10 Cannabis Leaders—And the People Who Inspire Them

It’s 2019 and the cannabis world is finally getting accustomed to hearing from more than just the white male side of the bench. In the cannabis world, the the noise around gender equality is growing to a fever pitch as we carve out space by hand for ourselves, piece by piece. This Women’s History Month, Miss Grass is looking up to our cannabis industry heroes, and by extension, learning who they look up to.

In the spirit of celebrating the women and nonbinary people that make this space so excellent—and in the spirit of paying homage to the game-changers within cannabis—we bring you: the 10 women and nonbinary people making waves in cannabis, and the people they shout out, in turn.

Felicia Carbajal, executive director of The Social Impact Center, community engagement director at Smart Pharm Research Group

Carbajal is a tireless thought leader with strong values and a vision of equality in cannabis and beyond. Working in Los Angeles, across LGBTQ activism and community organizing, they're brought a proud and determined message of diversity to the current conversation.

When asked who inspires them, Carbajal zooms wider. They tell Miss Grass, I have been inspired by too many incredible women and nonbinary individuals to count.

"I think the common thread was that these humans walked it like they talked it—from marriage equality, trans and GNC rights, women’s repro rights, racial justice, fighting for safe access for their children to ending marijuana prohibition—they put their words into action whether it applied to them or not.

"They opted to be an ally, and step up and step back, always honoring, respecting, and including throughout their work.”

Sarah ElSayed, founder and CEO of Grass is Greener Public Relations

Recently, ElSayed worked with California cannabis big shots Flow Kana to announce their big funding round—a great move for sustainability and the overall efficiency of the supply chain. After all, good public relations is one of the major reasons cannabis is having such a moment, and when aligned with activism and commerce, the message is (finally) going the distance. ElSayed is proud to have participated in the normalization of cannabis that has led to its overdue time in the sun.

One of her heroes is cannabis entrepreneur and East Coast figure Shanell Lindsay of Ardent Cannabis, who ElSayed works with professionally at her firm, but looks up to in many ways.

She tells Miss Grass, “Shanel taught me about facing adversity—she sits on the cannabis advisory board, has drafted the Massachusetts recreational laws, and has built a product and brand from the ground up with very limited resources. She stands for equal opportunities for all and has shown me what being a fearless leader is all about.”

This activism inspires ElSayed to continue driving the cannabis industry forward at all levels, “I think that activism will only continue getting more progressive and fearless as time goes on. Cannabis prohibition will be laughable years from now.

"I hope to see everyone, especially the female, nonbinary, and PoC activists that serve as the foundation of this fight, go down in history as the badasses that they are. I also hope they start implementing reparations for those that were negatively, and disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs.”

Blair Augusté, CEO of Founder’s Union

As one of the first equity business owners in California, Augusté runs a distribution company that makes her also one of the only black women to have a wholesale cannabis license. With a forthcoming cultivation project, Augusté hopes to continue to make the Oakland Equity Program work for its residents.

Using cannabis is more than a hobby for Augusté, who navigated the medical side to help provide care for her mother—a figure of support and inspiration who she lost to illness. Augusté is grateful to the plant for aiding end of life care. She tells us, “My mother Diane (April 17 1948 to August 22 2003) was a nanny for over 20 years. She studied early childhood development, holistic mindfulness practices, she had an amazing and priceless way of being able to relate to and understand children.

“She was very passionate about how we care for our youth and how so many young people are being overlooked by society. Throughout my study of the human body (central nervous system, endocrine system, immune system etc.) I’ve learned much more about why my mother was so concerned for children and their well-being, but also why caring for one another is so important at every age and stage of life.”

Augusté’s mother instilled a care for humanity and a strength that does not waver as she works for equality, visibility, and empowerment in her Oakland community and the wider world.

Charlene Caabay, co-founder of The People’s Dispensary

Caabay found some notoriety as the first Filipino American to win on cooking show Chopped. Now, she’s working on many projects with The People’s Dispensary including an edibles line with a nod to her cultural background.

She looks up to, and works side by side with, her best friend and business partner Christine De La Rosa. Caabay says, “Through her words of motivation and encouragement, she has taught me many aspects of business, and being a women of color there are many obstacles that come up, but she has taught me to be strong, be fearless, and GO HARD!”

This relationship has been helping both women break business barriers, Caabay says, “The most important thing she has taught me about myself is that you can obtain anything, if you really want it. You have to just get up and get it yourself.”

Alex Capano, chief science officer of Ananda Hemp

Having just completed a study on full spectrum CBD’s efficacy in opioid use and quality of life outcomes in pain patients, Capano is making medical moves to improve patient care with the help of cannabis and the backing of science.

Her new development, Bliss, is an intimate oil that combines her two expertises, sexual wellness and medical cannabis. Capano is more than a researcher, she is the first doctoral candidate to focus on cannabinoid science at Thomas Jefferson University.

When asked who she is inspired by, Capano looks to her mother. “She instilled in me a considerable drive and constantly encouraged me to achieve my goals,” she says. She made me feel like I could do anything. I felt comfortable taking risks, such as asking to study cannabis in a traditional institution, because of her influence.

"She also demonstrated the value of doing work that helps other people. My mother has given me strength through her actions. She is resilient, hardworking, and kind, and I hope to model even a fraction of her integrity. She's a strong and constant supporter of other women.” 


Cyo Ray Nystrom, CEO and co-founder of Quim

Cyo Nystrom thinks we’re only at the starting line of cannabis’ potential. She’s quick to nod to the continuing injustice in the realms of gender and llaw enforcement, and is hopeful that her brand, Quim Rock, a sexual wellness line that she likens to “an eye cream for your vagina,” will help in some small way break the stigma and taboos that allow injustices and inequality to persist.

Nystrom looks up to Ashley Manta, an educator known as the Cannasexual, “Ashley takes two topics that are so taboo and historically shameful—cannabis and sex—and brings joy, science, knowledge, and most importantly, courageous vulnerability, to the conversation.

It’s a conversation that should’ve been happening all along and its awe-inspiring to watch her lead by example.”

Michelle Lhooq, journalist and rave queen at Weed Rave

As a communicator, Michelle Lhooq brings a destigmatized and pro-party vibe to the cannabis industry, an antidote to the currently buttoned up and corporate industry trend. She created Weed Rave, a party to connect the public with a safe consumption space that focuses on music, atmosphere, and activities, and has a book dropping on 4/20 called Weed: Everything You Want To Know But Are Always Too Stoned To Ask.

Lhooq says that the party girl persona carries a judgement factor not unlike that of the cannabis consumer, and that her mission is to bring it all out into the open. When asked which party girl she’s inspired by, Lhooq goes for the oft-maligned child star fav, Lindsay Lohan.

She says, “She is someone who was ridiculed, and seen as less-than just because she was a party girl who wasn’t afraid to be outrageous and have fun in the public eye. I think a lot of women are treated like this, there’s a really big stigma around party girls, that they can’t be taken seriously, that they’re overly sexual, and Lindsay took that and turned it into a business empire. I really look up to party girls throughout history that have been able to flip the script on what people are saying about them.”

These party girls showed Lhooq that perception is malleable, and that all of us view people through internalized bigotry that we haven’t yet worked on. Even though the Lindsays and Paris’ of the world are straight wealthy white women, they have given Lhooq strength to navigate her experience as a queer woman in a deeper activist sense.

Shabnam Malek and Amanda Conley, partners at Brand & Branch LLP

Law Partners and friends Shabnam Malek and Amanda Conley do everything together, from food and weed adventures to big dreams and even their kids’ playtime. The pair supports the cannabis industry with legal services for businesses and a drive to make space for women, BIPOC, and queer people in this white male dominated era. Their opening of the National Cannabis Bar Association was a huge achievement that opens doors for the industry, especially as it begins to move towards the mainstream.

Malek shares that, “My mom always said that what any one woman achieves becomes part of the wave that propels all women forward. Amanda and I are helping give rise to that wave as we ride it.” She draws strength from the Nobel Peace Prize-winning lawyer, judge, and human rights activist Dr.Shirin Ebadi. “Dr. Ebadi’s work for women’s and children’s rights throughout the world, but in particular in Iran, has been a great inspiration for me,” she says.

“She was removed as a judge in Iran after the 1978 revolution, but she kept fighting for justice, wrote numerous publications and books, and eventually continued to practice law. Stripping women judges of their position is dehumanizing and oppressive, and that Dr. Ebadi continued to fight and work despite these actions is an inspiration to me as a woman and as an attorney. Dr. Ebadi’s work reminds me every day that everything I do can—and will—impact the lives of other women.”

Conley also looks to the bench for her inspo, tagging iconic Ruth Bader Ginsburg as her hero, “RBG is, of course, a feminist icon. She’s had an enormous impact on the rights of women in the US. But what inspires me most about RBG is how she worked within the system—used it, even—to change it.

"As an ACLU attorney advocating for gender equality and women’s rights in the ‘70s, she recognized the difficulty of convincing an all-male Supreme Court to acknowledge and address the ways in which gender discrimination harms women. And so she brought them cases where laws that discriminated on the basis of gender harmed men. And they understood. And now, the Supreme Court reviews laws that discriminate on the basis of gender with heightened scrutiny, which benefits all genders.”

Solonje Burnett, co-founder of Humble Bloom and cannabis activist

It’s not easy to change the conversation in on the East Coast, but Solonje Burnett and her cannasisters at Humble Bloom are chipping away at the stalemate. Humble Bloom is in the midst of a drive for New York State equity, from the first day of cannabis operations, and signing their letter is a small action you can take to support their efforts and the rebuilding of communities affected by the War on Drugs.
Photo: Didem Civginoglu

Burnett owes to cannabis the ability to “authentically live in vibrant color” while disrupting the cannabis stigma, and challenging brands (and people) to open their minds. Her heroes are numerous, and she cites Angela Davis, Serena Williams, and brave everyday women for keeping her going, but a particular hero of note is the inimitable Nina Simone.

Burnett says, “Nina is everything. Bravery, passion, artistry, creativity, poetry, empowerment, commitment toward pushing black liberation through her elevated platform as a real influencer. Today’s influencers mainly push product and ideals for personal gain.

"She was for marginalized people and inspired many through songs of protest. Her words help me dig deeper when overwhelmed. Phrases like “How can you be an artist and not reflect on the times?” or “I’ll tell you what ‘Freedom’ is to me: No fear.”

Her brilliant boldness was stifled in America both creatively and economically due to racism, fragile egos, and big pockets who feared her beliefs would spread. But she pushed onward. She was a rebel with a cause.”

As for the rest of us, taking stock of who has moved the needle is an incredible form of self-reflection that can only bolster your resolve, whatever your life’s path takes. Burnett illustrates that with an incredible quote from Simone, “There's no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.”

Danielle is an New York City-based writer. Off-duty, she enjoys a good cup of coffee, a clean house, cooking gourmet meals, and studying botany, cosmetic chemistry, and natural healing.