These women are leading Michigan’s legal cannabis industry

Published on December 3, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Jessica Finch of Michigan NORML: Cannabis improved her health, social justice concerns inspired her to change laws. (Brittany Greeson for Leafly)

As Michigan’s dramatic struggle to end cannabis prohibition finally comes to a close, an interesting thing has happened to the state’s newest legal industry: It has a lot of women. Specifically: powerful, influential women.

By the numbers, women may not yet make up the majority of Michigan’s marijuana investors, ancillary service providers, and business owners, but there’s clearly a higher ratio of women in cannabis than there are in many of the state’s legacy industries like automotive and manufacturing.

Judy Rinkus, founder of Seed to Sale Funding, at home in Troy, Michigan: ‘Do what you love. The money will follow.’ (Brittany Greeson for Leafly)

And women in cannabis occupy positions of power. That means political power, lending power, and the subtle power contained in professional networks and investment portfolios.

Michigan women in cannabis tend to value collaboration, strategy, pragmatism, directness, and a mission-oriented drive. I’ve gathered together revealing insights from nine women who have made a considerable impact on the state’s industry.

Tami VandenBerg, a board member of MiLegalize and co-chair of the West Michigan Cannabis Guild: Her experience as a social worker drove her drug reform activism. (Brittany Greeson for Leafly)

Q: How did you get into this?

Robin Schneider, executive director, Michigan Cannabis Industry Association:

I had family members who were incarcerated for cannabis. The raids, incarcerations, and aftermath were incredibly difficult for my entire family. I experienced years of trauma and abuse.

As children, we were terrified of law enforcement. We were careful with what we said, and we kept a lot of secrets. We were always afraid the cops might come back. I had the realization early on that sending parents to prison for a substance as harmless as cannabis was particularly devastating to children—including myself. So I dedicated my life to ending cannabis prohibition.

I now have a front row seat to watch the legal regulated market grow as the war on cannabis diminishes. It’s given me a lot of closure.

Tami VandenBerg,MILegalize board member, West Michigan Cannabis Guild co-founder, co-owner of the Grand Rapids bars The Pyramid Scheme and The Meanwhile:

I became interested in drug policy reform when I was a social worker. I worked with people living on the streets, and I saw massive disparities in terms of who was arrested and charged with drug possession, particularly marijuana.

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People of color, particularly our black neighbors, were disproportionately arrested and charged. That created all kinds of barriers to housing, education, custody, and income.

In 2010, I served as part of the leadership of the Decriminalize GR campaign, which decriminalized small amounts of marijuana in Grand Rapids. In 2018 I joined the board of MILegalize, a group that advocated for Proposal 1, Michigan’s adult-use legalization measure. Earlier this year, I co-founded the West Michigan Cannabis Guild to help organize the industry and become a political force for changing more cannabis laws.

'I dedicated my life to ending cannabis prohibition. Now I have a front row seat to watch the legal regulated market grow.'

Jessica Finch, board member, Michigan NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws):

My husband moved to Michigan in order to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program. Shortly after we met, he encouraged me to try cannabis to help alleviate symptoms of Crohn’s Disease. Not only did I see improvement in my Crohn’s, but I also enjoyed the relaxing effect of cannabis after long stressful days. That piqued my interest in cannabis as a natural health aid.

What led me to dive into cannabis advocacy was a screening of the film, The House I Live In,  a documentary about the true cost of America’s war on drugs. I was a changed person after viewing that film. From that moment on, I devoted my resources to participating in Michigan’s legalization efforts.

Cathleen Graham, RN CHPN, founder and CEO of Cannabis Nurse:

As an RN/Case Manager for one of the nation’s largest hospice programs, I cared for patients throughout the state. I’ve been directly involved with the care of many Michigan patients whose end-of-life journey was significantly improved by the use of medical cannabis.

At the same time, I saw the problems caused by product inconsistency. We didn’t have lab-validated ingredient labeling. Advocating for that change is what got me involved in the cannabis industry.

Judy Rinkus, founder of Seed to Sale Funding, and CEO of the Vortex Group:

I spent 30 years in the commercial lending departments of larger banks. I left the banking industry almost 2 years ago. I was tired of working for The Man—quite literally, since most of my managers were men. I spent some time finding an industry where I could put my financial skills, business development skills, and extensive network of business professionals to good use.

Fast forward to last November, when recreational marijuana was legalized in Michigan. I started receiving questions from business contacts regarding financing early-stage marijuana companies. As you probably know, banks won’t lend to these companies. Through series of connections, I was able to identify a group of about 20 non-bank lenders who were interested in the Michigan market.  And before I knew it, I had a pipeline!

Roberta King, owner/writer/buzzmaker, Canna Communication:

I’m probably older than most women in cannabis and more traditional in my career path. As I looked toward the last five years of my work life, I knew I wanted a change.

As I observed cannabis evolving in Michigan, I saw myself helping grow businesses through public relations strategies. I quit my job and launched Canna Communication in August 2017.

Jamie Cooper, founder of Cannabiz Connection, publisher of Sensi magazine:

I moved to Michigan from Colorado in November 2014, the same year that recreational cannabis stores opened in Colorado.

In the process of researching how to get my medical marijuana card, I started looking at business opportunities in cannabis as well.

I worked in Colorado’s ski industry, so I knew I was going to have to make a career change once I got to Michigan.

In the process of researching how to get my medical marijuana card, I started looking at business opportunities in cannabis as well. I knew I needed to get some cannabis industry experience, so I reached out to Michigan NORML and volunteered to do some social media work for them. I then started a Women Grow Chapter in Grand Rapids, and shortly after started a marketing company for the cannabis industry, which eventually transitioned into Cannabiz Connection.

Connie Maxim-Sparrow, principal, Sparrow Consulting:

I fell into the cannabis space. Shortly after starting Sparrow Consulting as a one-man band, I did a lot of freelance contract work, mostly focused on grant administration and management. I received a lead from a caregiver who was interested in growing hops and wanted to pursue a USDA grant. At the time I was under contract to administer Muskegon County’s Medical Marijuana Oversight and Education grants, so I was aware of the state’s new medical marijuana regulations. I suggested to the caregiver that he jump onboard the new medical laws. Word of mouth spread pretty fast. I took on two cannabis clients in the fall of 2017. By the summer of 2018, my firm had transitioned over to all cannabis-related contracts.

Hilary Dulaney, founder and operations director, Accuvape, AutoFlower:

I got in after Michigan’s medical marijuana law passed in 2008. I love building things. I have experience helping people build their business from the ground level, and I saw this as an opportunity to do things that nobody had ever done before. I did the first expo in Michigan with a group of people, started the first cannabis business journal, expanded it to 13 states, was a recreational processor in Oregon, started the first Michigan-based cannabis company to be sold to a publicly traded company, and am soon to be a licensed vertical owner in Michigan.

Connie Maxim-Sparrow of Sparrow Consulting, at home in Muskegon, Michigan: ‘Reach out. Ask Questions. Get involved.’ (Brittany Greeson for Leafly)

Q: What work are you most proud of?

Robin Schneider: I’m most proud of my role as finance director for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. I was initially resistant to the idea of being the campaign’s fundraiser. I’d worked on political campaigns, but I had no fundraising experience. The team told me the fundraiser was the campaign’s most important role, and that I had been chosen because they trusted me. So I ran with it. We went on to raise millions of dollars and ultimately legalized cannabis in Michigan. That two-year campaign was physically and emotionally the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career. But I’d do it all over again.

Tami VandenBerg: I’m extremely proud of the risk I took to join Decriminalize GR in 2012.

'Grand Rapids has a conservative reputation. The city leadership thought we were crazy. We won overwhelmingly.'

Grand Rapids has a very conservative reputation. Much of the city leadership thought we were crazy and radical and would never win. We won overwhelmingly.

I’m also proud of my work with MILegalize. Myself and a colleague represented the entire southwest side of Michigan. We debated the Kent County Prosecutor on TV and at a public forum. The former Attorney General of Colorado also debated us, and we had an excellent showing. I’m also proud of my courage. So many folks who believed marijuana policy reform was the right thing to do wouldn’t come out publicly. They were scared of losing jobs, contracts, and income.

Jessica Finch: My activism has centered around protections for consumers and “the little guy.” There are people in Michigan who have been advocating for cannabis longer than I’ve been alive. The work Michiganders have done on cannabis reform for decades is the reason that outside investors came to the state and have opportunity to cash in, not in spite of it. They are standing on the shoulders of giants. My work will evolve into making sure big business doesn’t lobby to remove the caregiver program, microbusiness licenses or our ability to grow 12 plants at home.

Cathleen Graham: I’m excited that the courses I created for educating nurses about medical cannabis are now accredited for continuing education credit. That’s given us the opportunity to educate hospice care teams statewide.

For eight years, I had spoken with senior management of our company about the need to provide unbiased cannabis education to our staff, to change internal policies to reflect current state law, and to provide education to patients who want to know about cannabis. To be the one bringing that education to my organization is a dream come true!

Judy Rinkus: The loans I provide are helping to build the Michigan economy at large, not just in cannabis. The companies whose loans I arrange build buildings, employ people, pay taxes, and support their own communities. It’s the essence of corporate sustainability!

Roberta King: Two things. I helped a client win a municipal vote regarding medical marijuana zoning. It involved a lot of education and responding to people’s concerns and a ton of yard signs! Over the last two years I helped position a legal client as an expert source for the media—which helped grow their firm and built traffic on their website. I love quantifiable results.

Jamie Cooper: I am most proud of my work of helping open up some of the municipalities in Michigan. In 2016, when the Michigan legislature passed the Medical Marijuana Facilities Licensing Act, I started taking on work on behalf of licensees, presenting to municipalities and helping them understand the new law, and helping them write ordinances that made them comfortable with cannabis businesses in their communities. I presented to dozens of municipalities throughout the state, and a majority of them opted in.

Hilary Dulaney: I’m kind of proud of everything I’ve done…Everything that I did, I was able to be massively creative, and to do things that had never been done before. So as hard as this road has been—and I really have to be a masochist for what I’ve gone through—I had the freedom to literally do whatever I wanted, because there was no roadmap. I saw a need, I saw a hole, and I worked on filling it. That’s the coolest thing about my career in this industry.

Connie Maxim-Sparrow: Sparrow Consulting remains at a 95% success rate with both local and state application submissions. With over 50 clients, and more than 100 local and state application submissions, we are the standard of excellence in licensing and compliance. I would say that is about as good as it gets. I have built a company from the ground up that is exemplary, with a track record that stands for itself. I am not sure how many other consulting firms in the state can say the same thing.

Michigan Cannabis Industry Association Executive Director Robin Schneider in her office across from the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan: ‘When women put their differences aside and work together we can fix anything.’ (Brittany Greeson for Leafly)

Q: How do women operate differently in the cannabis industry?

Robin Schneider: Earlier this year I met with a female cannabis executive. I told her why I wasn’t pleased with the ethics of her company. She put her hand on top of mine and said “Woman to woman, I’m here now and we can fix this moving forward. If you’ll have my back I’ll have yours.” When women put their differences aside and work together we can fix anything.

Tami VandenBerg: I’ve noticed a strong kinship among the women in the industry. We are fighters. We are willing to speak up when others have not. And we’ve been knocked around for it. We’ve been called names and threatened, so we have each other’s back. We tend to be very grateful to each other for standing tall and telling the truth.

Cathleen Graham: The first women in the cannabis business were met by a tough old-boys network that showed them little respect. Times are changing. That old style is less and less relevant to today’s modern cannabis world. This is a new industry where few of the participants know each other, so networking—which many women are great at—is an essential skill. And I think we demonstrate more concern about the patient and consumer than the short-term bottom line.

Judy Rinkus: Commercial lending is a very male-dominated, macho world. It’s difficult to play on a level field with a bunch of guys who have made all the rules. In my little portion of the cannabis industry, some of this is unchanged, because most of my direct lenders are male. So I like to think of myself as a bridge between the women in this industry and the “money guys.”

Roberta King: Many women, including me, believe we can do it all. Some of that thinking comes from the industry being immature and every person scrapping for any kind of work that comes their way. I’ve stopped doing the wide reach and am now focusing on what I do best—public relations and the tactics that fall under that umbrella.

Jamie Cooper: Women are naturally nurturers. We’re quick to step up and help other women who are facing challenges. Let’s be honest: Men aren’t quick to ask for help.

Hilary Dulaney: One thing I’ve notice with some of the women I’m working with right now: They’re very straightforward, and I appreciate that immensely. I feel like women understand that this is a real opportunity. Nothing comes easy, nothing’s ever going to be handed to us, but this is our opportunity to get in at the ground floor and have a really fighting chance.

Jessica Finch of Michigan NORML: Fighting for consumers and independent businesspeople. (Brittany Greeson for Leafly)

Q: What’s your advice to young women considering a career in cannabis?

Robin Schneider: Nothing is impossible if you are willing to work hard enough for it. If you want in you better go all in and you are absolutely capable of being a successful woman in this industry. Be strong and do not let anyone take advantage of you. Don’t forget to build your army of women on your way to success. Women who empower other women instead of competing with them will always be more successful.

Tami VandenBerg: This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. I would encourage women interested in cannabis careers to show up to events, conferences, meetings. Get to know the people who helped to create these opportunities. If you start showing up for other women, supporting them, helping out, they will likely be there for you. If you are in West Michigan, join our Guild—we have a phenomenal network of folks.

Jessica Finch: Cannabis can be a fun industry but it is still work—hard work—especially when everyone is still a trailblazer. Make sure you don’t get trapped in a certain professional “circle.” Move in multiple circles and learn from others. That will make you valuable. Stay above the pettiness, check your ego, know when to lead and when to follow. Most importantly: Stay true to yourself.

Roberta King: Become a physician, pharmacist or a nurse. We so badly need healthcare professionals who understand and believe in cannabis. Even with recreational adult use open here, cannabis is still medicine.

Hilary Dulaney: Find the holes that exist in the market, and fill them. There are a lot of holes right now. All we have to do is pay attention to what’s happening in the industry around us. Pick one and dedicate yourself.

Judy Rinkus: Do what you love. The money will follow.  If you go after the money first you will always be miserable.

Connie Maxim-Sparrow: My advice: Reach out to the women in this article. Ask questions. Get involved. Seek out internships. Learn. Every woman in this article is willing to pass the torch onto the next generation. We want to share. Just ask us.

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Marjorie Steele
Marjorie Steele
Marjorie Steele is an independent journalist, poet, and adjunct faculty member at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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