Your Take: Cannabis Conferences Can't Call Themselves Inclusive - Yet

Narmin Jarrous provides insight on how the industry can improve.

Narmin Jarrous is the chief development officer at Exclusive Brands and executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Michigan. She was also recognized as one of Crain’s Detroit’s 40 under 40 earlier this year.

Narmin Jarrous,
Narmin Jarrous

The cannabis industry is often seen as an innovative market, one that can show other sectors a thing or two regarding business operations as well as inclusion and equity. While it’s possible, the current trajectory often looks to be more of the same rather than trailblazing.

A perfect example of this troubling trend is found at industry conferences. These gatherings are supposed to feature the best and the brightest from all walks of life. Yet, panels and attendees are often predominantly white males.

Industry events seem to be cashing in by targeting just a small segment of the sector. Why break a model that works?

Conferences and Events Often Lack Inclusion 

Conference attendees who aren’t straight white males typically run into less than favorable experiences in some form or fashion. The slights can vary from unintended unpleasantries to outright disrespect and harassment.

In my own experiences at events, I’ve been incorrectly identified as an unknowing amateur, despite my badge identifying my credentials. As a cannabis industry executive, I would hope that people don’t think I need to be taught basics, like the differences between indica and sativa cultivars. But, unfortunately, this is what happens often to many people at these events.

In other cases, I can go unnoticed despite my best efforts. I’ve often stood at booths hoping to get an exhibitor’s attention to network or discuss a potential partnership. But as a small woman of color at the table, I find that I’m often overlooked. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve been passed over in favor of a guy wearing flashy clothes or a larger man taking up more space. They might be qualified professionals too, but their larger frame and flashy clothes shouldn’t give them priority over anyone.

Waiting is part of the business but feeling uncomfortable at industry events that are meant to connect people, isn’t.

Unfortunately, that is too often the case with party settings where women or other groups are put into uncomfortable positions. You’d think by 2022 that industry parties wouldn’t be held at strip clubs, but they still are. Amazingly, some companies feel these event settings align with inclusion and social equity efforts.

Some posit that not attending is a solution to the situation. But, when these parties are often the place for industry rapport building and deal brokering, those not showing up are often left out. Those that do show up put themselves in a potentially compromising or unsafe position.

Every person should feel that they are part of these conferences. Too often, though, it feels like the Rich White Boys Club is taking over yet another industry with the potential to thrive through diversity. But to cannabis’ credit, the industry and its operators have a storied history of changing the tide on seemingly insurmountable hurdles.

Women-Centric Events Offer Promising Alternatives

Rather than face harassment, mansplaining or being overlooked, women have created events providing what many conferences are missing.

Green Market Report’s Women’s Summit is a perfect example of what’s possible. Women across the cannabis industry joined together to network and learn from one another. The funny thing is that the event wasn’t particularly unique from the current model. Organizers structured the day like other cannabis industry conferences.

What was different was the energy that day. The tension was noticeably out of the room. The space felt safe. That didn’t mean we didn’t have hard conversations, but rather than devolving into combative conversations, criticisms seemed accepted and used to help attendees better understand themselves and their businesses. It was constructive, not combative or focused on self-inflation. Maybe this is because the attendees were speaking to each other rather than at one another.

Even within traditional conferences, attempts are being made to carve out space for women, such as the Empowering Women in Cannabis event at MJBizCon this week. These dedicated spaces can allow for a moment of refuge at events. But when we see areas like that, we should consider why they are so needed. Why would women or people of color need a dedicated space? What can be done so that spaces like that aren’t needed to make people feel welcome or comfortable or safe? How can we turn a Band-Aid into a more permanent solution?

It is refreshing to see alternatives to the traditional conference. However, rather than splintering off, it would be ideal if the current cannabis event leaders bought into the equitable and inclusive vision, going beyond what is often stated in marketing copy and press releases. If able to permeate into the company culture, we may see more inclusive events and additional buy-in from diverse members of the cannabis community that too often feel left out of the discussion.

Until then, women will continue to create the events that the market just isn’t producing.

Creating Safe, Equitable Event Spaces in Cannabis

Rather than focus on capitalism, cannabis conferences need to focus on community and other ethics instilled long before legalization started taking shape.

The boys club and a pay-to-play mentality are so much of what’s wrong with legal cannabis. An industry meant to buck market norms is now being forced into the same square peg. Try as many might, this method will simply not work.

Take a look at states unable to embrace the unlicensed market. The result isn’t a dying underground; it’s a thriving one. The same can and will be said for underrepresented, less-funded voices in cannabis.

Events focusing on women and other groups elevating diversity and social equity are already taking shape. These events demonstrate the potential a mindset shift could have on cannabis conferences. It’s not as if events will lose attendees by targeting a more significant segment of a booming industry. In fact, I bet business would improve if an event targeted a diverse base and provided an equally inclusive series of panelists.

Until the model changes, industry inclusion and diversity proponents should strongly consider their options. Look at the return on investment for the event. Will you meet the right people? Will it advance your business? Or are you just burning money that could be used for improving your business or giving back to the communities around you?

With ample other ways to connect, it’s high time we use our wallets to support inclusive events focused on the safety and betterment of all its guests.

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