Friends in High Places: The Women Helping You Land a Job in the Weed Industry
What's it like to do HR for the cannabis industry? We spoke to several women in the field to find out.
Photo by Mihael Blikshteyn via Stocksy
What could prompt an ultra-vanilla, Dallas-adjacent suburban soccer mom to leave a cushy corporate job—complete with a six-figure salary—to branch out on her own in the fairly saturated world of human resources?
When state legislation liberalizing medical cannabis use passed in 2015—starting next year, Texas residents with intractable epilepsy will be able to access low-THC/high-CBD oil—Lori Strubbe knew it was time to make a move.
"I wanted to go on my own and [start] a recruiting company and HR services, and, you know, [human resources] is a saturated market," Strubbe, 49, explained. In order to differentiate herself from other HR consultants, she needed to find an underserved market—or an entirely new market altogether. That's when she discovered cannabis.
With community guidance from Women Grow and business mentorship from the Texas Cannabis Industry Association (TCIA), Strubbe started Looking Glass Recruiting in 2015. Via Looking Glass, she connects job seekers with employers. She also helps both parties navigate the sticking points that occur when corporate America collides with an increasingly vocal marijuana-positive public.
"I've had to have some fierce—meaning 'authentic'—conversations with clients," Strubbe shared, describing one especially tricky situation: a young woman in IT who was both qualified for a career-advancing job and an outspoken marijuana advocate.
"She let her passion get ahead of her intellect and get a little ahead of where we are as a society, especially as a corporate society," Strubbe explained, highlighting the very real disconnects between corporate culture and the steadily increasing acceptance of cannabis in just about every other corner of public life. Companies are not obligated to hire anyone, regardless of their qualifications, putting workers (including workers like Strubbe) in a challenging double bind: To some, it's still not OK to be a cannabis advocate and a "professional."
In spite of the tenacity required to branch out into a stigmatized marketplace a notoriously conservative state, Strubbe repeatedly described herself as the opposite of edgy or cool. She's also not a cannabis consumer. "I started [Looking Glass] simply because I did my research and, in doing my research, I discovered, Wow, this is a legitimate business opportunity, and there wasn't anybody else paying attention," Strubbe explained. "And so I thought, 'I'm gonna get in on that; that makes a lot of sense.'"
Whether people like it or not, legal cannabis—both medical and recreational—is unarguably on the rise. Colorado is teeming with dispensaries, California is slated to vote in recreational marijuana this fall, and Ohio is about to become the 25th state to legalize medicinal weed. As cannabis permeates US culture and formalizes as an industry, sticking points—both commonplace (How do I find reliable, qualified employees?) and unusual (How do I find reliable qualified employees to work in this highly regulated, often stigmatized industry?)—begin to reveal themselves.
According to Karson Humiston, "The biggest challenge is probably finding reliable people for the lower-end positions: the budtenders and other people who are working in the actual dispensaries." (A "budtender" is like a cannabis barista-slash-sommelier. They work in dispensaries, answering marijuana-specific questions and ringing up purchases in accordance with state law.)
Humiston, 23, is the founder of Vangst Talent, a staffing agency focusing specifically on placing people in cannabis industry jobs in Colorado. Vangst grew out of a student travel business that Humiston started as an undergraduate. The student travelers she was booking needed summer jobs and internships, and, when she noticed a big interest in cannabis-related jobs and internships specifically, she started to refine her focus and specialize.
"I can't tell you how many people I have who tell me, 'I want to get a job where I can work with weed,'" she continued. "And these companies, they get flooded with people who are so passionate about cannabis and want to work with the plant but really don't have the hard skills necessary to do the job."
It's up to Vangst to find qualified people to fill these positions, which, given the intricacies surrounding the state of Colorado's seed-to-sale tracking regulations and purchasing restrictions (among many other things), is not easy. "In this industry, there are so many moving parts," she explained. "You can really mess something up and get in trouble with the state, and so having someone that's capable of working [retail] and someone capable of being a budtender—as crazy as it sounds, budtending is harder."
Today, Vangst employs a team of six, is about to expand to Los Angeles, and has representatives laying groundwork in Nevada. They recently filled a cannabis executive job with a person they headhunted from the pharmaceutical industry—with an annual salary of $175,000.
Though she gets to do a fair amount of wining and dining and negotiating, Humiston says that stigma impacts her work every step of the way, especially with upper-management and executive-level job placements.
"I get a lot of people who say, 'What if this doesn't work out and I want to go get a job with [a mainstream company] and I have a cannabis company on my resume for two years?'" Humiston explained. "That [stigma] is a big deterring factor, but the people who are brave and who jump in right now and take the risk are the ones who are going to be saying ten years from now, 'Thank God I did that.'"
Because the cannabis industry is so new and changing so rapidly, some of the most basic aspects of managing the mechanics of a workplace are challenging for many business owners. According to Chris Holmquist—a senior HR professional with over 15 years of experience in highly regulated government and executive level workplaces, who now works as the Chief People Officer at Highest Reward in Boulder, CO—many in the burgeoning legal weed industry have "lots of talent but are less seasoned in the business world."
According to Holmquist, who got into cannabis via her wife's work in industrial hemp, "HR in the cannabis industry and every other industry—agricultural, retail, and even healthcare—are exactly the same, except that, [because cannabis] is such a new industry, people who are coming into running and leading businesses without the necessary HR experience have this major gap in their administrative toolbox."
Workplace compliance, the less flashy but highly integral part of HR in which Holmquist specializes, helps business owners keep up with constantly changing labor laws and employment standards, as well as things like administration and allocation of employee benefits. "I make sure [our clients] don't have to recreate the wheel and are utilizing established best practices," Holmquist explained.
Along with Highest Reward founder Scott Afable, Holmquist works to make these ends meet. But, like Humiston and Strubbe, Holmquist sees cannabis stigma as big barrier to entry. "One of the challenges I'm seeing in [Colorado] is: How do you get HR professionals past the cannabis gate, to say, 'Hey this is OK, it's not illegal, and what a great career and growth opportunity'?" she said.
The US cannabis industry is essentially hitting puberty as we speak: It's growing rapidly, if a bit awkwardly, and is struggling to keep up with itself. Add drugs to the mix and what you get is a space where innovation and entrepreneurship also come with a sidelong glance at best—and stigma at worst. But there are some ladies in HR looking to challenge those misconceptions.
"[Y]ou know, I mean I could be in the cannabis closet, but I'm not doing anything illegal and I'm not doing anything wrong, and I'm not going to sit back and act like I am," Strubbe asserted. "I have no reason to be ashamed."