I had the pleasure of interviewing Aliza Pilar Sherman, CEO of Ellementa, Inc., a global network that brings brands together with women interested in cannabis and CBD for health and wellness. She is also the publisher of HerCannaLife.com, a site featuring Q&As with women in the cannabis industry. Before entering the cannabis industry, she helped pioneer the web for women starting in the early 90s when she founded Cybergrrl, Inc. the first woman-owned Internet company, and Webgrrls International, the first global organization helping women succeed in the Internet industry. She is also the author of 11 books including The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit and Social Media Engagement for Dummies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”? How did you first get into this business or get interested in the business?
Mypath into the cannabis industry started with someone asking me for a recommendation about ways to expand their PR business. Over the years, I’ve been paid by clients to anticipate future trends, and at that moment, I was struck by the changes happening in cannabis.
As I began doing further research, I realized that not only was the cannabis industry fascinating and complex — just as the Internet industry was in the early 90s when I started Cybergrrl and Webgrrls — but that cannabis could hold the key to some chronic conditions that were wreaking havoc on my quality of life.
Never one to shy away from talking about difficult topics, I will say that aging is not for the faint of heart, particularly if you want to sleep. I was suffering from menopause-induced insomnia and the lack of sleep triggered my depression and exacerbated my chronic pain stemming from decades of computer use.
I was a wreck. The more I read about the efficacy of cannabis and CBD as anti-inflammatory agents, mood lifters, and sleep aides, I had to face my own fears based on years of misinformation that cannabis was a “gateway drug” and looked into it to improve my health.
The story I tell often is that once I learned about vaporizing flower, I tried it one night, and for the first time in a long time, I slept through the night. I woke up the next morning and started to cry, not from pain but from relief. At that moment, I realized that we’ve all been fed so many lies about cannabis for so long that not only was it hard to find good information about cannabis for one’s health but it was also hard to find female-focused information about this medicinal plant.
So I started interviewing women in the industry about their cannabis journeys and publishing them on HerCannaLife.com and quickly saw that women needed forums where they could speak openly about intimate health issues, hear from other women and experts, and be connected to the best cannabis and CBD brands out there. Ellementa was born.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
One challenge I’ve faced as a cannabis entrepreneur is, “What do I tell my children?” First, though, I had to tackle, “What do I tell my husband?” He is old fashioned and never drank until his 40s and definitely has never touched any drugs stronger than Advil.
I explained what I was building with Ellementa and braced myself for his reaction.
“Well, as long as it doesn’t put our family in any danger, and you’re not selling drugs, then I support you,” he told me. One down, two kids to go.
My kids are 12 and 14. I spoke to many other entrepreneurs and workers in the cannabis industry to find out how they approached the topic of cannabis with their kids. I realized that if we are going to normalize cannabis in our society, we have to speak about it in normal terms. So I told my kids, “Cannabis is medicine, and it is medicine mostly for grown ups. Sometimes, when a child is really sick, they might be given a form of cannabis to help them with a condition like epilepsy. At some point, you may want to try cannabis and it may be helpful to you. But it is best if you don’t try it until you’re 25 years old when your brain is fully formed although technically, it is legal for people to use it in some states at 21.”
I waited for their reaction.
“OK,” was their response. And that was it. They know that I write about and market cannabis for health and wellness. I don’t hide what I do or mask my conversations around them. More often than not, they just roll their eyes when they hear me talking about my company and say, “Oh, it’s that weed thing again.”
This is a far cry from the way people talked about cannabis in the 80s during the War on Drugs. It has been a relief to go from fear-based to wellness-based conversations.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Sometimes, it is hard to express exactly what Ellementa does for women. We can talk about technically what we do: We partner with women in cities around the world to organize local, regular in-person Gatherings bringing women together with experts and brands to talk openly about cannabis wellness.
We’re also a data company, bringing a vibrant community of mature women together to provide feedback and input about cannabis and CBD to brands. And we’re a product discovery company, partnering with top cannabis, CBD, and wellness brands to educate women and give them access to quality products and services.
But the real difference is when a woman attends a Gathering and thinks it will be like any other seminar or workshop on cannabis that she’s attended before only to find out it is an intimate, inspiring, and incredibly powerful experience. Our Gatherings are more “Women’s Circles” than classes or seminars. Women leave these meet ups energized and eager to keep the connection going.
In our overly connected world of smartphones and social networks, coming together in person for an hour or two of conversations with other women fills a burning human need and really is the sweet spot of what Ellementa provides.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s hard to name a single person who helps us along our path. I could point to some of my early mentors including Jerry Colonna, founder of Flatiron Partners, who was a mentor and friend to me in my early years with Cybergrrl, a time that was once exhilarating and terrifying.
Also Terry Wheatley, who has been in the wine industry for many years. I met her at an early BlogHer conference when I was dabbling in Second Life and told her I could throw a virtual wine tasting for her wine brands. She constantly brings me back to an entrepreneurial mindset and always asks me, “So how are you going to make money?”
More recently, I reconnected with Jeanne Sullivan, an early venture capitalist in the Internet industry when I was at Cybergrrl who transitioned into the cannabis industry right before me. She has been a cheerleader of mine for years and has offered friendship and guidance to me throughout this journey.
I’m really grateful to meet so many men and women in the cannabis industry, all of whom have been tremendously generous with their time and very supportive of what we’re building through Ellementa. The cannabis industry today is where the Internet industry was in the early 90s. There’s a very “we’re all in it together” feeling here. Things will eventually change as the bigger corporations come in. But right now, it feels like home.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We’re rolling out products and some interesting initiatives around products. We don’t touch the plant so when I say “product,” I mean non-THC. We do work with brands with flower, concentrates, medicated edibles, tinctures, and topicals, but our interactions are based around providing the best, most relevant information to women about cannabis and CBD.
Our Gatherings are non-consumption events so that women who are not experienced with cannabis aren’t uncomfortable attending. We have a great mix of women in their 20s all the way to women in their 80s attending and exchanging information. I’m excited about the information women in our communities openly share with us about their likes, dislikes, experiences with cannabis and CBD, preferences and needs. I’m always telling women in our network that if we unite our voices, brands will have to pay attention to what we want out of cannabis and CBD products and services and improve their offerings because of us — so everyone benefits.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
3 things that excite me:
1. The transformative powers of cannabis and CBD for our health and wellness and being able to work in an emerging industry to bring better medicine to people.
2. The openness of the people working within the industry — there’s an incredible sense of camaraderie. Less cutthroat, more collaborative, at least in our circles.
3. The amazing opportunities for women to take their talents and skills and translate them to work in the cannabis industry or start a business in the industry.
3 things that concern me:
1. The money grab that takes place in any emerging industry — and watching it start to happen in cannabis. Greed breeds fear and things get ugly.
2. The misguided lawmakers who are still blocking the end of cannabis prohibition and the mixed bag of legalization that is putting good people out of business and leaving many people of color out.
3. The same opportunities that I see now are not going to be available in the same way sooner than we think. When mega corporations come in and take over, they will bring antiquated cultures that are not open, inclusive, or supportive.
Can you share your top “5 things you need to know in order to succeed in the Cannabis industry”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Be transparent. There is a big “trust curve” in this industry — it is hard to gain people’s trust and easy to lose it. Operate with integrity and be transparent about your intentions. I personally have found people to be open but many have been burned already. We are able to work together because both parties are transparent.
2. Be creative. There isn’t a “one size fits all” model in this industry. There is plenty of room to improvise and morph your skills and abilities into valuable assets to work or build a company in the cannabis industry. There’s a lot of room for thinking differently.
3. Be supportive. We’re all struggling in some way, and the best we can do to make sure the cannabis industry succeeds overall is to reach out and bring others up with us and find ways to be supportive of others. For example, we provide opportunities for smaller, women-owned companies to gain exposure through our Ellementa communities in a way that is affordable and helps build their businesses. Because at the end of the day, the more companies that succeed, the bigger the proverbial pie.
4. Teach. When you’re immersed in an industry or a topic, you sometimes forget that most people are not well-versed on the many aspects of cannabis — from legal to the efficacy for treating specific health conditions as well as for overall wellness. We’re all in the same boat of having to educate a whole wave of new consumers and prospective customers who don’t know where to turn. We work with a number of brands who understand that we all have to lead with education to win over customers.
Even experienced cannabis consumers can learn something new. At one of our Ellementa Gatherings, a woman who had been growing cannabis for medical use for years had an “aha” moment after we taught a session on cannabinoids and terpenes. She told the group, “I always liked growing and consuming cannabis because it made me feel better, but I never knew the science behind why it worked so well.”
5. Ask questions. There is still a lot of misinformation floating around on the Internet, and there tends to be a lot of people and publications citing a secondary source instead of going back to the primary source and making sure the information was properly cited. One person’s misinterpretation can suddenly become the data quoted by subsequent publications because nobody is peeling back the layers to the source.
In our experience when people are passionate about what they do they are more successful. Where does you cannabis passion come from?
I’m passionate about empowering women and have been throughout my varied careers. I also have a keen interest in natural remedies and alternative medicines which led me to my passion for bringing better information about cannabis and CBD to women. Why to women? Because we’re at the epicenter of care — we care for our partners, our children, our parents, our circle of friends, our communities.
By empowering women with more accurate information about how to legally, safely, and responsibly incorporate cannabis or CBD into caregiving and self-care, we’re really helping to heal not just women but their families and communities.
Where do you see your business going in the next 5 years? Where do you see the cannabis industry going in the next 5 years?
We see Ellementa as being the first brand women think of when they want to know more about cannabis for health and wellness. We are building not just women’s wellness communities online and in cities around the world but are also connecting women with the experts and brands to help them along their journeys toward wellness through cannabis and CBD. So in 5 years, we’ll be meeting in literally hundreds of cities worldwide.
In 5 years, the cannabis industry will be very different from today, and I’m not so sure that will be a good thing for everyone involved. My hope is that cannabis and CBD will be totally legal and that we’ll all have both in our medicine chests at home and be experiencing greater health and wellbeing because of we understand how to use it.
Are you able to identify any rising stars at your company or in your industry that people need to keep an eye on?
I think every woman who is forging ahead in this industry, taking risks, and building amazing companies are rising stars. I’m excited to see more women — and people of color — breaking through as well.
What growth sectors should most people be paying attention to that they might not be currently?
As I mentioned, paying attention to ancillary businesses is a smart play, especially for investors looking to fund cannabis-related companies. There are a lot of interesting companies, like Ellementa, that sit right outside or around cannabis but have more freedoms and less red tape because we aren’t touching the plant. We support cannabis-touching companies so are an integral part of the industry even if not as “sexy.”
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I’d love to have lunch with Oprah Winfrey. Our paths have almost crossed multiple times. When I was in the tech industry running Cybergrrl, I was almost chosen to train her on how to use the Internet. A friend, Omar Wasow, ended up getting the gig. I was also in negotiations for a Cybergrrl TV show on OWN TV in the very early days of the channel.
I am absolutely certain Oprah is pro-cannabis, and I know she supports women. Envisioning the future of Ellementa, I like to say that “Oprah is talking about us and women are listening.” I want to share a meal with her and let her know why this is going to happen and how many lives she’ll help save because of it.