As the legal cannabis industry grows, the rate of women in leadership roles is declining. In 2017, women held 37% of executive-level roles, according to the “Women & Minorities in the Marijuana industry” report released by Marijuana Business Journal. Today, that number has dropped to 22%. Which is why the industry needs more leaders like Alexandra Ruby.
Ruby’s energetically infectious. Her excitement is contagious, even if it does stem from an unexpected source—from the less glamorous side of the cannabis industry. She’s got an innate entrepreneurial spirit that drew her to cannabis back in its earliest days, and she knew she wanted to start her own business long before she knew what its purpose would be.
She came to the industry searching for her why. From a unique vantage point smack dab in its center as it grew from the seeds of change, she found her purpose. And, much like the leading female founders who inspire her—Sara Blakey of Spanx, Whitney Wolfe Herd of Bumble, Melanie Perkins of Canva—once she found a problem in her industry, she came up with a way to address it and is owning the solution.
The cannabis industry has a people problem. Ruby founded Happy Gnome HR to be the solution.
Planting the Seeds
Ruby knows a lot of people in the cannabis industry—she’s worked in it since the earliest days of adult-use legalization in Colorado, so she’s seen how they operate. “Many of them are not exactly trained to be taking care of people while running a business,” she says—not that she faults the business owners who are trying to navigate the complexities of operating in the federally prohibited but state-legal cannabis industry. “It’s very difficult to find that balance and to find the time. I understand the whole life cycle of a new startup industry. I understand where they’ve been, the hardships they’ve faced, and where they’re going.”
It takes resources to make it—resources like capital and materials and industry know-how. And perhaps most importantly human ones. People power businesses, and a company’s employees are its most important assets.
“It’s like that Richard Branson quote: ‘Take care of your people, they will take care of your business,” says Ruby. “It sounds simple, but it’s not that simple for business owners to execute.”
She founded her human resources consulting agency in January 2021 to help transformative businesses support and engage their employees “from hire to retire,” Ruby says. “Happy Gnome is really here to change how people think about HR, and what better industry than cannabis to do just that? We have a golden opportunity to reframe people’s thinking, and this gives me life. It makes me so excited to be able to effect change in people’s lives.”
Finding The Why
Ruby’s been working in cannabis since 2012, which makes her a true pioneer, her career born the same year Colorado voters just said yes to legalizing cannabis—some two years before the country’s first recreational dispensaries opened their doors. And as anyone who works in the industry loves to tell you, cannabis operates in dog years—one year in the industry is equivalent to seven out. Ergo, she’s seen a lot of chaos.
And she loves it. Chaos motivates her, helps her focus. She came to Colorado seeking it or seeking a little taste of something like it. Something different than the flavors of her hometown in Minnesota. “I had to break out of the four walls—high school, marrying, having kids, and all the norms and social constructs of the Midwest—I was never destined for that,” Ruby says.
Instead, she enrolled at Colorado State University in Fort Collins to study business and marketing, taking classes in philosophy and psychology. Basically, studying humans: what motivates them, influences their behaviors, gives their lives meaning, helps them thrive—understanding their why.
Meanwhile, the legal cannabis industry’s origin story was unfolding just an hour or so to the south of CSU. A creator at heart, Ruby found herself drawn to Denver in search of her own why. “I realized there was something exciting going on in cannabis, and I just gravitated toward it,” she says. “It was fun, it was risky, and it just fit my ‘little black sheep’ personality a bit. There was this fun, wild feeling in the early days—all the business owners, all the events, all of this buzz was happening here, and it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I wanted on that train.”
She started getting into business development, working with different organizations and brands, helping with promotions and advertising, and representing companies at MJBiz Conference. Every day was something new. “Everybody was working at places for six months tops. There wasn’t any structure or career paths at that point,” she says. “You were lucky if you were related to or knew someone who owned the businesses so you could get a foot in the door.”
Once they got in, they realized the building was still under construction.
“I saw from a mile away that the business was going to experience tremendous ups and downs and growing pains because of its uniqueness and the risks associated with it,” Ruby recalls. Over the next couple of years, she gained experience working in operations, sales, and compliance, and later joined reputable consulting groups focused in compliance and business services. Along the way, Ruby’s why became clear: the humans running the businesses needed help with the humans they hired, and Ruby realized she could be the resource they needed.
How the Garden Grows
“Everyone benefits from HR,” Ruby says, and there’s a lot of research to back her up. HR management will help an organization clarify the meaning of purpose, value, and culture—and that leads to stronger financial performance, increased employee engagement, and higher customer trust.
New business owners may want to dismiss HR as a budget-draining growth-stifler. But they’d be wrong: “HR is traditionally a money saver,” says Ruby. But because its impact on financials is indirect, many business operators don’t give it the attention or resources HR services deserve. HR management entails more than just administrative paperwork and payroll, it is the heartbeat of an organization. It’s about recruiting, training, and education; it’s about career development, benefits packages, and safeguarding work-life balance. HR is how employers ensure their employees are happy. Without it, employees suffer the consequences—and so too does the bottom line.
“HR is how you can gauge the return on investment in your people,” says Ruby. And if you’re a business owner, you’d better be investing in your people—at least if you want your company to survive. A growing body of research shows companies that fail to invest in their employees jeopardize their own success.
Treating employees like the assets they are by investing in their development boosts returns long-term. It makes them happy, and happy employees are more productive. They’re less likely to take unscheduled sick days, more likely to stick around for a while. The cost of replacing an individual employee can range from one-half to two times the position’s annual salary—and that’s a conservative estimate, according to Gallop Research. Either way, it adds up to big bucks employers are effectively just tossing out the door as their team members depart for greener pastures and better working environments. An IBM study revealed that employees who do not feel like they are developing in a company are 12 times more likely to leave it. Not to mention engaged employees offer better customer service, and by some estimates boost sales by up to 20 percent. They also have a way of spreading the word to their networks, helping to attract top talent to companies that value their people.
“It’s not that difficult, as long as owners are open to learning and growing,” Ruby says, “and it’s not going to cost a company a ton of money to get the HR ball rolling,” Ruby says.
What is difficult is the industry, and to effectively guide cannabis companies you’ve got to understand cannabis. Hard rule, no exceptions. And, no, smoking pot a bunch in high school does not count (nor does experience in a different highly regulated industry). Cannabis is a different beast—and it can’t be tamed by the same traditional tools and tactics built for traditional industries. Cannabis just is not traditional.
Cannabis businesses need cannabis business services. A mainstream service provider just won’t cut it.
Or maybe it will, but, in a bad way—it’ll cut into profits or get licenses cut off. Why? It’s complicated. As in, the industry: cannabis is complicated. The answer is simple: traditional service providers have a history of suddenly dropping cannabis clients without warning. According to a 2019 Benzinga report by Javier Hasse, big-box payroll and HR companies (think: ADP, QuickBooks) have strict corporate messaging about not supporting the cannabis industry, but that doesn’t stop salespeople on the ground from selling their products to legal cannabis companies.
Hasse’s advice? “It’s certainly advantageous to choose a provider well versed in the issues within the cannabis industry rather than partnering with an inexperienced company that may initially promise you success but drop you as soon as problems arise.”
Happy Gnome won’t do that.
“These companies are selling the industry a product they don’t need. They don’t have the end user in mind, they’re just looking to fill their pockets,” Ruby says. This upsets her. She’s protective of cannabis business owners and their employees because she relates to them. She knows them, she’s worked alongside them, she’s one of them. She knows the obstacles they’ve faced and the challenges they will encounter—she’s faced them herself, both as an employee and now as an employer and business owner.
Happy Gnome is the manifestation of her desire to help inspire other entrepreneurs in the cannabis space meet whatever fresh challenges their businesses face with a spirit of determination, empathy, and grace. Ruby’s been navigating the cannabis industry’s regulatory minefield for over a decade now, and new business owners entering the space would be wise to tap into her wealth of knowledge.
“The sooner we can get in, the better things are going to be,” she says. “Employers can avoid making so many mistakes that are going to cost them. Let’s do it earlier so we can help increase the valuation of your organization. Happy Gnome can help your garden grow.”