It’s tough, if not impossible, to name an industry in which everyone has equal opportunities for employment, wages, and management roles. The members of Women Grow (WG), however, do not want that to be the case in the regulated cannabis sector.

“We’re starting a new industry, and let’s start it on the right foot,” says Shega A’Mula, founder of WG’s Vancouver chapter.

The organization, which began in Denver in 2014 by co-founders Jane West and Jazmin Hupp, is particularly interested in tackling the issue of gender disparity. It suggests that the legal cannabis industry could be the first gender-neutral one, and since it’s a newborn sector, there is a unique opportunity to ensure sexism never ingrains itself at all.

It’s an uphill task, though. The legal marijuana industry is related to a not-so-lawful one where negative female-centric advertising is as much a part of the game as Cheech and Chong. Some of these realities are trying to filter over, making it so women find it more difficult to enter and succeed in the cannabis business.

But Leah Heise, who took over as CEO of WG in 2016, says her organization is working to divorce the industry from the image of the “booth babe” and bring professionalism in its stead.

Women Grow takes a proactive approach to its goals. Each of its 40 chapters, located across the US and Canada, hold monthly meetings to connect, educate, empower, and inspire its members. The organization also holds an annual national summit.

Women Grow Leadership Summit 2016

Networking is a key aspect to these sessions, which can see anywhere from a dozen to 2,000 individuals in attendance. People have found jobs, investors, and employees through their connections, which often span across the organization. A’Mula, who works in community engagement for licensed producer Tweed, found mentors to guide her career. Heise, a regulatory compliance attorney, says WG helped her practice gain $200,000 worth of retainers in three months.

Aside from connections, WG offers a space for members to learn about cannabis and marijuana legislation, as well as openly discuss business trends and industry policies. “It’s a space where women can get their feet wet,” A’Mula explains.

These deliberations have led to real developments in the regulated market, including more equal employment opportunities for women. They’ve also made a difference in how cannabis businesses physically appeal to their customers. A’Mula says business owners are discovering they must present a space that makes cannabis consumption comfortable and attractive to everyone. As such, clean design, good lighting, thoughtfully laid out products, and well-trained staff are more in vogue. “It’s about the consumer,” she explains, adding that women often make the purchasing decisions at home.

Convincing businesses to make legal weed more attractive to the everyday consumer also helps WG in its quest to change the face of a typical cannabis user. “The normalization of it is so important,” says Heise, reiterating that her organization wants to ease the “fear of the suburban mom” that marijuana will turn her kids into the deadbeat stoners depicted in film.

The WG membership—which ranges from professionals to patients, entrepreneurs to academics—reflects the message that cannabis users lead productive, fulfilling, and successful lives. “Women Grow is the best PR campaign that could have ever happened to cannabis,” says A’Mula

Until that public acceptance pervades, however, WG also offers itself as a safe space for marijuana users and those curious about cannabis. Here, anyone can find information, peers, and support without judgement. These messages, goals, and visions truly resonate, Heise says. They’re drawing people to the organization, turning it into what she calls “one of the most recognizable brands in the cannabis industry” in only two years.

Jazmin Hupp, co-founder of Women Grow, at the 2015 Leadership Summit

Of course, the question now is how WG is going to sustain its upward momentum after so much active hypergrowth. One solution Heise sees is to gain control of the brand by developing a fee-based licensing program for new chapters. (Previously, anybody could open one for free). The program will help give WG a more consistent, robust structure by offering new chapters—and those grandfathered in—training and support in the WG message, she says.

It will also provide member benefits such as a flagship store to sell member-made products, and discounts on industry-related services like insurance and virtual assistance. Currently, 541 locales—including several in Europe—have applied to open a chapter under the new regulations. The first of these will open in late 2017.

Another solution Heise sees to maintain WG’s growth is to diversify its membership. This is already happening naturally, with men who support a gender-equal industry flocking to the organization. In fact, Heise says that up to 45 per cent of WG members are now male. She thinks this occurred because the group is one of the few that encourages open discourse, which is attractive and beneficial to anyone in the cannabis business.

Women Grow also actively tries to be a positive space for people of color and those of different sexual orientations and genders. “Companies serving the community should look like the community,” Heise says, adding that diversity brings broad-thinking and strength to the organization. “I’d love to see it [WG] even more diverse.”

These solutions, of course, serve a greater purpose than just expanding the organization. With its renewed strength and focus, WG aims to continue creating an industry in which everyone has equal opportunities. Only time will tell if it can achieve this goal, but WG has already proved that it can instigate real change by bringing pride, purpose, and inspiration to its members. As A’Mula says, “It’s revolutionary.”