of every day so that we can focus on the important stuff. It literally takes what you focus on and creates a filter for it. It’s why when we decide to buy a bike, we start seeing the one we want everywhere, or when we’re learning a new language, we start hearing it more often. Your brain sifts and sorts for you, and then presents only the pieces that you’ve taught it are important to you.
Focus on positive things and your RAS will put a spotlight on them for you. Focus on negative things and your RAS will put a spotlight on those. We’re not saying we can make bad things disappear or that positive thinking solves the world’s problems. But by focusing on the good stuff, the inevitable negative stuff is easier to handle — we find more creative solutions, adapt faster, meet helpful people, open even more doors to even better things.
With the California cannabis industry in turmoil right now, what we focus on is more important than ever. Besides, finding joy in small things — a smile, a kind gesture, a plant growing in a crack in the sidewalk — is a pleasure. The reason naming 10 things you’re grateful for every day is such an effective exercise is because it trains your brain to focus on the good stuff, which in turn causes you to notice even more good stuff. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!