Embryonic industries such as commercial cannabis typically attract professionals who no longer care to work within the status quo.

In Illinois, pioneers who piloted medical marijuana programs a half decade ago are now welcoming second movers – no longer stunted by stigma – who believe there is money to be made doing something cool.

“Part of what makes our events so successful is that there just isn’t a type,” explains Dina Rollman, founder and president of Illinois Women in Cannabis (IWC). 

“First-timers typically walk into our events carefully, not sure who’s in the room. Then they look around, take a deep breath, and smile.”

Rollman, who co-founded IWC in 2015 with Wendy Berger, is the senior vice president of regulatory and government affairs for Chicago-based Green Thumb Industries (GTI). She will moderate one of six breakout panels at the Equal Opportunity in the Cannabis Industry conference IWC is hosting on February 22 at Kent Law School.

After a 15-year career in commercial litigation, Rollman was recruited by GTI co-founder and CEO Ben Kovler in 2015 to help write dispensary applications for the company, which is now publicly traded and cultivates, processes and merchandises cannabis in multiple states.

While traveling to Colorado in those early days, she observed “a lot of white men” running the companies that were created to take advantage of Colorado’s first to go legal market opportunities.

“There was no diversity at all,” she said.

The February 22 event will feature a keynote presentation by Illinois State Senator Celina Villanueva, and include smaller sessions ranging from “Practical Legal Issues in the Cannabis Industry” to “Social Equity Opportunities and Resources.” Cannabis culinary celebrities Mindy Segal of Mindy’s Edibles and Joline Rivera of Kitchen Toke will also be on hand.

A 2020 goal for her organization is to create more opportunities for women to sit on cannabis company board seats. Berger is a board director at GTI. Cresco Labs, the other publicly traded cannabis company in Illinois, lists all male directors on its website.

Men are of course invited, and typically comprise about half the audience of IWC education and networking events.

A notable topic discussed at events is the fact that the fastest growing demographic cohort of medical and recreational cannabis consumption is women over the age of 45. Companies with representative C-suites, it seems, should benefit from commercial competitive advantages.

“We are seeing a shift in society as a whole,” says IWC director Carrie Armour, “As these companies are forming, this is a great time for them to meet the moment.”

Armour, a former senior legislative attorney with the American Medical Association who now advocates for dozens of commercial cannabis companies, is now seeing professionals from advertising, security, accounting and a myriad of other industries bring energy and expertise to this new sector.

“Many people have taken off time in their careers and are looking to get back into a professional space,” she said. “There is a ton of curiosity and desire to collaborate.”

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.