After 10 years in the nascent natural beauty industry, Jessica Assaf, 26, went to Harvard Business School thinking she’d come out with a next-level beauty idea—instead she graduated with a plan for revolutionizing the cannabis product industry, with women at the helm.
We talked to Los Angeles-based Assaf about the billion-dollar “greenrush” of new cannabis-based products coming to market, how she and thousands of other entrepreneurs are making over the plant as a wellness ingredient, and for (ridiculously fascinating) intel on the movement and business she’s coined Cannabis Feminist.
You were in the beauty industry before you went to Harvard Business School [HBS]. How did you land on cannabis as your calling?
Before cannabis, I was a beauty activist for over ten years advocating for safer products. I started the blog, Beauty Lies Truth, with Alexis Krauss [of the band Sleigh Bells] and I have had the privilege to work for some of the best and cleanest beauty brands, including S.W. Basics, EO Products, and OSEA. While at HBS I launched my own line of single-ingredient facial oils called RAW IS EVERYTHING and was on track to continue working in the clean beauty space. I guess I realized that the beauty industry doesn't need me anymore because my favorite brands are thriving on their own.
The cannabis industry is where the natural beauty industry was 10 years ago—underdeveloped and misunderstood.
The cannabis industry is where the natural beauty industry was 10 years ago—underdeveloped and misunderstood. I want to help cannabis become a mainstream, beautifully designed wellness product.
Cannabis has been a big part of my life—I am proud to say that I was the biggest cannabis supporter at Harvard Business School. I believe cannabis helped me get accepted to Harvard Business School, and it certainly helped me graduate and figure out what is next. When I finished business school, I looked in the mirror and realized it was finally time to come out of the cannabis closet.
I have been a cannabis user and advocate for almost ten years. It has been my therapy in many ways, keeping me grounded and calm through the highs and lows of my professional and personal experiences. Though 29 states have legalized cannabis either medically or recreationally, there’s still a social stigma holding cannabis back. Why is it so easy for so many women to get a prescription drug for pain or sleeping issues, yet it is still so difficult to explore the medicinal potential of this plant? Why is it that I am still embarrassed to be the only person eating edibles at a party? I realized that my new mission is to educate women about the health benefits of cannabis and create safe spaces for women to try healthy cannabis products for the first time.
Cannabis is quickly entering the health and wellness space—it's a 2017 wellness trend that's here to stay.
How do you see cannabis products fitting into the health and wellness space?
When you walk into any dispensary in California or Colorado, there are dozens of products that have been clearly developed to improve health and wellness. Both cannabis entrepreneurs and patients are creating higher standards for the potential of cannabis. Products like Mary’s Medicinals’ transdermal patch and Whoopi and Maya's bath soak, for example, are designed specifically to treat pain and heal us. Cannibidiol (CBD) products allow us to experience the healing benefits of cannabis without the psychoactive effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC.)
Many consumers find that these pills, tinctures, and topicals are working better than synthetic, doctor-recommended pharmaceuticals for conditions like epilepsy, PTSD and anxiety. These products are going to continue to revolutionize healthcare and expand our perception of the potential of plant medicine.
For example, I'm working on a cannabis deodorant with Constance Finley of Constance Therapeutics that's for cancer patients.
So back to the focus on women, what exactly is cannabis feminism?
It is a movement of women reclaiming the power of cannabis and returning the plant to its feminine, life-nurturing potential. Essentially, we want to change the face of cannabis and normalize its use so more women are open to exploring the health benefits of the plant. We also want to feminize cannabis and inspire women to build and lead this entirely new industry.
If we do this right, cannabis has the potential to be the first billion-dollar industry run by women.
As women, we have a lot to learn from cannabis. The plant itself is female. In order to bloom, single female flowers come together in clusters to form buds. All crops are kept female through flowering the female clones of one plant, called the Mother. Cannabis contains active compounds that have molecular resemblance to the female hormone, estrogen. The seeds contain gamma linoleic acid, found in human breast milk. I believe that cannabis is a divine gateway towards a new feminism.
You’re saying there are a lot of female synergies. Does cannabis have a traditional medical relationship to women’s health?
Cannabis was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia until 1942, recommended as a medical treatment for a variety of women’s health issues, including childbirth pain, anxiety, and menstrual cramps. In 1970, the masculine, patriarchal medical system reclassified cannabis as a Schedule 1 Drug with no accepted medical benefits. It is still a Schedule 1 Drug, alongside heroin and cocaine, even though the U.S. government owns a patent (Patent 6630507) listing the use of certain cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants. Since cannabis was reclassified from a medicine to a drug, women’s groups like Women Grow, American Cannabis Nurses Association, and CannaMoms have been advocating for a change in public perception so that cannabis can be recognized for its medical potential once again.
And as a business?
Cannabis is a new feminism because women have the opportunity to come together and write the rules for an industry we can control. If we do this right, cannabis has the potential to be the first billion-dollar industry run by women.
Right now more cannabis products are coming to market than ever in history. What can you tell us about this and what do you want to see happen?
We are in the midst of the greenrush, so it is a very exciting time for all cannabis advocates and entrepreneurs—but it is also a critical time for women in the industry. There are many companies making cannabis products for women, but they are not all run by women. I strongly believe that women are best positioned to be developing and designing cannabis products for women. We know what we need, so we should work together to empower women to lead the industry and create revolutionary products for the health of everyone.
Legalization aside, what about smoking? That’s not exactly associated with health and wellness.
What needs to happen is a shift entirely away from the smoking aspect of cannabis. We need to focus on safe application mechanisms and proper dosing. Hmbldt and Pax are two vape companies that are setting the bar for modern design and proper dosing. If we take smoking out of the cannabis conversation, we will be able to reintroduce cannabis as a health product.
I want us to move away from the [marijuana leaf] symbols that have held cannabis back from emerging as a health and wellness product.
So you want to change perception and give cannabis a lifestyle wellness image makeover ?
Yes, I want us to move away from the symbols and stigmas that have held cannabis back from emerging as a health and wellness product. The first thing we need to do is eliminate the green marijuana leaf and create new, sophisticated symbols for cannabis. Many of the products on the market still rely on outdated cannabis branding, and in order to open up more women’s minds to exploring cannabis, we really need to modernize the cannabis experience. For example, women aren’t going to see a wellness product for stress and anxiety for them if it looks like something from a children’s cartoon. It needs to look more like a high-end lifestyle brand, like Sakara Life with their Rest + Relax Hemp Chocolates.
What will your business Cannabis Feminist look like and what experiences do you want to create for women?
Cannabis Feminist is a community for women who want to explore the benefits of cannabis. We are launching women’s circles starting in California where we are inviting women to learn about cannabis, test the best cannabis products together in a safe space, and provide feedback so companies can continue to innovate with women in mind. Not only do I want to change the face of cannabis and shift the conversation towards health and wellness, but I also want to create a new cannabis culture that is feminine, open, and inviting.
Not only do I want to change the face of cannabis and shift the conversation towards health and wellness, but I also want to create a new cannabis culture that is feminine, open, and inviting.
The most exciting part is that we do not have to wait for federal legalization to rebrand cannabis as a health and wellness product. Cannabis advocates all across the country are already doing this. Many natural grocery stores and beauty boutiques are launching CBD products. Thousands of individuals and families have literally relocated to legalized states to access cannabis medicine for epilepsy, cancer, Lyme disease, and chronic pain. But you don’t have to be sick to experience the benefits of cannabis. My goal is to help make healthy cannabis products more accessible and affordable for everyone.
Originally posted January 14, 2017, updated April 19, 2017
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