After Getting Fired for Vaping on TV, This Woman Built Her Own Cannabis Empire
Starting a company from the bottom-up is no easy feat — and when that company just so happens to be in the cannabis industry, well, let’s just say that the many natural highs are accompanied by quite a few lows.
That’s something Jane West knows firsthand. Dubbed the Martha Stewart of Marijuana, she launched an eponymous cannabis lifestyle brand and founded the cannabis industry’s largest professional female networking organization, Women Grow, in 2014. But the Denver-based entrepreneur’s career path wasn’t always so clear-cut. In fact, Jane West isn’t even her given name; it was an alias that the suburban mom slash corporate event planner adopted to “host cannabis-friendly dinner parties without attracting attention from superiors” at her day job. Despite her efforts to stay under the radar, West’s bosses eventually came across footage of her holding a vape pen on CNBC. Her employment was terminated in early 2014.
West wasn’t thrilled with the turn of events. “People think that it was badass for me to get fired from my corporate job for hosting a weed party, but it didn’t feel very badass. It was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to me,” she tells InStyle. “I woke every single morning, heart racing, thinking, ‘Oh my god, what have I done with my life?’ I had an amazing job that I loved and I got to spend so much time with my kids. Now I was trying to put together a business idea and stay motivated every day, even though I had just gotten fired. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
She decided to plunge headfirst into the cannabis industry, rebranding herself Jane West along the way. “People thought I was crazy to change my professional name, but it felt empowering,” she says. “I had changed everything: my job, my career goals, my habits. Why not change my name? The cannabis industry was a blank slate. I stopped writing off my big ideas as pipe dreams and started putting them into action. I became loud and proud about my legal cannabis consumption. For the first time, I was taking control of every part of my life, and my new name was a daily reminder of that.”
Her initial goal? To become CEO of a product and lifestyle company in the cannabis space. “I wanted to craft beautiful petite water pipes and dugouts that looked like compacts for use on the go, as well as amazing CBD products that enhanced your daily life,” says West. Though she ultimately made it happen, West faced her share of challenges in making her dream a reality. Below, she reveals her biggest sources of inspiration, her goals for overcoming outdated stigmas, and how she managed to secure venture capital — and make millions — in a federally illegal industry.
On the money: West quickly discovered that financing would be her first major hurdle. “I was determined to fund the company in a way so I was in control, building it brick by brick to ensure that my vision was executed and that there weren’t any compromises in quality or style,” she says. “I had to work extra hard to find investors who supported my vision and leadership. In the male-dominated venture capital world, [finding people to invest] in women in general is a challenge. I was asking people to invest not just in a woman, but in a woman working in cannabis. It was maddeningly difficult at times.”
She “fought tooth and nail” to secure financing and, against all odds, successfully launched her company. “Over 2016 and 2017, I raised a million dollars in an industry that is still federally illegal,” she says. “This was before the boom, before everyone said cannabis was the future, before Canada or even California had legalized adult-use cannabis.”
History in the making: When coming up with her new moniker, West thought about strong women who had come before her. She ultimately found inspiration in one of her biggest role models, Mae West. “As a boundary-pushing author, director, playwright, and investor who lived from the 1890s to 1980, she was incredibly innovative and ahead of her time,” says West. “Her first big break came at 38, the same age that my own personal and professional transformation took hold. After reading that she used an alias, Jane Mast, I wondered what her legal name was. I learned it was Mary Jane West, and that’s where I came up with the name of my brand and company. The first time I said, ‘I’m Jane West,’ I knew that was me.”
No doubt about it: As with any industry, confidence is key to succeeding in cannabis. “You need to walk into pivotal meetings and events with confidence,” says West. “You have to act like you own the place and like you’ve been there before. After a big win, walk out like it was the result you expected, like it was exactly what you came to do and that now, you are on to the next challenge.”
Even when she’s not one-hundred percent sure of herself, West does her best to hide it. “We’re constantly tackling big, new challenges that have never been attempted before,” she says. For example, a cannabis-friendly concert series with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at Red Rocks Amphitheatre that she helped organize. “I needed to get buy-in from dozens of skeptical stakeholders to make the event a reality. To do that, I needed to demonstrate the utmost confidence: Of course thousands upon thousands of people who supported both cannabis and the symphony would attend the event. Of course nothing major would go wrong. Deep down, did I have my doubts? Most definitely. But I needed to act like pulling off this type of event was the sort of thing I did all the time. Then, when the concert series ended up being an unqualified success, I was able to act like I knew we were going to pull it off the entire time.”
Bumps in the road: The biggest obstacle West has had to overcome? Her own self-doubt. “I don’t have an MBA or previous experience developing products, and I had no past experience in the cannabis industry other than just being a cannabis user,” she says. “The other obstacle I continually face is the DARE-era mindset and preconceived notions that people have about marijuana and cannabis users that are completely misinformed. As people from all walks of life begin incorporating it into their lives, discovering its health and wellness benefits, and using it to replace alcohol and prescription medications, eyes will open. But we’re not there yet.”
Changing the game: While she’s had plenty of success with her brand, West’s biggest accomplishment to date is launching Women Grow. “When we celebrate women for their achievements, much of the time we focus on how they were able to break into established industries or organizations: ‘She was the first woman to do this;’ ‘She was the first woman to do that,’” she says. “When I got into cannabis, I aimed to help create an industry where we wouldn’t have to recognize the first women to achieve this or that 20 years down the road, because we would instill a sense of inclusion and equal representation from day one. That’s why I founded Women Grow: to bring women from all over the world together in a real and meaningful way, to address diversity and inclusion, and to deal with the discrepancies in our economic system from the very beginning of this nascent industry. The result is that we’ve been able to build a more equitable industry from the ground up — one that we won’t need to fight to break into in the future.”