Jessica Billingsley CEO of Akerna & Co-Founder of MJ Freeway

Jessica Billingsley

Shout out to Jessica Billingsley, CEO of Akerna and Co-Founder of MJ Freeway for sharing her experiences, journey and advice as a dope and successful woman in the weed world.

Akerna consolidates cannabis technology companies to connect data points in the global cannabis supply chain. Akerna has created one of the world’s most transparent and accountable consumer packaged goods supply chain with global scale. Akerna is the first cannabis technology company to be listed on Nasdaq.

MJ Freeway’s software, MJ Platform, enables operators to manage, scale, and optimize more competitive operations at any point, or across, the entire legal cannabis supply chain – including cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, and retail.

This is a super insightful interview because Jessica gives us insight on what it takes to be a successful woman in a new and exciting industry, what it takes to work in this industry and how you can do it too. Check out the interview below and don’t forget to share it with other Weed Queens!

How would you describe yourself and what you do?

I am an entrepreneur and a strategist. I am driven by a passion to increase transparency and accountability for the products we put on and in our bodies.  I invented seed to sale tracking and am the founder and CEO of Akerna, the first cannabis technology company to be listed on Nasdaq.

What is your company about? What do you guys do? 

Akerna is an enterprise software company focused on the cannabis, hemp, and CBD industry. Our cornerstone technology, MJ Platform, helps retailers, manufacturers, brands, distributors, and cultivators by connecting data points across the global cannabis supply chain from seed to sale to sale. We also offer a complete suite of professional consulting services and data analytics for businesses.

What makes Akerna unique?

Through both our brilliant product engineering team and strategic acquisitions, we continue to expand our capabilities by leaps and bounds. We are the first seed-to-sale cannabis technology company and no one does it quite like us.  We’ve focused on true enterprise technology and a technology ecosystem.  Rather than fighting and competing in every area and trying to own every space, we built the underlying framework and system of record for everyone to use to connect.  We have over 80 integrated products to our ecosystem which provide additional value to our clients and the industry.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

Inspiring growth and creating impact.  What we do positively changes lives, every day.

Did you ever expect a career in the cannabis space?

I think this is one of those questions that, regardless of who you ask in the cannabis space, they’ll tell you it wasn’t something they were really expecting. There’s certainly not a lot of kids growing up dreaming of being a C-Suite executive of a cannabis company, although there might be a few now. Most of us, myself included, didn’t plan it out. We simply saw an opportunity, took a leap of faith, and made it work. 

What inspired you to start Mj Freeway and when and how did you get started? 

In 2009, I was invited to invest in one of the very first cannabis operators in Colorado. Jumping at the opportunity, one of the things I was tasked with was helping pick software for the operation. I was extremely disappointed with all of the options I saw, and that’s when the little lightbulb went off.

I saw that there was going to be a need for compliance and supply chain tracking, We ended up inventing the concept of seed-to-sale tracking and MJ Freeway/Akerna was born. 

Were your family and friends supportive of your venture? 

No, cannabis still had quite a stigma in 2010 when the company was founded and it’s taken education, time, and data for them to now be fantastically supportive advocates. The wonderful thing about cannabis is that the evidence and data are so irrefutable.   

What has your personal experience with cannabis been?

I’m a passionate medical advocate for cannabis.  A close family member suffers from a demyelinating illness similar to MS, and cannabis has been shown to be a particularly efficacious treatment for MS.  I met an MS patient of one of our clients who had been wheelchair bound and after 6 months of cannabis treatment, when I met him, he had just run a 5k.  He’s the kind of inspiration that keeps me going on hard days.  

Did you ever feel like you weren’t taken seriously because you are a woman? 

I was once invited to the Four Seasons in Denver to discuss a business opportunity with a current client.  The client then informed me that he had funded a startup competitor and I could either “give him my business now, or may the best man, or whatever, win”.  However, I would be remiss if I didn’t share that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of men who believed in me and what we are doing.

How/do you think your involvement in this industry is going to positively impact your community?

All of my efforts, and through that extension Akerna, have been focused on making the cannabis industry more transparent, reliable, and safe. I think we can all agree that a safer cannabis industry means a safer community, but that’s not all Akerna does to give back, Akerna has partnered with my good friend. Steve DeAngelo, and Last Prison Project to provide “round up” donation functionality through MJ Platform’s Retail POS module.  

What factors have contributed towards your path of success?

No one who succeeds does so alone.  We have investors who understand and believe in our vision and strategy and the absolute best team of passionate, intelligent folks who live our core values every day–do the right thing, be part of the solution, show people you care, make an impact, and grow together.

As a woman, what challenges did you encounter (if any) building your business in a male-dominated industry and how do you plan to create change and inclusiveness for future WOC joining the industry? 

There have been so many times when I was the only woman in the room while building this business.  There have been times when I haven’t been included as “part of the club”.  However, being the only woman is not always a negative–you’re certainly remembered!  Sadly, there is a lower percentage of women in technology today than 25 years ago, and of the women who do go into tech, 57% drop out in the first 10 years.  We started a campaign to help women called the One Woman Challenge with hashtags #onewomanchallenge and #dropthedrop.  The idea is simple.  Help one woman with a mentorship session, coffee, or introduction.  It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but all those drops can become the swell of real change.

What would be your best piece of advice for fellow women looking to pursue the cannabis industry?

Join a networking group.  Reach out and ask for help.  Cannabis is pro diversity and inclusion, and you may be surprised how many people are willing to help.

What would you consider to be the most effective way or initial steps of breaking down barriers and ceilings to pave this path for women in the industry?

More women own and operate businesses and occupy leadership positions.

There’s still a perception or stigma attached to the people involved in the cannabis industry or just consumers that partake in recreational or medical use, as being stoners- if you have encountered this kind of close minded perspective, what would your argument be to shift the conversation to one of the importance of the weed market and why it should be celebrated/normalized?

Coming from the state of Georgia, I’ve had my fair share of encounters with people who believe cannabis is both immoral and a threat to public health. Most people in this country like to be left alone. If you can at least make the argument that cannabis won’t negatively affect their lives (i.e. that it is non-addictive and impossible to overdose), then you’re halfway there. From that point, it’s just a matter of demonstrating the benefits of legalization, like increased tax revenue and employment numbers. 

What’s the biggest change you want to see in the cannabis industry?

Data driven decision making.  We create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day.  More than 90 percent of that data was generated over the last two years. Amid the fourth industrial revolution, I predicted a shift in business models to rely more heavily on data. For more than ten years, we have been helping our clients overcome business challenges using data. Now everything we talk about, from forecasting patient counts and sales for new markets to analyzing trends in mature markets, we are using our data to support our clients and help them achieve their business goals. 

Now that cannabis is legal, what excites you most/what worries you the most?

I’m most excited by all of the ways we can use technology to optimize the cannabis supply chain and the end user experience. At Akerna, we continue to strive to create a true cannabis technology ecosystem and every day we find more exciting ways to achieve that dream. If that’s not worth excitement, I don’t know what is. 

Do you have any suggestions on how we can help normalize cannabis?

Talk about it. Twenty years ago, cannabis use was seen as a dirty little secret, but today it’s a billion-dollar international industry. The only way to normalize cannabis is by treating it as what it is: Normal.

Name 4 of your favorite women in weed that you’d like to give a shout out too. Where can we reach them? (IG/Twitter Handle?)

Tahira Rehmatullah, our board member (Instagram: @tahirarehm; LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/trehmatullah1/)

Jan Cole, the Farm (Instagram: @thefarmcoboulder; Twitter: @TheFarmCo; LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jancole/)

Nina Simosko, our CCO (Instagram: @nsimosko; Twitter: @ninasimosko; LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ninasimosko/)

Codie Sanchez, Entourage Effect (Instagram: @codiesanchez; Twitter: @codie_sanchez; LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/codiesanchez/)

Where can we reach you? IG? Twitter? 

Twitter: @jessbillingsley

Instagram: @jessicabillingsley

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jessicabillingsley/


Key Takeaways from Jessica Billingsley:

  • Join a networking group.
  • Reach out and ask for help.
  • Check out the One Woman Challenge campaign with hashtags #onewomanchallenge and #dropthedrop.
  • No one who succeeds does so alone. 
  • Do the right thing, be part of the solution, show people you care, make an impact, and grow together.

We want to thank Jessica Billingsley for sharing her story as a woman, advice and experience. You can learn more about Jessica Billingsley and Akerna here.

Don’t forget to subscribe to follow us on on Instagram for more exclusive interviews and materials. Thank you for reading Weed Queens! 

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