“The reality is women actually run the world,” Ida Nelson told me over the phone last week, which got me laughing and clapping at the same time. Women know this statement as fact, but we still have to prove ourselves and our worth within mostly white, male-dominated industries. Nelson is using the hustle from the pandemic to change that and showcase her strength in entrepreneurship within the cannabis industry, which has grown tremendously in Illinois since the state legalized recreational marijuana in 2020.
While the local cannabis industry has had its own slew of equity and diversity issues and still lacks a Black majority-owed dispensary, women and people of color are slowly climbing the ladder and creating a space for themselves in the industry that’s also climbing at a steep rate, both for its medical and recreational benefits. Less than 2 percent of Illinois dispensary owners were Black or Latino and less than 25 percent were women as of last June, according to a state report. Nationally, the percentage of women in senior-level executive positions at cannabis companies has teetered since 2015 and currently stands at just under 37 percent, according to a 2019 Marijuana Business Daily survey. And it’s still low for people of color: just 4 percent of cannabis business owners and founders are Black, nearly 6 percent are Latino, and just 2 percent identify as Asian, according to a 2017 Marijuana Business daily survey that questioned 567 U.S. marijuana senior executives, owners, and founders.
The global legal marijuana market size is expected to reach $84 billion by 2028, according to a March 2021 report by consulting company Grand View Research, Inc. It’s no surprise the U.S. is leading the charge, as cities and states have legalized recreational marijuana in recent years. Illinois raked in more than $1 billion in legal cannabis sales in 2020 and set yet another marijuana sales record in January, with nearly $89 million in adult-use cannabis purchases in the first month of the year.
Women like Nelson, who is a single mother of five from Lawndale, sees the financial potential in being part of the growing sector, but for the self-described “serial momtrepreneur,” it’s more than just about the money. “Representation is important,” Nelson says. “I feel like right now we are in a Harlem Renaissance as a people. A lot of people are starting to find their voice, find their power, and there has been an uprising in Black power in a positive way.”
Like most folks who sought out new opportunities because of the pandemic, she started two businesses in 2020 and built off her passions of baking, women’s wellness, and community empowerment. After getting laid off from her corporate job in May, she launched Ida’s Artisan Ice Cream & Treats and made a line with organic cannabidiol, or CBD, which was the city’s first local CBD-infused ice cream. The ice cream comes in seven flavors including peach cobbler, caramel crunch, and turtle cheesecake, each with 50 mg of CBD oil, and they are smooth, creamy, very rich, and yes, very relaxing (I ordered five pints). To order some, folks can check out the menu online and then text Nelson at 773-956-3353—she or her daughter will deliver it to you over the weekend.
In December, she rode the wave of her CBD ice cream’s success and founded her solo project called Ida, BE WELL, a cannabis company that sells products like CBD tinctures, chamomile teas, and pre-rolled joints to encourage people to take hold of their wellness naturally. She also aims to provide greater access to cannabis for Black people and educate them about its powers—as well as dismantle the mental health stigma in the Black community.
The company is in its early stages, but the founder hopes to work with local grocery chains to sell her products and hire Black folks from the neighborhood to sell her products so they can gain business experience and build up their community. “I want to educate and empower the people of Lawndale and East Garfield Park to be able to understand the benefits of cannabis or CBD,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know how to even acquire it.”
With the high stress, depression, and PTSD from constant police brutality and violence toward people of color, Nelson saw 2020 as a prime time to start her CBD endeavors. She also wants to change the reputation of Black women.
“When someone says to me, ‘You are such a strong Black woman,’ it’s not a badge of honor,” she says. “I don’t want to be a strong Black woman, I just want to be a woman. It’s important for us to step into our power in an authentic way. We should be able to inspire each other in a way that isn’t inspired by our ability to struggle. I want to unnormalize the struggle.”
Chloe Millard, founder of Rose & Jade, also started her company last year to normalize a different kind of struggle: seeking help to relieve chronic pain, particularly for new mothers. Like Nelson, Millard experienced chronic pain from anxiety, stress, and pandemic life. After her second pregnancy, the 29-year-old was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, an ailment in which discs between the vertebrae of the spine deteriorate or break down. With a professional background in medical devices and pharmaceuticals, she didn’t want to get addicted to narcotic pain meds.
“I really suffered in silence for a while. It was brutal,” says Millard, who recently moved to the western suburbs. “I stumbled upon [CBD] really out of desperation.” She admits that when she discovered CBD, she didn’t know anything about it and had never smoked marijuana. But she started taking oils daily for her pain and anxiety and balancing being a mom. “It gave me my life back,” she says.
Rose & Jade sources cannabis oil from Colorado and sells CBD oil drops, gummies, and bath salts, and even CBD for dogs. Before launching, Millard and her small team—which includes her husband and an assistant—interviewed women around the country to see what they wanted in CBD pain relief. She found that there was a “big silent market” of women who wanted natural assistance but didn’t know where to turn—or who were afraid to speak up because of stereotyped ideas about marijuana.
“There are a lot of women using cannabis and CBD, and I am excited for the day that it won’t be such a hush-hush topic,” she says. “People are ashamed to raise their hands and say, ‘Hey, I need help.'”
As she expands her products to appeal to men and begins working with mom-and-pop vendors nationwide, she also hopes to steer her customers away from alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism and instead highlight the medicinal properties of cannabis, which is largely spearheaded by younger generations. “People are finally noticing CBD is a safe alternative; it’s natural and anxiety-relieving—like, why are we not doing this more?” she says.
Millard sees the women-led growth in the cannabis industry as a reflection of the times, and how people respond to new methods of natural treatment, especially as it gains legal and mainstream traction. And a big part of that is representation: as more women start cannabis businesses, their clients feel more confident in speaking up about their needs. Local entrepreneurs like Millard and Nelson are positively impacting their communities by opening up new doors glittered with hope for better wellness, access, and equality within the industry.
“We cannot wait for someone to say we are enough,” Nelson says. “I need to find some way to empower myself. We can build our own community and lean on one another to heal.” v