Empowering Women, Always: Vera Levitt
Vera Levitt is the Chief Operating Officer at Mankind Dispensary. She is highly regarded in the cannabis industry and has become a huge pillar of change for the people around her, evoking an environment that is not only inclusive, but effective and malleable. She maintains an immense dedication to helping others, while offering her time and energy in ways unyielding.
She empowers the women around her to explore the boundaries we’ve been inherently accustomed to by setting an example of how to graciously navigate around them.
I have had the pleasure of working with Vera for the past two years. Since I have known her I have experienced the enormous impact she has had in our workplace, the women around her, and in my personal life. Vera is someone I admire for her uninterrupted spirit and her vigor to always gain insight with an unlimited perspective. She is also someone that is powerful, yet gentle, and helps the people around her feel seen, heard, and understood. She is always willing to rock the boat for the truth and what is right.
In my own life, she has inspired me to invest in personal growth which is why I was so happy to sit down and ask her a few questions in honor of Women’s History Month. We will look back on this month, throughout time, and recall the women who mean the most to us. I am happy to say, I will be able to look back on this memory, where I was able to converse with one of the women I value and admire so extensively.
What has led you to the cannabis industry?
Very simple. I needed a job. I left an almost 20 year marriage, was a stay-at-home mom, and needed to go from zero income to not-zero income. So in a matter of about two weeks, I landed four different freelance jobs. One of those freelance jobs was getting familiar with the new compliance regulations for what would be the very first recreational cannabis sales in California for Mankind, which, at the time, was a medical marijuana dispensary. Then, the C.E.O. James [Schmachtenberger] asked that I work on familiarizing and getting us in compliance for January 1, opening day of recreational sales, as well as, getting us through the licensing process, which wasn’t yet complete.
I managed the licensing process in about three weeks and got us compliant by January 1, for all of the new regulations. [At the time] I was working with someone on FDA clinical trial compliance, as one of my freelance jobs, so I was familiar with compliance and what it entails and I had some background in the medical industry.
When I was a stay-at-home parent, I did a lot of work in birth and new mother support, specifically lactation and healing from that. I had a lot of hospital time under my belt, therefore working around compliance and regulations was not challenging and it seemed like a natural move into cannabis.
What hurdles do you think women might face, within and outside, of the industry to become successful professionals?
Well, this industry has a long, cultural history. Specifically, the culture of the industry is very strong, and women have historically been excluded from that. It’s interesting because this industry has more women in leadership and executive positions than most other industries.
So, even though the industry, as a whole, might have a misogynist history, women have found a path to leadership that, I think, because it’s still an emerging industry, has fast-tracked the ability for women to get to more leadership positions. I know, for me, coming from 10 years of not being in the workforce, I found myself quite surprised, [at] the speed at which I found myself able to pursue leadership the way that I did.
And, I did it the way most women do it, which is by proving myself. I started something that was much, much smaller than what I made it into. I think a lot of women do the same in every industry, but because this industry is still emerging, there is more opportunity to grow quickly…if you’re ambitious, if you’re driven, if you have the skills to be successful with new endeavours. It requires a tremendous learning curve, for me, but I don’t know if that is true for other women.
In every industry, not just cannabis, I think that the way women approach the world is different than men typically approach the world. That’s a binary explanation, but, 90% of the world lives in the binary so that is what most people will experience. Men have been traditionally at the helm of business, and I think the way women operate is very different.
It’s certainly my experience on every level of working within this company and in this industry, that women are incredibly supportive; we don’t play things so close to the chest, and I think that is because women are conditioned to be more cooperative. There are anthropologists that will study the cooperative nature of women to get to common goals, and I think that’s inherently a benefit to every company.
In what ways does Mankind empower women to grow within the cannabis industry?
The great thing about Mankind is that the leadership, ownership, and founders, want this company to be set apart. We don’t just want to be a leader in the industry, we want to be revolutionary.
What I’ve noticed, it is a challenge in this industry, and all industries, but it is also a challenge for men. That is because women operate differently, because our ownership and leadership has strived to create a very diverse workforce here and our dynamic is different than most companies. It’s so different here.
In one of the ways it’s different, is where I have worked hard to make sure there is room to be a woman here. Wholly a woman. That is a passion of mine, if you want to talk about what I’m passionate about? That’s it. And when I say, wholly a woman, I don’t mean the BS mantra of women in the media, that women are shrill, or emotional-I mean appreciating and valuing the way a woman comes to the table and the way she operates.
Sometimes that comes with more emotion, but it also tends to come with a lot of passion. With that passion comes a drive, that is unequaled. So when women are allowed to operate, just as they are, those gifts come to the forefront.
When I say I’m passionate about leadership, what I really mean is I’m passionate about people. I love to ignite, or what I call permission giving-or others may call inspiration. Sometimes we just need to see somebody else doing, someone else taking the lead, someone else being courageous. It’s not that I’m not afraid, I just handle fear differently than other people. When I am in fear, I walk into it. That’s the only way I know to come out the other side triumphant. And that is what comes off as confidence to people, just being willing to take that risk. 100% of the time it has worked out because I’m still here and it hasn’t killed me yet!
Who has inspired you?
It’s a population of people. It’s not one. There have been some pretty incredible women that have inspired me in a number of ways.
First, I will say, my own parents have instilled in me, a few values that have proven to be really important in my success. The first is, “the worst they could say is no.” It’s a good value. It helps with fearlessness. The other is, “you’re unstoppable with information and learning…everything you want is possible, if you are willing to learn.” It’s just a value they both have, who came from very different upbringings, and I’ve seen it happen.
They also taught me to treat my employees well. I watch my parents who run their own businesses, my whole life, really go above and beyond for their employees. So that came from them.
I think the piece around being the kind of woman who walks through the world, confident in who she is, comes from four different women.
One of them was my father’s best friend’s mom. Her name was Eleanore. I didn’t know her well but she had so much poise and was so passionate about what she believed in, and was very successful in her life…and she raised incredible children. Her children were so incredibly successful. All three of them. And I have always admired her still having her own sense of identity.
One of her children is another one of the women that have inspired me. Her daughter Karen. She was an incredible dancer, a doctor, a mother, a Judaism scholar-just ambitious, successful, and driven.
There was another woman named Karen, who was the Mother Earth, Jewish hippie mom. I was just always inspired by the way she was so kind. I really tried to incorporate that in my life.
And, the other one is, my best friend’s mom growing up, she owned numerous Montessori schools and was incredibly wealthy but you would never know it. She built something and believed so deeply in it and it grew and grew and grew-and she never wavered from who she was. All four of these women are deeply aligned with who they are. And they didn’t waver.
Now, I think the women who inspire me most are other mothers, as I see what they do. I see the smart, incredibly capable, intelligent group of women that raised our children. Those deep, deep friendships and how they see me, how they hold me accountable, how they lift me up, how they support me, that’s what inspires me. My best friend, her name is Kate. She has a very different personality than me, a very different parenting style than me, but she is my BS caller. She’s driven, incredibly successful, and so different; and I gain a lot of inspiration by valuing our differences.
What is the best advice given to you and what is your advice you might want to share with other women inspired by you?
I have experienced, in this industry, advice around “do it the way a man would do it.” Multiple times. When I first started I was deeply looking for a mentor, desperately looking for a mentor, I felt in over my head and overwhelmed; and, one of the first pieces of advice I got from someone I was hoping would be a mentor, is, “A man would never wait that long. A man would never believe that they weren’t good enough. This is a man’s world, learn how to play with the big boys.”
And, that is very common advice for women in corporate America, but I don’t believe the man’s world is the “right” world. And, I don’t believe the boy’s game is the “right” game. I think by corporate America not valuing what women traditionally bring to the table, as women, they are missing some of the biggest gifts our culture has to offer [our population has to offer].
I do not want to come to the table like a man. I wanted to come to the table like myself. I very much identify as being a woman, so, I honored that, and it may have taken me longer to get there, but, I started in December 2016 and by June of 2017, I was the C.O.O. of this company. So I think doing it my way, worked out pretty well.
I think there is a lot of value to the way women approach things, that hasn’t been honored, and I think this industry offers an opportunity because of how many women are in leadership roles, to be really set apart in corporate America. I think corporate American can learn from what it looks like when women are at the helm of more companies and in leadership roles; and what that looks like and feels like every day.
My advice to all women is to deeply honor all of the parts of who you are… I mean the ambitious part, the driven part, the scared part, the vibrant and vivacious part of you, the nervous or naive, the mother-nurturing, which is really personal to me, as well. That kind of integration of a woman is what is necessary and what is missing from most of corporate America. When all of that is in alignment is when a woman becomes an unstoppable, positive force of change or result.
Interview by: Renee Smaldino