Antuanette Gomez is not supposed to be here. For more than 110 years, a guiding principle at the National Club in downtown Toronto was women were barred from membership. And the business leaders that were here weren’t dealing in cannabis.
But times have changed. Gomez is here, at the front of a sumptuous meeting room in one of the oldest private clubs in the country, sitting comfortably under six large, gold-framed portraits of long-dead white dudes including Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s seventh Prime Minister. This club has some history.
“Cannabis is an election issue and I think it’s incredibly important we have our voices heard in government.”
The National Club was founded in 1874 in Toronto’s Financial District and in its early years served as the meeting place for a Canadian nationalist movement called Canada First. But that didn’t last long, and soon the club ditched its political leanings, relocated to its current Bay Street home, and became a private meeting place for politicians and business leaders. In 1992, it opened its membership to women.
Gomez is here for the second anniversary of the Toronto chapter of Women Grow, an international organization focused on female entrepreneurs, business development, and leadership in the cannabis industry. Gomez is the director of the Toronto chapter.
Beyond cannabis leadership, she’s also an entrepreneur. In 2015, Gomez launched Pleasure Peaks—“an all-encompassing brand of sex, cannabis, and spirituality”—that offers cannabis products like lubricants and suppositories, as well as workshops and couples retreats focused on sexual liberation.
Upon Pleasure Peaks 2015 launch, Gomez had a difficult time getting any banks or investors or lawyers to take her seriously. Still, she persisted, encouraged by the response her products received from women with endometriosis.
Now, Gomez sits on five boards and has consulted 16 cannabis startups. She’s breathed new life into the Toronto chapter of Women Grow, helping people start businesses, acquire financing, form boards, negotiate deals and more, but another move is on the horizon. Tonight is Gomez’s final event with Women Grow, as she’s shifting her focus to politics and, beginning next month, making a run for Toronto city council.
“Cannabis is an election issue and I think it’s incredibly important we have our voices heard in government,” she says. “We want to address the lack of diversity issues. We want to get minority women involved. We’re going to break barriers.”
It doesn’t feel like politicking when she speaks, doesn’t feel like empty words, and maybe that’s because she can back up what she says. The evidence is everywhere in this room.
According to a Canadian Press poll last summer, only 5% of the board seats at publicly traded cannabis producers are held by women. Women Grow’s mission is to change that fact.
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Farewell Women Grow, Hello Politics
On a Saturday night in late April, the lounge in the National Club is pulsing, servers churn through the room, offering up mini-BLT sandwiches from silver trays, nearby a fireplace roars despite the warming spring temperatures. In the basement, far below the red carpet, shiny shoes and tall stilettos of this room, there’s a wine cellar with more than 40,000 bottles.
Gomez says each Women Grow event in every market is different. “In New York, everyone is in suit and ties and talking about stocks,” she says. “In California, they are having amazing three-course cannabis dinners. Here in Toronto, it was a very interesting time.” In Toronto, investors were not only willing to offer up cash, a scenario that seemed unlikely even a few years ago, but in some cases, they were fighting with each other to get a piece of the emerging women-led companies that was Gomez was shepherding through.
“I grew up thinking that people in government were only men, Caucasian and in suits. I never saw anyone that looked like me.”
For her final act with Women Grow, Gomez is hosting a discussion with Arlene Dickinson, a businesswoman and investor who starred for nine seasons on CBC’s Dragons Den, a predecessor to Shark Tank.
Years ago, in the den, Dickinson turned down some initial cannabis propositions. “It was such a foreign thought,” she tells the room later in the evening. “You guys, of course, knew what was going on and understood the changes that were happening, as investors we were less aware and on top of that, a little bit older and maybe not as open-minded about what could happen in the future as we could have been.” Now Dickinson is on the board of Aphria, the second largest cannabis producer in Canada.
In her discussion with Gomez, Dickinson recounts her own journey in business and marketing, peppering the conversation with encouragement to the entrepreneurs in the room.
“No one will ever stand as tall for your business as you will.”
“You’re going to need your family and friends. You will never build a successful business without them.”
“Be kind to yourself.”
One of her final thoughts is this. “A true entrepreneur never gets there. They never get to the end. The journey is the point. I don’t know what it means to stop, and people don’t always understand that.”
Gomez understands that. And her journey, which has involved tearing down every barrier she has faced, is still far from over.
“I grew up thinking that people in government were only men, Caucasian and in suits,” Gomez says. “That’s basically all I knew about it. I wasn’t very related to it at all. I never saw anyone that looked like me. When we had our first Women Grow market we had all these cannabis entrepreneurs there that weren’t ready to take that first leap, they hadn’t seen someone that looked like them, or they hadn’t had a helping hand, or there was no one to answer their questions. I feel it’s so important to inspire the next generation and have those conversations, to say ‘we support you’ and ‘we can hear you.’”
It is fitting then that the first sentence told Gomez the room, as she stood at the podium of the National Club, in a space where the enterance is divided into two, a separate doorway for women, a remnant from the club’s earlier days, was direct and powerful and encouraging.
“It’s no surprise we ended up here.”