Cultivating Relationships: Mentorship in Cannabis
An Inside Look at Cannabis Industry Mentorship
Mentor / mentee connections are powerful relationships that lead to professional and personal growth, and they are especially important in a startup industry like cannabis. Both people benefit in many meaningful ways throughout the course of the mentorship. Our Founding Partner, Diane Czarkowski, dedicates much of her time mentoring and investing in industry startups; particularly those owned by women. She is a mentor to Kathryn Awada, CEO & Founder of Azara, a cannabis compliance software startup. These two entrepreneurial women talk openly about their relationship and share what they’ve learned through working together.
Seeing people I’ve mentored and people I’ve known since the inception of the legal cannabis industry become mentors themselves is very gratifying. We are building that cycle of community, partnership, and lifting others up that is so necessary in a new, constantly-changing industry. -Diane Czarkowski
I was never a person who had idols growing up or looked to others for anything, but as I started my own company… I realized I had no idea what I didn’t know and began to seek out a mentor who was intelligent, patient, and who would understand the complexities of everything we set out to accomplish. -Kathryn Awada
What motivated you to start mentoring women in the cannabis industry?
Diane: I realized that during the course of my career I’ve been helped by so many people who acted as mentors to me, who gave me a leg up or the encouragement to find the willpower to push through any of the struggles I came up against. The career that really shaped me most was enterprise software sales during the high-tech boom. That industry has lots of similarities to cannabis — it had rapid growth, was dominated by men, and had few women in sales or executive roles. I was lucky enough to have good mentors in that career, both men and women, who wanted to bring out my potential. The cannabis industry is starting from scratch, and we want to maintain a higher percentage of women involved in the industry. A huge way to do that is through mentorship.
What drove you to seek out a mentor in the industry?
Kathryn: When I started in the cannabis industry in 2008, I found that there were not many women in leadership roles, and I made it my mission to align myself with the few that existed and had survived. Not only has Diane survived, but she has also thrived with an incredible reputation. I was never a person who had idols growing up or looked to others for anything, but as I started my own company and eventually ended up in the CanopyBoulder cohort, I realized I had no idea what I didn’t know and began to seek out a mentor who was intelligent, patient, and who would understand the complexities of everything we set out to accomplish. After dancing around each other in an ever-changing industry for over 5 years, then admiring her accomplishments from afar, I was finally lucky enough to cross paths with this incredible businesswoman.
How did you and Kate meet?
Diane: We first met through Tyler Stratford, who leads Canna Advisors’ strategic partnerships. He brought her in to talk about her compliance software company called Azara. I later found out that Kathryn was accepted to the CanopyBoulder business accelerator program. I’ve been mentoring with CanopyBoulder since the company’s inception in 2014, and I knew Kathryn was special and that I wanted to mentor this kind, passionate, and driven young woman.
What has it been like to have Diane as a mentor?
Kathryn: Diane is everything I hope to be and has become a mentor, a colleague, and a friend. Almost immediately, I knew that I could learn a monumental amount from her and that together we could tackle one of the most abhorred parts of cannabis…COMPLIANCE. She has gone above and beyond for me and my team and has opened many doors for growth. In 2018, we made the decision to invite Diane to sit on our Board of Directors, one of the best decisions we have made as a company to date.
What drew you to mentor Kathryn?
Diane: I requested to mentor Kathryn through CanopyBoulder because I thought Azara having a female founder and being a tech-based software-focused fit very well with my background and strengths. I also believe in the solution she’s building because it addresses a pain point that she discovered from actual experience in direct operations. We both see that being an operator is going to become more and more complicated as regulations come, businesses grow and merge, and cannabis becomes mainstream. Compliance will continue to be a part of everyday business, and companies are quickly going to find that keeping track of everything in Google docs won’t cut it. The cost of not being in compliance can be devastating, and we want to impart the importance of this hated but extremely necessary aspect of running a cannabis business.
What are some valuable things/lessons you have learned from having a mentor?
Kathryn: Being a sounding board for each other not only in work but also in life and balancing the two. It can be lonely as a founder, so having others you can connect with who understands what you are going through is invaluable. I have learned that I am not alone in the process and sometimes I am too close to a problem to see the solution staring me in the face. Diane is great at taking my ramblings and turning them into executable goals!
What has this mentorship journey meant to you?
Kathryn: Merriam-Webster defines a mentor as a trusted council or guide, tutor or couch. Diane Czarkowski is that and more. I am constantly in awe of what she does and continues to do for the cannabis industry, for me as an individual, and for my business. I am honored to know her and cannot wait to see what the future holds for her and her team as they continue to thrive in this fast-paced industry.
What are some things mentoring has taught you?
Diane: Mentoring has taught me to provide information and guidance without being extremely invested in whether or not the person takes my advice. I don’t want to project my vision for their company, but I do want to give them options and support in their decision-making. I know they’ll ultimately have to make the hard decisions themselves. I let them try out things that may be different than what I suggest to shape independent learners. They don’t always need someone to guide them, but I am there as a trusted resource for problem solving and advice when needed.
Any advice for other women seeking a mentor in the cannabis industry?
Kathryn: Wait. The right mentor is someone who you connect with and you both can benefit from the relationship. Understanding, communication, and honesty are key factors in the relationship you are building. There are misconceptions about what a mentor looks like and that it is one-sided, but that isn’t the case. You should never be paying for mentorship but you should be getting value whether professionally or in terms of support.
How has mentoring been a rewarding experience?
Diane: I really enjoy seeing a founder’s confidence build and watching them grow in different areas and directions. It is inspiring to see them do things I haven’t, like raise money with investors, create a vision from scratch, and go to investor forums to pitch their business ideas. I love that so many businesses were created because people saw a need and wanted to address it to help others. Seeing people I’ve mentored or who I’ve known since the inception of the legal cannabis industry become mentors themselves is very gratifying. We are building that cycle of community, partnership, and lifting others up that is so necessary for a new, constantly-changing industry.