How One Columbian Woman Is Breaking Cannabis Industry's Grass Ceiling
When I first met Bibiana Rojas during business school, she was pursuing the traditional M.B.A. graduate path and joining a top management consulting firm. Ten years have passed and we lost touch. I was surprised to find out that she was back in Colombia and running a medical cannabis business. I sat down with Bibiana to learn about how she became an influencer in this somewhat controversial, fast-growing and very much male-dominated industry.
Miriam Grobman: Bibiana, what was your childhood in Colombia like?
Bibiana Rojas: My father is an entrepreneur and he has had a big influence over me. My mother as well. She’s a tenacious woman who studied at the university while pregnant. She became a manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers back in the 1980s when it wasn’t easy for women. She has shown me that women are amazing and although people may underestimate us, we can be trailblazers! She also taught me the special combination of feminine powers of being charismatic and diplomatic. A smile can help you get more stuff done while making sure that you don’t compromise the task at hand.
Since my family had several businesses we were threatened by the guerilla for years. They put a couple of bombs in our companies. When they tried to kidnap me in 2001, I escaped to the United States and sought political asylum. I then finished my university studies in the United States and pursued a business career in traditional blue-chip companies.
Grobman: When we last saw each other, you were about to start a new job at a management consulting firm in Atlanta. How did you make it back to Colombia and get into medical cannabis?
Rojas: I went back to Colombia in 2013 for the first time when the situation became much safer. I saw the potential of the country and wanted to make a difference there. In 2016, Colombia was legalizing medical cannabis and my family saw an opportunity in this space. I wanted to transition from consulting but wasn’t interested in just taking a strategy or general management role in a company like most of my peers. I decided to rejoin the family business instead. I then started going to conferences and learning about the medicinal benefits of cannabis.
Grobman: Were you worried about the reputational aspect of being involved with this industry?
Rojas: Coming from Colombia, this issue was especially sensitive to me. When the discussion about legalizing cannabis started, I saw an opportunity for our country to transform years of fear and war into something good, by helping patients around the world. It was much better to legalize cannabis, regulate it and collect taxes on it. Colombia has this bad reputation of war, illegal drug trafficking and kidnappings. I thought that it was kind of beautiful that the same plant that caused so much pain and created so much chaos in my country, in the hands of a good person could now be used as a source of wellness, happiness and job creation.
Grobman: You were new to the industry. How did you start?
Rojas: In the last few years, I accomplished four things. First, I needed to become an expert so that I could credibly talk to investors and clients and that they could say: “I need to listen to this Colombian woman. She knows her stuff!” I traveled all over the world to Israel, Canada, Jamaica, Chile and Mexico. I learned everything about the agronomical, medicinal, chemical, and regulatory sides of the business.
Second, I needed to find a farm. I spent two years and looked at over 100 farms in Colombia until I found the right one that had the perfect mix of variables (temperature, soil, PH, etc) to grow cannabis.
Third, once I got the farm, I needed operating licenses. I applied to get all the possible licenses related to cultivation, processing, research, commercialization and exportation. It was a long process but I learned everything about how these things worked in Colombia.
Fourth, I needed to build a team: I hired an agronomist, a pharmaceutical chemist, a doctor, lawyer, accountant and an HR professional.
Grobman: You recently sold your company to Canopy Growth, in a multimillion-dollar deal. How did you do this?
Rojas: Bringing in the largest cannabis company as an investor was a long and difficult 2-year process and a negotiation. In the beginning, when we started talking, my company was moving forward with the licenses but I had to sell to Canopy my vision of why my country was important for their business.
My pitch was: “I’m from Colombia, where we have experience growing cannabis. It’s going to be cheaper because we have the right sunny climate, lower labor costs, we are well located geographically close to other markets in Latin America, the regulatory climate allows exportation (which is something that’s very unique to the industry).”
In the meantime, I also built up the four things I mentioned before, creating a company with all the necessary approvals and a local team to operate it. It was incredibly valuable to them to find the right local team with the appropriate skills aligned with their principles and business plan.
Grobman: How has being a woman played a role in how you’ve navigated this journey?
Rojas: Being a woman, had its positive and negative sides. On the positive side, it made me stand out. It was easy to remember me, given that all other CEOs and managers in this business in Colombia were men.
As a woman, I was also less threatening to the people I was networking with around the world. I visited a lot of companies. They opened their doors and let me tour their facilities and learn. As they didn’t view me as a big threat, it was easy to become friends with the individuals involved and that was my first way in.
On the negative side, I was the only woman. So many times, within the same interactions it was hard for the men to hear me and take my thoughts and ideas seriously. “It’s nice that you have this idea, but here are the men, who are the grown-ups, talking,” was often the attitude I got from them. They were the majority so their opinions would prevail but perhaps they would have been more willing to listen to another point of view if I were a man.
When I went abroad, I visited one of the licensed producers, a man from a different culture. I tried to shake his hand but he wouldn’t do this because I was a woman. I was there with my younger brother and the whole time whenever he had questions, he would address my brother, who didn’t have the expertise, so I had to answer without the grower really looking at me. I felt awkward because I didn’t know whether I had offended him or he was not used to dealing with women in a professional context. I felt like he wasn’t taking what I was saying seriously but when my brother said the same, he’d pay attention and smile. So I started whispering talking points in Spanish to my brother and this man would write down everything that he would say.
And then there were the comical moments: when I closed the deal and we signed the paperwork for the transaction in Colombia, someone suggested that we celebrated with a toast. First, all the congratulations were given to my father, even though the deal was closed by me but as for the toast, all the men in the room got a glass of Whiskey while I was offered a bowl of granola. The memory of this incident is a good reminder of my success but also of what we women have to deal with sometimes. When people ask me for an example, I have a very good one to share!
Grobman: Have you ever had to put your foot down to deal with gender discrimination or bias?
Rojas: Yes. I was once offered a new role. I was asked for my desired compensation so I found out what my peers were making and as I would have more responsibilities I added an extra amount to it. The response was that my demand was crazy.
I then told them straight: “This is fair compensation for my scope of responsibilities. Do you think that because I am a woman, I should be paid less? I would be doing more work than my peers. If you are the kind of company that promotes a gender pay gap, I’m telling you right now that I’m not going to sign the employment agreement!”
Once I told them this, they quickly came back and said: “No, no, we don’t have a wage gap. We will pay you the fair amount you requested!”
Grobman: How are you approaching your current leadership challenge?
Rojas: As a female country manager, I feel that it is my responsibility to make a difference in my leadership style. My organization will grow to a 200-people operation by the end of 2019. I’m planning to have 50% of these positions, at all levels, filled by women. I want to have good professionals in my company and being a man doesn’t make one a better professional than a woman.
This year I was visiting the farm in a rural community and one of our growers, a little woman who was half of my height, came over to me and gave me a hug. This was the first time in her life that she had a real job outside the home. Her husband was coming to her to ask for money and cooking food for her! She was so proud of herself and what she achieved thanks to this job. It was amazing to be part of her journey!
Grobman: What advice do you have for other women that want to enter the cannabis industry?
Rojas: Go for it! Don’t be afraid to show up and ask a lot of questions. One of the reasons for me getting this deal was that I showed up in conferences and introduced myself: “Hi, I’m Bibiana, I’m from Colombia, and I have this, this, and this question...” Some of these questions were very basic and I felt uncomfortable and awkward asking them, but I didn’t know anything about cannabis and needed to overcome this knowledge gap.
After a while, I became an industry expert. I continue going to these conferences, now as a speaker. I was also selected among the Cannabis Industry Woman to Watch in 2019 by Marijuana Business Magazine, the first Colombian to appear on the list. All this took me three years, which is a relatively short time!
The second thing, which surprisingly, I learned only on this job, is to know how to self-promote. No one is going to do it for you. Me becoming a speaker didn’t happen on its own. I pitched my knowledge of international cannabis markets to several conferences and then used those appearances to get my next speaking engagements. Now I don’t pitch myself anymore but rather people call me to come and speak at their events and I’m the one picking the best engagements!
This article was originally published in my column in Forbes Careers.
Enjoyed reading? Consider joining the select group of executives who receive our newsletter.