“What disappoints me is when I get taken aside by women who tell me I shouldn't be so hard on men. I understand where they're coming from. It's usually women who have achieved a certain level of power and prestige by playing their cards in the male world and have a good thing going and don't want me pissing on it. I get that. But honey, my point is, you shouldn’t have had to do that.”
Renee Gagnon, CEO of Hollyweed North, shares her views on life, cannabis, and the workplace from the vantage point of having lived it through two different lenses.
Renee stands at the intersection of the gender and cannabis revolutions: She is the first transgender female CEO to take a cannabis venture public. I first heard her speak at Women Grow, an organization founded in 2014 to help women succeed in the cannabis industry. I immediately knew that she was someone I could learn from. She opens up about transitioning while knocking it out of the park in business and the things she has had to endure and leave behind in order to step into her true self. Through it all, the serial startup creator continues to push through and is changing the rules of corporate life while bringing awareness to the trans community, a community that bears the weight of drug addiction and depression. Since our interview, I have thought of Renee every day, still in awe of her strength, wit, and courage.
The Highly: When did your relationship with cannabis begin?
Renee Gagnon: When I discovered cannabis at 13, it was an awakening. Our family relocated from Alberta to Shawnigan Lake in British Columbia, which is like Humboldt County. We wound up surrounded by U.S. draft dodgers from the Vietnam War who were growing pot everywhere. The usage rate was so high that when there was a recess between classes, almost the entire school spilled out to smoke pot with the teachers. It was everything I had sought as a child—rolling down hills, holding my breath, twirling on swings, hanging upside down. Those things that you do to get effed up. I found a substance that I could repeat and repeat and didn't hurt me, and I liked that.
I grew up in a very conservative alcoholic family where marijuana makes you crazy and probably came from the devil. What fueled my interest in cannabis was the fact that you could use it, achieve disassociation, and arrive back at your starting point unharmed and without harming others. If I hung out with people drinking alcohol, something bad always happened: Someone puked in the rosebushes. Somebody put their fist in the wall. Somebody broke up. Somebody cheated. Somebody got in a fight. There was always some element of scary bullshit. For me, alcohol became very much a boogeyman and cannabis became an alternative to all of that. I kind of wish my family had been pot smokers and not drinkers.
TH: Did you know you were transgender growing up?
RG: I didn't know exactly what I was but I really resented being called a man. That never sat right. You can't stop being an alien, right? After separating from a 22-year marriage, I had some freedom and a chance to understand things. Then, bang! It's like, “Oh, okay, that's what I am. I get it now. That makes a hell of a lot more sense.” I was in therapy for a decade before I came out, and my therapist was as surprised as I that I was trans.
TH: You came out right before Caitlyn Jenner did. Did her public transition make your life easier?
RG: The whole goal in the trans community prior to Caitlyn was "passing and hiding.” If nobody knew you were trans, that was the highest compliment ever, but it does a disservice to the ones who didn’t have the option to go on hormone blockers and stop the male traits from developing. Hear it in my voice? I can learn to raise it, but I have to hold it up at a higher octave and it feels really unnatural for me. There's no surgery that I can do, and even then, it's surgery on your vocal cords. The “hiding to pass” turned out to be a double-edged sword. It made us invisible in the world, and people didn't know anything about us.
So when Bruce had his final interview and educated the world on the subject, suddenly, it revolutionized lives for all trans people. Caitlyn is a singular individual in trans history. Before Caitlyn, people felt it was okay to ask you about your genitals. After Caitlyn explained that it was rude to do so, I've only had a few people ask about mine. TH: How did you deal with your hormonal shifts while running your company and taking it public? RG: First is the absence of testosterone. That's something you don't know until you go on a blocker. When that heat is taken away and suddenly your brain is functional for the first time, that’s a novel experience. Then into that void, you chemically add estrogen, which rewired my brain in very specific ways. One of the things that I discovered was, I would encounter an old memory and it would be rewritten in real time. It was almost like in “The Wizard of Oz,” where it goes from black and white to color. Memories now had a new emotional overlay that wasn't there before, a reinterpreting of the situation. All from the presence of estrogen.
TH: So the hormonal shift was more a relief than a tornado?
RG: Oh, very much so. When you talk with most trans women and men, there's this sense of finding yourself when the hormones kick in. I had felt sick all my life and I couldn't put my finger on it. When the estrogen had been in about a week, I suddenly felt like the flu was gone. It’s not all icing and bubbles, though. The fact that I never had the chance to go on puberty blockers means I have to deal with shaving and body hair, which makes me feel gross continuously, and it reminds me every day of the hormones.
TH: Do you worry about all the meds you’ll need to take for the rest of your life?
RG: Oh, yeah. It's a medication and it's altering your physiology. I take progesterone with my estrogen to protect my heart. I'm not having all the surgery because my body developed as a male. My heart requires a bunch of testosterone in it to stay healthy. There's certain aspects to being trans that makes every one of us a walking experiment. We're teaching our doctors what it is in real time. They're learning more from treating us than they can from any literature on the subject matter.
TH: Do you miss anything about living in a man’s world?
RG: Oh, honey. Oh, my god! Being a white man born in North America, the sense of fucking entitlement that comes right out of your DNA. I could travel anywhere on fucking Earth. The sense of just utter safety is mind boggling.
TH: What was the worst part of being a man in the workplace?
RG: The constant bumping up to a willful gender paradigm. Living up to a gendered standard of being. It tended to skew male because the males wanted it that way. Recruiting was done to either get your buddy in or a new set of boobs for the desk. That’s your two reasons for hiring, isn't it?
TH: Is there anything that disappoints you in the workplace from a female perspective?
RG: What disappoints me is when I get taken aside by women who tell me that I shouldn't be so hard on men. I understand where they are coming from. It's usually women who have achieved a certain level of power and prestige by playing their cards in the male world and have figured it out and have a good thing going and don't want me pissing on it. I get that. But honey, my point is, you shouldn’t have had to do that.
TH: On that note, you’ve created some really progressive workplace policies for Hollyweed
RG: First, you do not ever have to apologize for wanting or having children or aging parents. Second, we take you away from your family, so we also need to support your family in your absence. That's the quid pro quo. So how do we best support you? We book daycare spots that are open all the time. Then Nurse On Call for aging-parent support so you don't have to worry about Mom being able to take care of herself. Then you're focused at work.
Another policy is: At no point while working at this company will you have to have sex with anybody else at this company. The feedback we got was amazing. Almost all the women were like, "Oh, my god. Why is that fucking revolutionary to even have to say that?" It's just a built-in expectation: “I wonder when it's going to happen. Is this the one who’s going to hit on me? Is this the married guy who’s going to tell me his wife doesn't understand him?” One, this isn't a dating site. Work isn't a fishing hole for you. Two, I will fire your ass. Because work is work and I don't want anyone to feel that coming to work is a pain and that it hurts their soul because of the way they're treated. We are a female-backed, female-led, LGBTQ company. What does that say? You can work here and it's a fucking great place to work.
TH: Let’s hope others adopt it. How were you received at work post-transition?
RG: It was really kind of weird after I left my company and had my enforced non-compete time in the wilderness. I encountered Women Grow, and the women there saved me. They gave me a community of professional women I could actively share my experiences with.
TH: What have been the downsides to transitioning?
RG: It's so complicated because the physical things that I do to transition make me feel at home in my body. The problem is, when I leave my home, it's about trying to feel as comfortable as I can in other people's worlds. I travel by the grace of everyone around me. My safety is wholly dependent upon strangers. It's a very complicated, emotionally devastating thing. You transition and you suddenly discover that in three-quarters of the world there's a death sentence waiting for you. In the other quarter, it's varying degrees of humiliation and abuse and there's very few pockets of what you would call safety. Not only did I give up all the privilege, I lost 90 percent of the planet.
TH: Where did your personal relationships pre-Renee land?
RG: It’s across the spectrum. The aspects of losing a male relationship was how they expressed it—like I’d died. I find it very interesting and insightful when I encounter people who can't accept Renee but somehow mourn this artifact that I faked. What you're saying to me is that you preferred the depressed, shame-filled, unhappy, overweight, angry human being. That’s sobering to me, because this Renee is free, is happy, is light, is powerful, is interesting if you had the time to get to know her, but they've made their choice to say no.
TH: Where is cannabis in your life today?
RG: It’s one of those things where I'm old enough that I’ve spent more time with cannabis than without it. When I talk about LGBTQ and cannabis, I say there's never been a group that needed this shit more. Our lives require medication. We drink more than everyone else. We do hard drugs, soft drugs, antidepressants. We need to cope because we're in a sea of others who hate us. The weight of just existing, putting up with other people making faces, making comments, talking about you, whatever. It’s an oppressive weight and it's exhausting. You need a vacation from it. For me, cannabis has always been my vacation.
TH: What does your routine look like?
RG: There's something peaceful and ritualistic in the grinding and rolling of a paper joint that soothes my soul. I fell and shattered my shoulder a few years ago and I got three plates and 12 screws that hold it together. That sucker aches and is always a pain in the ass. I was in twice a month for kidney and liver function tests because of the opioids and NSAIDs they'd been giving me. I went back to smoking pot prolifically, and within a month and a half, I wasn't taking any prescription drugs. I have pens with distillate that I sometimes take hits from because I like the convenience factor. I sometimes use topicals if my shoulder or knees are aching. I use Phoenix Tears on sunspots. I will take CBD if I get headaches. For sore throats, a little dab of Phoenix Tears—oh, my God! You will feel so much better. I love sugars and crumbles. I'm not a fan of shatters. With shatters, I find I get what I can only describe as lung paralysis after taking a hit, where I have a hard time getting my breathing apparatus back. I don't like that sensation, so I stepped a few notches down and I like crumbles now. I find that crumbles have a lot more of the original terpenes and richness that shatters don’t have.
TH: What does cannabis do for you mentally?
RG: Bruce Lee commented that he liked hashish because it helped him slow time. That always stuck with me. I work ungodly hours seven days a week and it's not a schedule that I have tacked to a wall. For me, I feel I gain time when I smoke cannabis.
TH: What other forms of wellness do you practice?
RG: I go to spas for massages and pedicures. Hair is also a forced timeout every two weeks. There's ways that I force myself to have as much self-care as I can in the process of doing what I'm doing.
TH: How do you balance your life as an entrepreneur?
RG: The normal things that folks think of, like holidays and travel, those are post-exit fantasies for me. You have one-to-two-years of concentrated focus and then you exit. Then you have a forced year off where you go to nice hotels. I think there's this myth that you can work and relax and vacation. That's true for staff, but that's never been true for owners or founders. What frees me up is knowing who I'm responsible for. It took me a long time to thoroughly understand this, because you can feel responsible for everyone on Earth and it can be crushing. For me, my energy and love is for my family, my friends, my company and the people who work for me. Those are the people that I care about—my shareholders. It's also one of the fundamental truths of Buddhism: Endless suffering is endless. The second thing is to vow to end suffering. “But you just said it was endless?” I know…
TH: What would you tell a hopeful entrepreneur entering the cannabis space?
RG: It's just getting started. It hasn't even warmed up and everyone acts like it's over or that we've decided who the players are. Oh, give me a break. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by some of the best and brightest. I've met thousands of brilliant women. This is where I think women entrepreneurs in Canada have a huge advantage. When we're talking about healthcare, 80 to 90 percent of all decision-making is done by the female in the household. That means women have a huge role in having conversations with other women about what medicine in this area is. That's a huge advantage that I think will help keep women in leadership roles. I'm more than happy to share with them what we're doing and why, to help them get started, to advance and raise everyone's boat and to get rid this false sense of competition. Demand is 2,000. Supply is one. We get lost in this competition and we become anxious, and we don't want to be. I keep having to remind women to stop and breathe. This is a new industry. No one’s ever done this before. There’s no rush. Just get back to whatever you were doing. Relax. Up your game and focus. You can win with paperwork. “I did it. This is how.”