As so many have, Renee Gagnon took her first hit of weed when she was a teen. She had just moved to Canada’s British Columbia province, an area famous for its cultivation of the plant. She was a fan but never thought she’d get involved in marijuana professionally and instead “got sucked into the internet and dot-coms and built a whole bunch of start-ups,” says Gagnon. But she did learn about hydroponics on the side as a hobby during that time.
In 2001 Canada legalized medical marijuana, but it wasn’t until 2012 when the country started to change its regulations from a home-grown personal-use model to a commercial-grower model, that Gagnon joined the ranks of cannabis professionals.
“I’d been waiting my whole damn life for a legal opportunity to participate, where I have the government’s protection and permission,” she says. So when the Canadian government announced it was accepting proposals for commercializing medical marijuana, within four hours of the press release, Gagnon faxed in a business plan.
A few years later, she was on top of the medical cannabis industry in Canada. Her company, Thunderbird Biomedical Inc. (now called Emerald Health), was the first publicly traded cannabis company in British Columbia.
Up to that point, Gagnon was still presenting as male, bottling up persistent gender feelings so successfully that she admits, “My therapist and I were both shocked when we arrived at the conclusion I was trans. When that realization hit, that was the ending of the old and the beginning of [the] question mark.”
If Gagnon found herself surprised by the recognition of her true gender, the news was shocking — and unwelcome — to others.
“My spouse did not take it very well, as spouses often do not,” she says. “She outed me to my friends and family and, in her place of anger and pain, created a situation where I had to come out on Facebook.”
The conservative board of her company was all “old straight white guys,” and the financial industry was even worse. So Gagnon made the difficult decision to step down from her leadership role in the company.
What could’ve been a very isolating and alienating experience introduced Gagnon to a whole new community, Women Grow, a group of women in the cannabis industry that at that time numbered around 3,500.
“In the male community, it was ‘We don’t want you to be in here, you’re bringing us all down.’ Women were like ‘How did you do that? You ran a billion-dollar company, what?’” Gagnon remembers. “Suddenly I was valuable, I was appreciated. I was suddenly respected and my advice was sought.”
Some of the women weren’t exactly warm to her, but when it came to talking business, she was right where she needed to be. “We could talk about business and nothing had changed,” she says. Additionally, she was able to confirm the other women’s feelings that they were being denied a seat at the table because of their gender.
Gagnon says she was able to tell the professionals at Women Grow how much gender played a role in traditional corporate success. “Because I had done 48 years on one side of the fence, I could tell them with conclusive proof, ‘It’s being held against you deliberately.’”
Before she came out as trans, Gagnon sat at the head of the table; then she had her seat pulled out from under her. Now she wants it back, and she wants to bring as many women with her as she can.
Gagnon knows that state-level cannabis laws in the U.S. are small fish. She’s waiting for national legalization, and she tells that to every woman who will listen. “The real thing is when the feds hand out the licenses, you want to get one of those. That’s what you’re working towards,” she says. “That’s long-term planning, that’s strategy. That’s maintaining small-scale incremental growth.”
She also wants women to learn as much as they can. While she knows that men may continue to dominate boardrooms and business deals, “no one could block [women] from learning about GMP — good manufacturing processes. Things like how you document, how you control what people do, how you do recalls, all of this documentation and understanding...about technology, about process and control. That was stuff they could learn on their own, read some books, take some courses, and they would be forearmed and ready for federal legalization.”
Gagnon adds, “You learn about packaging, labeling, all the federal stuff. The state stuff will eventually back-end. None of the states will have a say in the outcome. So if you’re not studying the feds, learning how to make a product, learning how to make it in certain environments and in certain ways with certain paperwork, it’s game over.”
She believes that women are uniquely positioned to work in an industry on the verge of regulation.
“If I’m in the regulated space, I don’t want dick-wagging, risk-taking, testosterone-fueled executives making decisions,” Gagnon jokes. “I actually want sober-headed women that know there’s consequences to that. Because women have an additional penalty when they step out of line…[they] learn how to follow rules without asking ‘Why?’” she says. “Women know there’s consequences to everything.”
In the world of corporate competition, privilege can be a detriment, Gagnon believes. “The system promotes fat, lazy, sloth-like activity in corporations,” she argues. “But women don’t have that luxury. They work with less, they have bigger consequences, so from an economic corporate perspective, I think that equity and diversity is business safety. You’re fireproofing your organization, you’re risk-mitigating your organization.”
Now that she’s found her true self and community, Gagnon can’t help but be optimistic.
“Now is the time for queer folk to meet companies as queer folk and make their values of their [own] companies visible,” she says. “Let investors put the dollars behind you. People are doing that now. And be proud, stand out, and speak your values. Let capital decide if that’s a value add. There’s so many niche investors online…they want to see people of color, they want to see the LGBTQ+ community, and that’s where they want to park their money…. This is one of the best times I’ve ever seen in my life to make [entrepreneurial] dreams come true.”