As part of my journey to better understand what I want to do next now that I’ve taken a midlife career “pause,” I thought it made sense to talk to other women who’ve made a change. Specifically, women who changed careers in their late 30’s or early 40’s, decided to start their own businesses as part of that change, or went into industries where they had little previous experience. In other words, they overcame their fear of the unknown, believed in themselves and their abilities, took risks, reaped rewards, and were never the same as a result.
This will be an ongoing Q&A series, and to kick it off I spoke with Genifer Murray, a cannabis pioneer, activist and entrepreneur. In 2010, Genifer made a major career change from working in software and real estate to become the founder and CEO of CannLabs, a medical cannabis testing laboratory and one of the first cannabis labs in Colorado. After CannLabs, Genifer founded Carbon Blue Consulting, which provides results-driven science, health and safety, laboratory setup, training, and education intelligence to new and existing cannabis companies.
Genifer recently launched the first handcrafted cannabis inspired jewelry company, GENIFER M, with her father, to start the conversation about cannabis in a fresh way. As the co-founder of GENIFER M, Genifer’s mission is to elevate the way people perceive and interact with cannabis, aiming to educate and empower the shift from “pot culture” to “cannabis couture” through her jewelry. Genifer is also a frequent panelist and speaker at conferences and educational events around the country. She has lectured on cannabis testing at the University of Colorado, and has spoken at trade conventions and symposiums including the Cannabis Investment Conference, Marijuana Business Conference & Expo, the Women Grow Leadership Summit, and the National Cannabis Industry Association’s Cannabis Business Summit & Expo. She is passionate not only about cannabis legalization and education, but about women and their entrepreneurial journey and success.
I was really excited to learn more about Genifer’s journey, how she found her voice as a cannabis activist and entrepreneur and what she’s learned along the way. What follows is a condensed excerpt from our conversation.
Q: I’d love to hear more about your decision to make a career change and move into the cannabis space. What was that journey like?
A: I have a degree in microbiology, and I love science, but I had always worked in sales in several different arenas. I moved out to Arizona in 2004 to get to know my father—I didn’t grow up with him—and my step mother was in real estate. I happened to get my real estate license, and I was doing real estate, but I’ve always been excited about start-ups. I always knew that deep down I was an entrepreneur, but I was scared to do something on my own, which a lot of people are. I want to tell others who may be afraid to start their own company, not to be scared. I hope that by sharing my journey with other women, it will give them the inspiration to start their own and find their true passion.
My start in the cannabis industry began with a casual conversation with a gentlemen in a restaurant. He asked me how I felt about marijuana, specifically about testing it. I put my hand up like I was holding a joint, and I was like, “Testing marijuana?” He said, “No! Just like they test prescription pills for active ingredients. They do the same with marijuana to ensure its quality and aid in medicinal consumption.” Right there, a light bulb went on for me and that’s how my career started.
He and I started the first licensed cannabis testing lab in Colorado, named CannLabs, where I became the first female CEO of a cannabis company. After five successful years, CannLabs shut its doors. I learned the hard way about the importance of selecting the right people to do business with. After losing my company, I began science consulting, following my passion for legalizing and educating on the health benefits of cannabis; this soon lead to lobbying with the National Cannabis Industry Association. I’ve lobbied every year with them nationally and locally [in Colorado]. I was also on the Governor’s Implementation Task Force for Amendment 64 to end prohibition.
When I was lobbying, I wanted people to know why I was standing there at the capitol and why I had a suit on. I looked for cannabis stuff [to wear] and it was all [stereotypical] pot culture. It didn’t represent my style or the proper perception of cannabis: I wanted to elevate the cannabis industry. My father, Glenn Murray, who is a technically trained and industry-recognized gemologist, made me a 2.5 carat diamond pavé lapel pin to wear while lobbying, and GENIFER M was born.
I had never had a diamond in my life! I said to my father, “What am I going to do with this?” and he said, “You’re going to wear it, and wear it proudly.” I did, and it turned into something much more: a way to make a difference and a conversation piece; a non-threatening way to ask me about cannabis. All my friends wanted one, and so we started it as a hobby. It was called Gems by Gen, and then we realized there was nobody in this space and we should go for it. We did, and we rebranded, but my dad wanted to keep my name. We’ve been traveling around and going to cannabis industry expos to get the brand out there, and to let people know I’m still in cannabis and that my role is evolving in the industry.
I’m also a huge women advocate. With an average of 36% of women in leadership and executive positions in this industry, as opposed to women making up 5% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, this will be the first time in history where women can run a billion or trillion dollar business. I want to be part of that, and I want to recruit as many women as I can to be a part of the movement. GENIFER M’s mission is to create a space where women can discuss cannabis in a non-threatening and fashionable way, without the traditional stigma of “pot culture,” because that’s what I’m passionate about as a woman and as a member of the cannabis community. This has always been one of my big missions and GENIFER M allows me to do that and elevate the perception of cannabis.
Q: Would you consider yourself a risk-taker? I’m interested in your decision to move into an industry where there’s still such a stigma attached. What helped you to take the leap?
A: I’m a risk taker by nature. I also didn’t have kids, and I felt like I didn’t have a lot to lose. People were worried that once you got into cannabis and, if it didn’t work out, you couldn’t go back to corporate America. I’ve never had a job where I was blown away and felt like I was making a difference until I launched GENIFER M. Throughout my cannabis career, I personally experienced the stigma of being involved in the industry, and I wanted to change that. Through GENIFER M, I am motivated to start the conversation and help women share their story about cannabis and what it means to them in order to change lives and make a difference, with style and grace.
However, I was “in the closet” for about six months; I was scared to tell people (except my family, who were very supportive), but you realize, “I’m either in, or I’m out.” You cannot have a toe in and a toe out in this industry, so I said, “I’m doing this!” This was after I met several patients, and I felt it was my duty to stick up for these patients that cannot stick up for themselves. That’s when I started posting on Facebook, and I got the most amazing feedback. It’s really been about the patients and just knowing that we have to do this; there is something huge with this plant, and if we don’t do it, who’s going to
Q: How did you think through the financial risk of moving into the cannabis industry and making a career change? Having to suddenly generate your own income is something that holds back many people from starting their own businesses. Was that something you worried about?
A: At the very beginning, when I first started CannLabs, I was more afraid to go to jail. I didn’t have a fortune, just my savings, and I didn’t take a paycheck in the industry for two years. As part of doing the due diligence in the first month, I called DORA (the Department of Regulatory Agencies) to ask about cannabis testing. The person on the other end of the phone said, “It’s illegal and you’ll go to jail.” After that, I started crying, but I pulled through that by talking to other people.
Without the other women in this industry, I would never have made it. That’s why a core group of us in Colorado are so close: we were working together to educate the government, the community, and reverse the stigma in a male-dominated industry. It took special women to really start [the movement] early on. I experienced first-hand the need to change the perception and the importance of working together to make a difference. This passion to educate, empower, and elevate fuels me and my mission to bring more women together through GENIFER M.
Q: Besides the women in the industry and your family, were there other resources that helped to form a support system for you and helped you to become a cannabis entrepreneur?
A: No. There’s a lack of information; it’s a new industry and we’re creating it as we go, but there’s a lack of the basic business information. That’s somewhere I’m going in the future: to help people on the very basic level of “here’s what you need to do.” For example, one of the most important things—it seems so simple—is have your own attorney. I didn’t, and if you have one other person in your company (besides yourself) you need your own attorney. I didn’t know that, and I got super burned. There were no resources, and sometimes when you reached out, people were standoffish because they didn’t want to have anything to do with the industry; not necessarily because of their personal choice, but because of what their clients would think about it, and the stigma associated with the industry as a whole.
Q: I’ve found that there’s very little out there to draw from in terms of the female experience when it comes to having a mindshift to make a career change, whether it’s part of a midlife awakening or not. What was that process like for you?
A: I feel like cannabis represents that mindshift. Now, millennials and future generations aren’t motivated by money. They’re motivated by making a difference and feeling good and having a balanced life. I think that’s extremely important. When I owned CannLabs, for six years I didn’t date, and all I did was that business. It was my baby and everything, and when it was gone, I was lost. I never thought it wouldn’t work out. I think it [the entrepreneurial experience] teaches you resilience and to be aware of opportunity. I never in my life thought I would be in jewelry, but my passion and personal experiences created my entrepreneurial journey and brought me exactly where I needed to be: with GENIFER M and my father, working to make a difference through our luxury and handcrafted jewelry designs.
For women, I want them to know that you can take your skills and move them into this industry. Let’s say you’re an accountant and you want to get into cannabis, but you don’t want to be an accountant. Move into cannabis as an accountant, make some connections and then you can choose whatever you want to do!
Q: What additional advice would you give to women who want to start their own business or move into a new industry like cannabis, especially women in their late 30’s/early 40’s, where it’s common to feel stuck in your career and view making a change as something that’s very risky?
A: Do it! If you can’t quit your job and move into it full time, do part time, do nights, do weekends, and see if it’s for you. Go to some events. In states where it’s not legal, go to advocacy meetings like Marijuana Policy Project meetings.
I think so many of us are on the hamster wheel. We’re just going through the motions, and we’re not aware or paying attention. That is impossible in cannabis. You have to constantly be thinking of new ideas and how to bring the industry forward, and you’re always facing adversity, no matter which state you’re in. I think you’d be silly to not at least check it out and do it part-time if you can’t jump in. If people want a change in life, cannabis is the change that will help improve people’s lives for the better and give them the power to make a difference.
There are so many opportunities because we are literally paving the way. Did you know that the government has a patent on the medicinal benefits of marijuana? Yet it’s a Schedule 1 drug, the same as heroin. How does that make sense? Whether you are against cannabis or not, it is important that you ask yourself if that makes sense. Educating yourself and those around you about the facts and the scientific evidence about the health benefits of marijuana and how it helps save lives is invaluable. It’s time to start the conversation about cannabis.
That’s part of the mission behind the jewelry. We have to be proud and we have to wear it in states where it’s controversial. No matter if people like it or not, they want to ask you about it and talk to you about it.
Q: What has been the most rewarding part of starting two businesses in an industry that was newly forming and then subsequently finding your voice in that industry?
A: There’s so many. When I’m out at events and women and men walk up to me and say, “I’ve been following you for years, and thanks for doing what you do.” They say, “You’ve helped one of my family members get medicine,” or “You’ve helped fight for women’s leadership,” or “Thanks for sharing your story, and now I didn’t do something in business because of what you said.” Especially when I run into women and they’re wearing one of my pieces, and I don’t know them, that’s huge too.That shows me that people are getting involved, and they really want to make a difference.
Q: Did you have any role models that you looked to for guidance or someone that helped you make the career change and get into cannabis?
A: It always goes back to the women in Colorado: having them cry on your shoulder, having you cry on their shoulders, help to solve problems and have each other’s back. In an industry that naturally has some really bad people in it, it’s important to have that core group to go back to get more information and get a back story.
Never in my life would I have thought this would be the case. I was a tomboy growing up, and I got along better with men. When I grew older and realized how hard it is to be a woman, it made me want to give back to women and teach them that one of the reasons we’re not on an equal playing field with men is because we tear each other down instead of lifting each other up. We need to stop waiting for equality and we need to make it happen. We need to pay attention to where our dollars are going. We need to spend money at women-owned companies. Are women on the board? Are women in management? If they’re not, don’t spend your money there.
The industry still has a ways to go when it comes to catering to women. One of the first patients I met, her name was Fran, and she was 69, and she was on the verge of suicide. She said her doctors had given up on her and had given her all of the pain pills they could. Thanks to her son, he told her to look into cannabis. When I asked her about her experience, she said, “It’s been terrible. I had a hard time finding a doctor that was legitimate. I went to a dispensary and they were smoking in there!” This was before there were rules and regulations, and it totally turned her off. Thankfully she met me and some other people, or she would have given up on it, and that’s a tragedy.
This is part of what I’m working on with another pioneer woman in the industry. We’re creating educational curriculums and training, and a lot of it will be geared toward women. We want to give back and get more women in this industry. How are you going to market to women if you don’t have women at the top? You’re not.
Q: Given the focus of this blog, I’m curious if you ever went through a midlife awakening and, if so, what was that like for you? How would you describe the process, and did you come out the other side?
A: Once I got into this industry, I realized what a shell of a woman I was, and that I wasn’t fulfilled. I knew I wasn’t happy with my previous jobs, but it wasn’t until I got into this industry and made such an impact that it resonated. Most of us want to make an impact, whether it’s helping people or animals or whatever the cause, I think most people are driven by making a difference. This industry is all about making a difference, every single day.
My experience was probably after I lost my company. I felt really lost, and had all those thoughts of, “Well, maybe I’m not cut out for business. Maybe this isn’t for me.” I went through all of that doubt and that led to questioning other things. I never wanted kids, but I was terrified that I would be 37 or 40 and all of a sudden would want kids. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but I feel for women in that position and that desperation.
You start to analyze and ask yourself, “What am I doing? What is my purpose?” This industry has given me the love I’ve never had and the camaraderie with women in the workplace that I’ve never had. My midlife crisis involved figuring out how can I live my life in the present moment instead of worrying about the future and where I’m going to be five years from now and all the bullshit that they ask you about in job interviews. Who knows where they’re going to be in five years?
Yes, I had something tragic happen to me, but as the women in this industry reminded me, you’ve got to give yourself a break. It’s going to be fine! Once you have that mindset, it’s no longer about the circumstances of what happened to you, it’s about your thoughts around them. It’s not the end of the world; nothing is. At the end of the day, friends, family and experiences are what matters. That shift is going on. Eckhart Tolle has a great book, “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose,” It’s powerful, and talks about what it means to make this mindshift.
For more information about GENIFER M, or to join the GENIFER M cannabis couture movement, you can visit www.geniferm.com.