In an industry with profound barriers, these Black...

In an industry with profound barriers, these Black women cannabis entrepreneurs are creating new models of leadership

“I’ve opened and run a cannabis business that’s lucrative, so I know how to make this business work. My voice has value.”

A fruitful career as a TV news anchor for Detroit’s ABC affiliate was cut short when Anqunette Sarfoh was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2013 at age 42. The unforgiving disease has limited medical treatment options, so Sarfoh began turning to cannabis to alleviate her symptoms. But the challenges she faced acquiring the plant safely soon led her to recognize a need for a safe, reliable dispensary in her community. 

“I had this privilege to sit in my house and smoke a joint to relieve the pain in my body to live a normal life and not worry about it,” Sarfoh, known as “Q” to her friends, told Detour. “But most Black people can’t do that for fear of getting arrested.”

So in 2018, she co-founded Botaniq Dispensary in Corktown. She was later bought out of the partnership and is planning to reinvest in cannabis with the launch of Qulture Edibles, a line of cannabis edible products, later this year. 

Through the process of opening Botaniq, Sarfoh realized her true calling was helping her community destigmatize cannabis through circulating the information and helping others — especially women of color — navigate the challenges facing cannabis entrepreneurs. She’s become something of a mentor in her community.

As Michigan’s nascent cannabis industry grows, Sarfoh is one of a group of emerging Black women leaders who are creating local support networks and advocating in Lansing as they make inroads into a white- and male-dominated marketplace. For many of these women, their work is grounded in the fraught history of “war on drugs”-era laws that imprisoned their family members for possessing the very plant they are now looking to build a business on.

Anqunette Sarfoh, courtesy of Sarfoh

A cannabis clubhouse that’s welcoming to women at all experience levels

This year, Sarfoh and several friends began hosting an exclusive monthly Q&A session with a group of about 25 local women in a cannabis-friendly Airbnb. They focused on building connections, sharing learnings and keeping the information-spreading going. (Sarfoh plans to restart in-person gatherings this August.)

In these monthly ladies meetings, Sarfoh guides patrons down the rabbit hole of cannabis. Most are experiencing the plant for the first time. The group discusses everything from brewing cannabis teas at home to learning what the cannabinoid system does in your body. Nothing is off-limits in these meetings, which host women from every walk of life and every ethnicity.  

“I knew that people were relying on me for information, because my Facebook Messenger would be jam-packed with people asking questions,” Sarfoh said. She is also a board member of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association. 

Starting a cannabis brand in Michigan is expensive, costing $6,000 for the license application, up to $66,000 in state regulatory assessments and requiring proof of up to $200,000 in capital reserves, in addition to legal fees, real estate, staffing, local fees, insurance and other costs depending on the type of business. 

These financial challenges alone are enough to limit the number of marginalized people entering the cannabis business. It can be especially hard for Black women who may be fearful about the weed business after witnessing how the legal system and drug laws have torn their families apart for generations. 

According to a 2019 Marijuana Business Daily survey, nearly 37% of all senior-level roles in cannabis were occupied by women (the national average for all businesses is 21%). A 2017 survey found that 19% of cannabis establishments were owned by minorities. 

Vetra Stephens in the dispensary she founded. Credit: Darralynn Hutson

Navigating the industry’s ‘wild west’ as a small business owner — and helping the next wave of entrepreneurs

Vetra Stephens opened her first recreational dispensary, 1st Quality Medz, in River Rouge in June of 2018. She came upon the cannabis business after suffering a debilitating illness and finding relief with medicinal cannabis. 

“Starting off we were completely blind, because there’s no business model, it is ever growing and evolving. We just had to step in and we immediately saw the holes and what was needed,” said Stephens. “I went through all of the bumps and lumps so that the next person’s experience will be smooth.” 

Stephens, along with other dispensary owners in the state, had to get creative in positioning herself in the wild wild west of cannabis, where she said she is “still in competition with outlaws.”

“We are still competing with businesses that are selling illegally and getting a large percentage of the cannabis business in this area,” says Stephens. “So we had to create partnerships and solutions that build both communities. I think the powers that be appreciate that — while they’re working in their Lansing offices, those of use are here on the ground working with real customers and dealing with real community issues.”

Stephens knows what it’s like to be the only Black woman or even the only woman in the room, and she understands what her voice means to other Black women in the state who have dreams of building a business in cannabis. She makes time to help those women and believes that there is enough wealth to go around. 

“Because of the inherent struggle that Black women have been through, we believe it’s only right to help someone else coming up,” she told Detour. “I’ve opened and run a cannabis business that’s lucrative, so I know how to make this business work. My voice has value.”

These days, Stephens is a sought-after voice by Lansing’s decision makers, who seek her advice on issues including licensing and regulatory matters.

“They listen to me,” said Stephens. She and her partners are now in the process of opening a new processing center and launching community programs to teach others how to get into the cannabis business. 

Tatiana Grant, courtesy of Stephens

Fighting for a seat at the table, for generations of women

Stephens’ emphasis on mentorship is paying dividends within the community. One of her mentees, Tatiana Grant, started Cultivate MI Solutions in 2019, a public relations firm focused on cannabis industry clients. The move came after Grant secured the only state license offered for event planning with recreational marijuana. An expert in event management, Grant knew what it would mean for a Black woman to hold that license. 

Grant was soon asked to work with a state-sponsored event task force created to help Michigan ease back into event planning after COVID-19. She said she takes the responsibility seriously, as a representative of generations of women whose voices have historically been silenced

“For so long, we have been stigmatized for having this narrow view of cannabis, especially as Black women because our families have been torn apart over drug laws,” said Grant. “That’s why it’s so important that people that look like me are at the table.”

This article was updated to correct the age and date of diagnosis of Anqunette Sarfoh. We regret the error.