Trishelle Kirk always envisioned herself in business either in marketing or finance — but ending up in the world of cannabis was an unexpected turn.
Becoming the chief executive officer in 2021 of one of New Mexico’s most recognizable cannabis companies — Everest Cannabis Co. — was even more unexpected. But Kirk has taken on the task of leading a staff of more than 100 employees across production, manufacturing and retail.
Under her leadership, the business — formerly known as Everest Apothecary — has undergone a rebrand in a shift to serve new customers in the world of recreational cannabis, but also to stay recognizable to its patients under the medical program. Everest has also opened new stores bordering Texas and in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, expanding its footprint.
Kirk is one of many women powering the burgeoning cannabis industry in New Mexico, from those who lead large and small businesses to those working in state government.
“I had never even thought about cannabis. I wasn’t a user. I wasn’t paying attention to the industry,” said Kirk, who began with Everest in 2019 as director of operations.
“I couldn’t have picked a cannabis plant out of a lineup. … (Eventually) I got into it and I just fell in love with the people — both the employees and the customers. And through their passion for the plant, I learned so much about it. I developed my own passion for it.”
Women in the lead?
There’s no surefire answer as to how many women are in executive roles in cannabis in the state.
MJBizDaily, a trade publication with a focus on cannabis, estimated in 2019 that about 36.8% of all executive roles in the industry nationwide were filled by women. That number has dipped, however, to 22.1% as of 2021.
That number is lower than the national average of 29.8% of women in executive roles across all business, according to the report.
Though numbers aren’t available for New Mexico, several of the state’s largest cannabis companies — and even some of the new players to the game — have women leading the charge.
There’s Kirk, along with Ellie Besancon, who is the executive director of Green Goods/Red Barn Growers, which is owned by a multi-state operator; Rachael Speegle, who is the CEO of Verdes Foundation; and, Lori Lindsey and Melinda Bonewell, co-owners of a new, yet-to-open dispensary in Madrid called Mad Reefer, to name a few.
“I’m not surprised,” said Cannabis Control Division director Kristen Thomson when asked her thoughts on the number of women in New Mexico’s newest industry. “We (saw) change in Colorado after the first four years; you started to see a lot more women in the industry. … I think part of that is due to the consumer — the growth population for new cannabis consumers is women.
“I think that market transformation really helped create opportunities for women.”
Indeed, Thomson’s statement holds true. In 2020, new recreational users accounted for 6% of all total users, according to data from the Brightfield Group, a data analytics company in the cannabis space. And of those new users, about 59% of them were women.
Who’s who in NM
Thomson came to New Mexico from Colorado in November to lead the Cannabis Control Division, an arm of the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department that oversees the business of cannabis in New Mexico.
Thomson’s path, unlike some others, was always on the political side of the aisle more so than the business side. She graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in political science before heading off to Washington, D.C. But she came back to Colorado, and in 2009, helped with getting medical cannabis stores legally recognized in the City of Denver following a court decision that moved the medical cannabis program from a caregiver model to a dispensary model. Then she took her fight to the state level.
“I and one other woman were the only people brave enough to take this on,” Thomson said. “There were a lot of lobbyists at that time who had rejected marijuana clients. And we had the ovaries to take it on and we won within one year.”
Thomson eventually went on to work for The Green Solution — the largest cannabis operator in Colorado at the time — still lobbying for the cannabis industry before making the jump to director of the CCD in New Mexico.
Ellie Besancon’s entrance into cannabis is one that some might say is unusual. Besancon had studied English in school and worked in corporate marketing before coming to New Mexico. After a divorce, Besancon joined Red Barn Growers as a budtender. Her passion, though, for cannabis and for growing the company eventually led her to helping the former executive director of the business, Brett Baker, with many tasks.
The company is owned by multi-state operator Vireo Health, which purchased the company in 2019. When that acquisition happened, Besancon made the move from manager to executive director, leading the business’ operations in the state.
“I think because I made myself invaluable to him — and it was a smaller organization — I went from part time to full time to store manager to district manager, overseeing all the stores in a very short amount of time,” Besancon said. “But I think the reason why it worked for me is because my passion for this was off the charts.”
Passion is something Rachael Speegle, CEO of the Verdes Foundation, also has. But Speegle’s passion comes from helping and healing patients of the medical business, being that she has a degree in nursing.
And how she ended up in the medical field before leading the charge at Verdes came from a life-changing moment.
Speegle, who is from New Mexico, grew up a dancer and went to high school out of state at North Carolina School of the Arts, but a back injury from dancing left her bedbound and she graduated high school injured.
She rehabbed her injury, though, and instead of heading to college like most, Speegle went to New York and started dancing professionally with Alvin Ailey and José Limón’s dance studios.
While in New York, she witnessed 9/11 from a few blocks away.
“I was (only) a few blocks away when the buildings collapsed,” Speegle said. “I donated blood immediately. I had blood on me from people in the streets and I was stuck in the city for days.”
Speegle went on to study at a variety of schools before getting a master’s degree in nursing education. She eventually came back to Albuquerque.
But then she met her former husband, Eric Speegle — the president of Verdes — who had a plan to open up a cannabis business in New Mexico. So, Rachael Speegle helped with the business and eventually became the CEO and helped with the company’s recent expansion into Santa Fe. Speegle also aided in more benefits for Verdes employees — from a quarterly bonus, $1,000 educational stipends, paid time off of 112 hours each year and getting all of the employees of Verdes to $40,000 by the end of 2022.
“I pinch myself every day (knowing) that people want to work with me,” Speegle said. “That to me is incredible.”
Though companies such as Everest, Verdes and Red Barn Growers/Green Goods were all established brands under the medical cannabis program before being ushered into the new recreational industry, there are some new players to the game led by women, too.
Take, for instance, the new owners of Mad Reefer — Lindsey, a non-controlling member with 9% ownership, and Bonewell, a majority owner and founder. The married couple came from Seattle, leaving behind their corporate jobs to pursue a life that made them happy.
The company is located in Madrid, where the two have lived and done business going on nearly 20 years. Lindsey and Bonewell own the Mineshaft Tavern, a local brewhouse that serves many tourists, and Cowgirl Red, a boutique that sells women’s clothing, boots and jewelry.
Lindsey also owns adjacent buildings that house the Mineshaft Tavern, one of the spaces which will soon be filled by Mad Reefer. The two expect the business to open in June, pending county approvals.
Both Lindsey and Bonewell call their newest venture into cannabis more “entrepreneurial,” considering the businesses they’ve set up before weren’t new industries to New Mexico.
“It’s going to be fun,” Lindsey said, adding that the business — whose license is listed as Madrid Cannabis Inc. — was also approved for a micro-producer license, allowing the business to also grow cannabis.
Pushing past the patriarchy
Though jobs now exist for women in executive spaces, there is still some work to be done.
Lindsey remembers when she and Bonewell first made the move to Madrid and the backlash that came with two women entrepreneurs looking to shake things up. She couldn’t easily get a loan to purchase Mineshaft.
“We were lucky that we found a local partner financially to be able to get the financing done, but it was very difficult,” she said. “In the beginning, 15 years ago, it was palpable. …I mean, it’s just something that you don’t know the difference because you’re dealing with it every day.
“But back 15 years ago, it was clear that a different set of rules applied whether you were female or male.”
Kirk said she has made it a point to diversify her company’s employee makeup, with about 45% of all employees being women and 47% of women in management positions. Kirk said she understands “imposter syndrome” all too well, questioning herself daily on if she is worthy of her job title — despite some of the large changes Everest has undergone through her leadership.
“I think that especially for women, or people of color, who don’t have any personal examples in their lives of somebody who looked like that, who had that title — I think that can be a really big barrier,” Kirk said. “Where in traditional industries, you’re like, ‘well, management looks like this.’ … We try to create a management structure that has somebody that looks like everybody.”
Kirk acknowledges not all companies operate with that eye for diversity and equity. Sometimes, women have to work harder than their male counterparts to get to a position of leadership.
“I think that even in New Mexico, it feels traditionally like an old boys’ network,” Besancon said. “I’m really proud to be part of this industry and especially to be considered a woman in cannabis. It just feels like we’re kind of leveling the playing field a little bit and opening things up for a lot of folks to come in and grab their piece.”
Besancon said it’s important for women looking to enter executive roles in the cannabis industry to have thick skin and to not stop when the going gets tough. In fact, that’s what most women in these roles say.
“Be like the desert creatures in New Mexico,” Besancon said. “Have prickly spines, have a leather exterior, but you know, just like a cactus, if you keep working at it, you get to the sweet succulent center. That is so worthwhile.”