Canada’s First Female Cannabis CEO on Weed and Wellness

No logo? That’s not the way Alison Gordon’s brain works. Since 2013, she’s been strategizing to rebrand cannabis as a smart lifestyle product—more Goop than Jerry Garcia.

Springboarding off her blockbuster success building the Toronto charity Rethink Breast Cancer and its signature social event The Booby Ball, Gordon was an early player in the booming cannabis community, working with WeedMD before joining 48North, the parent company of licensed cannabis provider DelShen. In May 2017, she was named CEO of 48North, an appointment that made Gordon the first female CEO of a publicly traded cannabis company in Canada.

Gordon spoke to Hempster about her vision for marketing marijuana, how 48North is supporting women-led startups, and what it’s really like to lead a Canadian cannabis conglomerate. “Everything just moves super quickly.”

Women, in our market research, are much more likely to see cannabis as a health and wellness drug. They are larger consumers of natural health medicine, as well as traditional medicine. There’s this openness to this kind of plant-based product, whether it’s for menstrual cramps or for a cream that can help your bruises.

On the recreational side, users come in all shapes and sizes and genders. There was this representation of the culture as being Cheech and Chong and Snoop Dogg. You had this very male sort of stoner image of users.But I knew from my friends and community that some of the most successful people I know are cannabis users.

I started looking at this space as an industry in 2008 when I had a close family member diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. She had never used cannabis before, but she started getting medical cannabis under the old MMAR (Marihuana Medical Access Regulations). I was a recreational user and I thought, this is something that I should be involved in rebranding.

I was watching the industry through the years and in 2013 I decided to look at this more seriously. I started meeting with people who had applications in for the new MMPR (Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations) program. Right away I started to gain a lot of opportunities because I had this perfect storm of marketing and branding and was an entrepreneur. 48North (previously called DelShen Therapeutics) asked me to consult, and eventually the board asked that I step into the CEO position.

Since then, it has just been a complete blur. It feels like 20 years. I am on a plane almost every other week if not a few times a week. Everything just moves super quickly. I have two children so that is a balance.

Being the first female CEO of a publicly traded cannabis company in Canada I think has been an advantage for me, because in this industry you are really trying to differentiate yourself. There are so many of us and we are moving so fast that I stand out from the crowd, which isn’t a bad thing. There is something authentic about what we’re doing. We are really attracted to other companies that are run by women in this space. Not necessarily licensed producers, but people who have an idea or are doing something in the US.

In terms of the meetings that I’m taking especially in the public markets, bankers and that world, it’s predominantly male for sure. When you are at conferences, it’s predominantly male. It’s unfortunate, but that is what it is. The industry is exploding and expanding. As more women come into different roles in the industry, they will rise through the ranks and it will be great. We just launched a scholarship program with [cannabis startup incubator] Leaf Forward. With them we are going to be creating scholarships for early stage cannabis start-ups run by women.

To see around the world cannabis shifting and becoming legal, it’s exciting. The stress levels are definitely high. There’s no down time ever. But to see this industry grow and be part of something so special, that’s really once in a lifetime.