Wendy Mosher is cofounder and CEO of New West Genetics, a Colorado-based biotech company focused on creating large-scale harvestable, seed- based cannabis genetics.
The company breeds hemp varieties that are tailored for various end-use products, analyzing the genomics of hemp to improve the varieties with genomic and marker-based selection for qualities like disease-resistance, outdoor growing, and mechanical harvesting.
New West raised $500,000 from angel investors in 2015 and is currently raising a Series A round so Mosher spends her time building a team and pitching a hemp startup to agtech investors. But before startup life, she was a teacher — experience that she says comes in handy in a new industry with which many investors are not familiar. She cofounded New West Genetics with her husband Dr. John McKay, the director of genetics at the company.
We caught up with Mosher to find out what it’s like for a woman in the cannabis industry and how this female CEO handles raising funding for a family business.
It sounds like with your first round you were speaking to cannabis investors specifically. Is that the plan for your second round as well? Do you find yourself running in cannabis circles mostly as opposed to more general agriculture circles?
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No. Not at all. In fact, we’ve always kind of stuck out in the cannabis industry. We get pushback because many people without a more in-depth knowledge of genetics immediately assume GMO when they see the word genetics. There was a lot of education on the ag side for the cannabis audience, and on the cannabis side for the ag audience. We specifically are looking for more ag funding this time, so we’ve put a lot of effort into speaking with people who are interested on that side.
We’re a Yield Lab company. We worked pretty hard to convince them to take this risk as they were hesitant at first, of course. I contacted them back in 2015, and I got an immediate response: nope. But I kept bugging them, so it worked out. We’re hopeful through the Yield Lab that we will get that ag-oriented lead investor.
How has being a female CEO, but also being the wife of a cofounder affected your fundraising meetings?
Everybody brought up the marriage bit early on when I was taking all my business classes as if it would be an issue. I have never found that. I’ve never heard pushback on that.
When and if I get a no, I follow up with very pointed questions — no one has ever stated that the relationship is a problem, which I think is really reasonable. If you look at a lot of successful companies, many are family based, right? Cargill, Johnson & Son, or Stine Seed for example.
The other strength of the family, I think, is that we’re fully invested. We have money invested in this as well. I would think the greater hurdle is experience – that none of us have a track record exiting a company, though we will in about five years.
Your board is pretty diverse. How did that happen?
That’s all deliberate. That’s part of my own mission for how can we keep this company as diverse as possible. It’s important to me to have female mentors. They have been incredibly helpful for me.
They’re not just diverse in gender, but they’re also diverse across industries – because our company spans so many industries we needed those different perspectives.
How did you go about developing a diverse board?
I talked to people like crazy. There are certain seasonal cycles where I couldn’t because I was needed for sales and operations but otherwise, I worked my connections in Denver and continually attended business events and social events. I networked at women’s events a lot because of that desire to keep us balanced.
How do you feel about recruiting with gender in mind?
I have no problem with that. I have a number of resumes in a file, but they’re not the right match maybe or they don’t have the right skillset. I do have to actively look because the cannabis industry is so new and we want a cultural fit. I think everybody actively looks for people that are the right fit. And if you’re not doing that, then I’d love to hear what your retention rate is.
Do you feel like gender is part of that fit equation?
Sure, It’s not the determining factor, but I actively seek it. Our next hire- is a C-suite position who would be a complement to me. Finding a female who has the right skills, as well as a good cultural fit with New West would be welcome. Our major requirement is that they’ve successfully exited some companies. That’s the complement to myself and my experience. Ultimately we will accept the best fit.
Do you get a sense that that cannabis industry has gender more equity?
Yes, the industry discusses this regularly, and our industry associations put the issue of women and minority representation towards the top of their dockets. MJ Biz Daily’s 2017 Women and Minorities in Cannabis Report, which is survey-based, says women execs in cannabis make up 27% of all cannabis executives. That is higher than the national average, (23%) but there has been a downward trend from 2015 numbers, which is disheartening.
Any idea why women are well-represented in cannabis?
Because it’s riskier perhaps?
Perhaps too because women have been creating cannabis products for needy populations for a long time— I’m thinking of folks in San Francisco who wanted to serve the HIV community and created cottage businesses out of making edibles for their friends. And also of the many small dispensaries owned by women who served clients with cancer and other illnesses, and as a result created a dedicated customer base. Serving communities is traditionally a female thing. Those are some of the strongest companies that we have now in cannabis. I think that’s part of the reason there’s more representation – their supporters knew early on they were in it for the right reason, and stuck with them.
Photo: Wendy Mosher