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Business Spotlight

The Future is Female in the Canadian Cannabis Industry

Melinda Rombouts is the first female founder and CEO of a Canadian licensed producer. This is her story.

Melinda Rombouts has been working with plants for as long as she can remember. But when she began her career in the greenhouse industry, she never thought she would one day replace seasonal flowers with cannabis plants. “We started off with wholesale in the flower industry and were able to switchover entirely to retail just by self-promotion,” says Rombouts, who studied plant biology at the University of Waterloo. “I wore a lot of hats.”

It’s this same renegade attitude that has built a strong foundation for her newest venture in the world of cannabis. Rombouts’ transition to cannabis was her way of capitalizing on her expertise in horticulture and seizing the opportunity to be involved in a burgeoning industry. She founded Eve & Co in 2013 and has served as CEO ever since, making her the first woman in Canada to both found and run a licensed cannabis company.

Eve & Co — which is licensed under its wholly owned subsidiary, Natural MedCo Ltd. — began growing in 2016 and started off in a 120,000 square-foot greenhouse based in London, ON. The farm has nearly doubled in size since then, and will reach one million square feet next spring.

Breaking the grass ceiling

The disparity between men and women in leadership roles is nothing new, but in the cannabis industry specifically, women face a unique set of challenges. Much of the struggle comes down to financing.

“I really believe the biggest hurdle for women is how we’re viewed as leaders,” says Rombouts. “Bay Street expects me to have the same inflated confidence that men have so they can feel confident in me. But I’m genuine and, perhaps, more humble.”

It hasn’t been easy, but navigating the world of cannabis has had a profound impact on Rombouts. “Now I’m in a position where I’m a lot more forceful. It’s changed me as a person,” she says. Today, her company is one of the largest licensed producers in Canada when it comes to production capacity.

Another aspect of Eve & Co’s success has been Rombouts’ holistic approach to building a team of smart, dedicated, and passionate women. “Most of our leaders are women, including department heads,” she says. “I’m a firm believer that your company is as strong as your weakest person. Build up the talent, grow as a team, and promote from within — that’s what we try to do.”

And even though she’s not the only female entrepreneur in the industry, Rombouts hopes her experience will inspire other women to explore the cannabis sector and realize their potential as leaders. “If I meet another woman in the industry, I’m open to sharing my knowledge with her and helping her achieve her goals,” she says.

Cultivating a culture of confidence

Another one of Eve & Co’s goals is to rewrite the cultural narratives surrounding women and cannabis, and that means promoting honest and scientifically-validated information. The company’s offerings will soon expand to include female-specific products like cannabis-infused creams, lotions, and beauty products.

“We want to change the story of cannabis for women,” says Rombouts. “Whether you’re a soccer mom or a businesswoman, we want all women to feel comfortable, not embarrassed, accessing the medical cannabis products they need.”

She also notes that there are several female-specific health conditions — like pain related to endometriosis and severe menstrual cramps —that medical cannabis products can potentially improve.

“Women are so good at taking care of everyone else’s needs,” she says. “We want to help women take care of their own needs for once.”

It’s clear that thanks to trailblazers like Rombouts, women are very much a part of the conversation as the Canadian cannabis industry evolves. Her advice to budding female entrepreneurs? “Give it 100%, work harder than you ever have before, and expect to move at 100 miles an hour at all times!”

Melissa Vekil

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