Illinois Women in Cannabis hosted a conference focused on gender equity in the cannabis industry On March 25 | Annabel Rocha

Illinois became the eleventh state in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana in January 2020. Three years later, equity issues and lack of diversity continue to plague the industry. According to Business Insider, white men take up 70% of the top roles in the cannabis industry.

Organizations like Illinois Women in Cannabis (IWC) work to empower those traditionally excluded from the male-dominated industry by hosting networking events and educational opportunities. 

“It meets an important need that actually doesn’t exist in Illinois, in Chicago or actually, nationwide within the cannabis community,” said Cindy Kosydor, IWC board member and chief strategist at Cindy K’s Shop.

IWC’s annual conference on March 25 focused on gender equity in the industry through panels led by women from all facets of cannabis, from entrepreneurs to marketers to policy makers and researchers. According to IWC reps, the event was at capacity with around 400 people in attendance.

The conference opened in a small auditorium at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Based on a show of hands from the crowd when Toi Hutchinson, former Illinois Senator and current president and CEO of Marijuana Policy Project asked, it was the first time at the conference for many of the attendees, illustrating the eagerness to learn and meet others in the industry.

Many in the crowd echoed the need for diversifying the cannabis workforce.

“We want inclusive hiring… we want women to fill those roles…,” said Amor Montes de Oca, executive director of IWC, in her opening remarks. 

The organization also emphasized the range of opportunities for people to become involved, most of which do not involve plant-touching. 

“This is an ecosystem that’s going to need what every other industry needs – lawyers, accountants, lounges, deliveries,” Hutchinson said. “Anything you’re good at can be brought to this sector.” 

Hannah Vysoky’s background involves being a legal assistant and barista. When she decided to rebrand as a cannabis writer, she took to social media to make the change happen.

“Truthfully, I started a LinkedIn profile two years ago and said I want to be a writer in the cannabis industry, and I started connecting with people, leaving comments, and before you know it, two years later I’m a communications director for a digital marketing agency,” she explained, citing LinkedIn as a one of the most “cannabis friendly” platforms.

For those looking for a more guided route, IWC hosts a mentorship program to assist women interested in joining the industry. Through the learning curve, they are able to familiarize themselves with corporate protocol and network with others already established in their cannabis careers.

Kosydor explained that there are many untapped markets in cannabis, including jobs that people wouldn’t necessarily think of, like obtaining a housekeeping or construction contract with a cannabis company.

“In every other industry you need trash haul, you need recycling, you need cleaning, you need PPE, I mean you need all of that just like you need office supplies for an office, and those are starting to go to women and minorities,” she said. 

Hutchinson explained in her speech, equity doesn’t come easy, “you have to continually work at this. We’re birthing a new industry… and labor is hard.”