Led by women and with a commitment to the research and development of products designed for women, Swiss KannaVations is disrupting the European cannabis space, with the aim of closing the gender health gap.
We sat down with founder and CMO, Heidi Basar, CEO Michela Mastropietro and global business development and strategy officer, Heidi Whitman, to discuss the opportunities for women in cannabis.
The parent company of renowned Swiss-based cannabis brands, KannaSwiss and Swiss Queen and supplier of high-quality CBD products across Europe, Swiss KannaVations, is pioneering the development of wellness products to meet the huge unmet need in women’s healthcare.
At the helm are three industry veterans, who not only recognise the need to close the gender health gap, but equally the huge market potential in developing products that really work for women.
Founder, Heidi Basar was one of the first Swiss women in cannabis, having entered the industry in 2013 with the country’s first vertically-integrated cannabis company. Twenty eight year-old CEO, Michela Mastropietro also breaks the mould having been in the CBD industry since the age of 21. While a more recent recruit, Heidi Whitman, has been working in cannabis since 2017 having already founded and sold her own CBD brand specialising in veterinary medicine before working with a number of big players.
Ahead of their participation in the Women in Cannabis sessions at Cannabis Europa next week, the three sat down with Business of Cannabis to share their mission, motivations and the ‘challenges and chances’ for women in cannabis.
Can you tell me a bit about Swiss KannaVations and the work you are doing?
Michela: Swiss KannaVations is the umbrella company of KannaSwiss and Swiss Queen, our existing brands which are well-known and trusted internationally, already underpinning us as an innovative player in this sector. We bring specialised experience and know-how in cultivation, extraction, product development and brand-building to the industry, alongside promoting research and education.
What makes you different from other cannabis companies in the European market?
Michela: We have always been pioneers and we aim to channel this not only in the products that we put on the market, but in the initiatives that we pursue and our investments in research, education and information to help tackle gender bias in the industry and healthcare as a whole. We are a woman-led company and we understand the challenges, but also the chances that we have in our sector.
We want to be a game-changer in this space, but we don’t just talk about these ideas, we execute and implement them. We are always looking to revolutionise.
Heidi Basar: The products created by Swiss KannaVations are game-changing and disruptive. We are not content with creating products that are simply good; we strive to create products that change the way people live. Our team is not afraid to take risks and push the boundaries of what is possible.
Can you tell me a bit about how you’re revolutionising cannabis-based healthcare? For instance, what about the research you are working on?
Michela: Our research focuses on plant genetics, the endocannabinoid system and how consumers respond to different cannabinoids and products. We need to understand the plant to understand the market and the needs of the market. From our results we hope to be able to put personalised solutions on the market creating products which are statistically proven.
Heidi W: A lot of our research is focused on female-specific health elements, as that’s where the disparity lies. We’re creating personalised options through DNA sequencing which we hope will eventually increase prescriber confidence and broaden the options available for women. Data collection is also part of our current research goals, to hopefully start narrowing down all of the question marks. Ultimately, we want to create an industry standard and change the narrative, providing the science, the solutions, and the opportunity for patients to be their own advocates in this very confusing cannabis space.
The gender health gap is now widely acknowledged, how do you hope your work will help close this gap and improve healthcare options for women?
Michela: We believe that our efforts in research and development will not only contribute to more information and more education being out there, but will also push other competitors to do the research, because it gives our products a USP. It’s not only about closing the gender gap in healthcare, but recognising the market and economic opportunities.
Heidi B: The research we are doing will help us see how the female body reacts and responds to cannabinoids. The more we know, the more we can normalise it, not just for women, but for all people. We hope eventually cannabis-based therapies will become the norm. That is the overarching motive behind all this research and development.
Why do you think there is huge potential in developing cannabis-based therapies for women’s health and wellbeing? Why might they be looking for alternatives to mainstream medicine?
Heidi B: Women may be more likely to seek out alternative therapies because they feel that traditional medicine has failed them. Women may feel frustrated with the lack of treatment options available, whether it’s for themselves or their family members, and are more willing to try alternative therapies as a result
Michaela: Women are the ones who run the household and historically they have been more likely to turn to nature for medicines and remedies. We know from experience that the trend of phyto-based medicines amongst women’s health issues is steadily growing and many are reporting successful results.
There is a lack of female-specific research with cannabinoids, but on the other hand, if we look at the areas where cannabis therapeutic therapies have been shown to be the most effective, it’s likely to be in pain relief, nausea, anxiety, insomnia, depression etc. If we break that down, at least half of those patients will be women. Women are not a niche market. We are actually 50% or more of your target audience.
Heidi W: We have all experienced different issues which have been helped with cannabis-based therapies. I’m a working mom, I juggle more things than I can count and in the past I have struggled with health issues which made it excruciating for me to work every day. I feel we need to protect women from going into that world which I personally lived in. We all wear capes and we do it because we have to, but how can we do it better? If we’re feeling great. These are the solutions that we’re trying to provide.
Tell me more about the challenges – and chances – you have had during your time in the cannabis industry.
Heidi B: Women-led companies in the cannabis industry, like in other industries, face several unique challenges that can impact their success and growth, including gender bias, lack of representation, access to funding, regulatory challenges, stigma, and stereotypes.
These challenges can make it more difficult for women-led companies in the cannabis industry to succeed and grow. However, many opportunities exist to positively impact the industry and promote greater gender equity and inclusion. I love challenges and hope I can help to create a more inclusive and equitable industry by addressing them.
Michela: It’s funny because if we were in the cosmetics industry we wouldn’t even be talking about a female-led company. Yet we are creating cosmetics with cannabis and are being put on stages because we are women-led. But there are a lot of challenges facing women in any industry. I think we are often underestimated.
Heidi W: What I found is that the underestimation actually empowered me. They – and I think we all know who I mean – believed my passion was a weakness, but that gave me power. Now I’m surrounded by like-minded women and we are so powerful. Thank you for underestimating me. Thank you for not believing in what I was doing. Now we can build a better foundation for the women who come after us.
Statistics from 2022 show that only around 20% of cannabis executives in the US are female and only 12% are from racial minorities. How can we tackle the lack of diversity in the industry?
Michela: There is a gap to close and not only in regards to gender, but also ethnicity and age. We launched our KannaFemme platform to support women in the industry but also empower the exchange of information. Understanding the market value will also help the industry to shift its focus. We are woman-led but our investment comes from 100% male investors.
Heidi B: We also have one of the youngest female CEOs – we’re not just saying it, we’re actually doing it!
Heidi W: We need young CEOs. They can see with bright new eyes exactly how to run a business from the cultural standpoint of where we are in 2023. If you’re not disruptive, what the hell are you doing in cannabis?
There’s three of us here today, but I’m sure with all the wonderful women-led organisations that are aligning and supporting one another, anything is possible. If we focus on the talent and potential in this industry, it is going to blossom.
Michela: To play devil’s advocate, we also need to be realistic. Yes women support women and yes women want to work with and for women. But on the other hand, I know many who have been hurt by women in business. We are advocating for equality across the board.
Swiss KannaVations will take part in the Women in Cannabis sessions in The Greenhouse at Cannabis Europe, The Barbican, London on Wednesday 3 May. See the full agenda here