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A Catalyst for Women, the LGBTQ Community, and Change

A Catalyst for Women, the LGBTQ Community, and Change

Posted: June 22nd, 2020



5 Questions with Joyce Cenali

Joyce Cenali’s central mission is to bring the voices of both women and the LGBTQ community to the forefront in the cannabis business. As a partner and COO at Big Rock Partners, Joyce works tirelessly to both strategically and financially assist female entrepreneurs and members of the LGBTQ community within the cannabis and hospitality industry. As a current board advisor with Access & Innovation and former co-chair for the Sonoma County chapter of Women Grow, Joyce serves as a catalyst for women to influence and succeed in cannabis as she advocates to end the prohibition of cannabis on a national scale. She’s an avid supporter of LADY BUDS, an indie film that features the important LGBTQ history in cannabis, including the community’s role in passing Prop 215 and ushering in the medical marijuana legalization movement during the AIDS crisis 20 years ago.


Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us today, Joyce. You’re so much more than a cannabis business leader. You play a large role and take great pride in advocating for both women and the LGBTQ community to amplify voices within the industry that might otherwise otherwise go unheard. Your mission and passion is reflected in your extensive resume, but what brings you joy on a more personal level?

My name actually derives from the word “Joy” meaning cheerful or merry. I didn’t love my name early in my life because everyone always expected me to be the merriest one in the room, but eventually I came to love that expectation and wore it well. For me, joy is being unabashedly myself amongst my community- dancing in my kitchen or at a small club to a kickass band, enjoying a gorgeous meal with friends and a good bottle of wine, kayaking on a mellow river, reading a book in a hammock, or all of the above and any equivalent with my wife and puppy children.

But even in those moments, at this time in our nation, joy is hard fought. While we all deserve joy, joy is a privilege in itself. And so I have to pose the question back – can any of us truly find joy in this climate in America? The ultimate joy will be when our collective heavy heart lifts because we are able to break down the constant inequities born by our social constructs.

That’s a great point. There is so much work still to be done to break down these social constructs and injustice as we fight for joy on both a personal and community level. At the end of the day, what matters most to you?

I am most passionate about ensuring that cannabis, hemp, and its many derivatives are made as widely accessible as possible.

Cannabis to this day has a huge stigma, despite the medical implications. This is not a stoner industry. This plant offers legitimate medical opportunities, and the hemp plant offers over 50,000+ potential product derivatives. Legends like Charlotte Fiji, Dennis Paron, Mary Jane Rathbun, and Rick Simpson have changed minds by amplifying the reality for many that cannabis can improve lives, offers healthier alternatives to many pharmaceuticals, alcohol and other substances, and eases the growing mental strain of everyday life.

We need to prop up more “Charlottes” in our communities, and we need to do so in an inclusive way—people of color have suffered massive disparities in incarceration and career inhibition. African-Americans are on average 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession. Quite simply, elevating this plant should result in less people of color going to prison for no good reason.

I am equally passionate about accelerating capital support for talented female founders, and it goes somewhat hand-in-hand with my points above. More women need to be entrusted with capital to build this industry, and while there are a fair number of female led cannabis companies that are excelling today, every single one of them is able to raise far less than men and therefore has to stretch their cash on hand 10x or more than their male equivalents. This is not acceptable, and I challenge other investors to step up as we have in supporting equitable distribution of capital.

You touch on the inequalities of incarceration due to race and supporting women in the industry, but what is it like for you yourself to be a female leader in today’s climate?

Female leadership in cannabis is natural due to the most basic premise that the cannabis flower that drives the industry is a feminized plant. There are so many unique traits of this plant that inspire us towards nature, sustenance, and patience.

The onset of California’s medical market in 1996 set forth a cooperative and individualist based program that was to benefit patients across a wide array of medical needs, some severe such as AIDS and cancer, but also including those that affect wide populations such as sleep deprivation, aches and pains, and anxiety. Though not exclusive to female leadership, there was a large subset of female makers that were driven to expand access to their communities in that period, and thus, coming into the legal market framework set forward by Prop 64, many many amazing women were highly active in cannabis. As speculative money has flooded into the space and given the reality that women are far less likely to receive venture capital, that reality has shifted.

At the leadership level, I remain concerned about “token” activity – the token woman, the token person of color, the token LGBTQ team member, etc. It is fair to say that I believe that any and all industries should be balanced and reflect the populations that they seek to serve, and cannabis is no different. Data shows time and time again that balanced and diverse leadership, particularly in consumer product leaning goods categories, affects a wider audience. Money however, often follows relationships and not statistics, and deployments are coated with inherent bias towards the known. Women have been conditioned to be grateful for any seat at the table, but those of us in positions to lead must invite other women to the table. Abby Wombach once stated in a commencement speech at Barnard, “Women have learned that we can be grateful for what we have while also demanding what we deserve.”

The Big Rock founding family was envisioned by a fierce woman and man that do believe in seeing a balance in their community, and I benefit from having their support and that of the greater team. We found each other and all shared an intentional pursuit of love for this plant. Inclusiveness should be the norm and not the exception. You don’t see lists of the top 100 men in cannabis or in business, but you do see these for women leaders and they are constant. I appreciate that this recognition pushes inclusion and of course when I am included, I am flattered. But it also creates divides. The industry will truly be great when the handful of women leaders that exist today find ourselves surrounded by an abundance of women leaders. As Abby Wambach said when she unveiled her Gatorade send-off commercials, “Forget Me… If my name were forgotten, that would mean that the women who came behind me were breaking records, winning championships, and pushing the game to new heights.” It’s nice to be remembered but it is more powerful to pave the way for others.

Speaking of being ‘surrounded by an abundance of women leaders’ we often think of role models and the influence of other strong women in our lives. Growing up, what lessons did you learn from your mother, a mother-like figure, or notable woman in your life?

I am from Atlanta, Georgia and my family is quite conservative though inclusive, but in that “bless your heart” kind of way. Not my mother – my mother’s heart is wide open to new experiences and people and change. Her sense of openness surely rubbed off on me, and that spirit drew me to cannabis likely before I’d want my own future child to partake. The act of mothering allows one to learn so much more about yourself, and perhaps the most important part of being a mother is knowing that opening yourself to your child and accepting them for who they are with no reservations, will afford your child the best chance to walk the world with confidence. I am a gay woman in cannabis and while I may not have a widely supportive family, I have a supportive mother and mother-in-law and wife. That support gave me the confidence early on to enter this space. And now they are learning from me everyday, just as I learn from younger generations and hope to afford that same confidence to them.

So much has changed over the course of our lifetime and while it’s important to lead with experience, it’s just as important to listen to the youth. With this being the 50th anniversary of Pride, can you share what it means to you and who you’d invite to your celebratory dinner from the community and why?

This the 50th anniversary year will of course be quite different from previous, with all events scheduled virtually instead of in-person. I will most certainly miss dancing with all the beautiful people and seeing the rainbow of expressions and smiles in the streets of San Francisco. Pride is always the most colorful and sun-filled weekend in San Francisco. In my twenty years in San Francisco, I don’t recall that it has ever been overcast on Pride weekend. Fact proven: God loves gays.

To my celebratory dinner, I’d invite my amazing wife and friends, and these fierce humans:

Emma Gonzalez and Megan Rapinoe to ensure our activism is in check, Rachel Maddow to provide the fact checking we so desperately need in this climate, Jonathan Van Ness because he makes everyone feel fabulous, Janelle Monae because she can entertain us all night, Kate McKinnon and Margaret Cho to keep the table laughing, Ani Difranco, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls to lead us in the beloved gay singalongs, Mica to join my karaoke rendition of “Lollipop” (look up the SNL Don Cheadle skit featuring this song – you’re welcome), and of course, the entire cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race w/ notably Shangela, Willam, and Latrice Royale. As strong allies are always welcome, we’d save dessert for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Stacey Abrams, Oprah, Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige, the Queen Beyonce, and of course the Obamas.

Wow, that’s an amazing list. Reality TV show pitch? Count us in. Thanks again for your insight, inspiration, and years of dedication not only to the cannabis industry but to making the world a more loving and welcoming place for everyone. If our audience would like to follow along they can keep up with you in the links below.

Follow Joyce and Big Rock: Instagram | Facebook | Linkedin

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