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Women in Cannabis: Julie Widmer from Kaleafa

women in cannabis

Women like Julie Widmer are determined to build something new in the edgy and scary world of cannabis because they are such strong creatures, she insists, who won’t retreat from doing the hard work.

Although Julie wasn’t born in Oregon, it’s her home now and the birthplace of the Kaleafa brand of dispensaries. Raised in Boston, her parents moved the family out to Southern California in her freshman year of high school. She met her husband in college in California, who was raised in Portland, Oregon. Early in their marriage, his job took them to central Texas, where they gave birth to their first child, about 17 years ago, as her oldest is now in the midst of choosing between colleges.

“The thing I always knew was that I wanted to be a Mom; that was set in my heart,” she said. “We really wanted to have grandparents around, so we moved back up to Portland, where I could stay home and raise her, which was important to me. Then we had two more children, so I was at home with all of them for years.”

Around 2013, her husband’s brother, Bill, came to them with an idea for a business venture, but he needed their help to make it possible.

“I said family is family, and you always help family,” Julie stated.

Bill’s idea was to open a medical cannabis shop in Portland. Since he lived in Seattle with a wife and children of his own, he would need help running the operation while he traveled back and forth.

“All of this started with Bill and me,” she said. “He asked me to help with the books and managing employees. While he worked with the customers and dealt with product purchases, I was upstairs taking care of the electric bill, putting up the licenses, dealing with the Department of Agriculture to make sure we were compliant, anything related to the backend of the business.”

Julie knew the industry was up and coming, but she did not realize just how well her family would be able to make this venture grow. With the kids getting older, Julie was looking for a project of her own to keep her happy. She didn’t want to go back into catering again, so Kaleafa perfectly filled that gap—giving her a reason to get up each day and succeed, showing her girls how important it is to be a strong woman in business.

“It has been an amazing experience,” she said. “I have grown so close to my brother in law that we don’t even use the in-law anymore. He is my brother, and I am his sister. We help each other with everything.”

Julie Widmer of Kaleafa

The Business Grew, and It Grew Fast

In 2014, Kaleafa started with just one shop and hasn’t stopped growing since. Now with multiple locations, a grow in Medford, and over 100 employees, Julie credits finding a family in this industry as the most significant key to their success.

“We were determined to keep that family mentality in our business,” she said. “We all help each other, and we’re here for each other through the good times and the bad.”

She also points to women as the ones bringing confidence into this industry.

“The one thing my husband often says is that I bring a loving, maternal care to our shops,” she said. “People aren’t afraid to come in and try things, and I think a lot of that is because there are women behind the counter and out in the field growing plants. Women drive this industry.”

The Kaleafa shops have seen everyone stop by, from young adults wanting to blow off steam to the elderly needing relief for their arthritis.

“It’s just amazing that this industry is here to help different people in so many ways,” she said. “We’re building a caring industry, not just a money-making industry.”

Julie believes that what sets her shops apart is the homey feel one gets right when they walk through the door, with inviting colors, friendly people, and clean layout in each shop. She tried to bring warmth to the business, using herself as the target audience.

“I wanted the typical soccer mom to feel comfortable about coming in to purchase cannabis without any scrutiny or embarrassment,” she said. “So that’s what I built this on, calming colors, granite countertops, comforts that you would find in your own home.”

Kaleafa Store

Every Problem has a Solution

When asked about the biggest challenges she faces in a day, Julie said that licensing has always been an issue. At one time, Oregon used to give out licenses to anyone who applied and followed the rules. Now they find it much harder to secure new licensing for additional shops. They have had to get creative in how to expand going forward because of those restrictions to licensing parameters. Problem-solving is a trait, Julie says, that women bring to the cannabis industry.

“It’s a challenge for sure, but anything can be done,” she said. “I think women taking this industry head-on proves to everybody that we are just as strong as men at doing what we set our minds to.”

She comes by this passion and drive honestly, as demonstrated by an inspirational story she shared about her own mother. Growing up, her dad had to work quite a few jobs to support their four kids, so Julie’s Mom was the one at home doing most everything else.

“She trimmed the bushes out front and mowed the lawn and painted the house and came in to switch the laundry, cooked and cleaned, and made sure homework was getting done and would take us to Girl Scout meetings,” Julie remembered. “I know it was hard and I asked her, don’t you ever get tired? Just let Dad mow the lawn! She would say Julie, anything a guy can do, you can do better. Don’t let anything in life wait for a man to do it because you can.”

To this day, when she hooks up a horse trailer with her teenage daughter and travels across the state, every time they hit a bump or something comes unhooked, her daughter will say: I know Mom, anything a boy can do I can do better.

Working with Women in the Cannabis Industry

When it comes to hiring women for Kaleafa, Julie says that she wishes more women would apply for job openings. Out of the hundreds of job applications she receives in a day, Julie puts it at a 60/40 split between men and women applying.

“I look to hire females at any point I can because there is a sense I get from women that they want to dig into the work and make a difference,” she said. “I think some men, not all by any means, but some men treat these jobs more like a paycheck to take care of their family which is obviously admirable. But I think women tend to dig their feet a little deeper into their careers.”

She went on to sing the praises of the amazing and smart women whom she has personally seen work tirelessly on the legislation for this industry. During her work to create a delivery service in Oregon, in partnership with Eaze, she had to testify on behalf of regulations that would create a system similar to the one running in California currently.

“What impressed me so much was to watch these young women who were not afraid to fight for this industry,” she said. “These women should be so proud of the work they are doing. We are going to make history with this industry, but these women who are fighting for these house bills and federal legislation are going to be at the front of that history.”

She surmised that one would have to be pretty brave to stand up to a majority of men fighting against cannabis legislation. Sitting in the courtroom, she said it was intimidating to watch these amazing women stand on the side of cannabis against a big group of men.

“I’ve been pretty impressed with how this industry has supported each other and grown together,” she said. “I hope the federal government gets on board because there could be many budgetary issues solved by legalizing cannabis, and I think there could be many health benefits to the community as well.”  

Projections have Julie, Bill, and the team at Kaleafa opening about 12 more stores in the next year—something that Julie finds daunting, but not impossible. According to her, she’s here to figure out this challenge because she believes whole-heartedly in Kaleafa and the cannabis industry.

“If someone had told me 15 years ago that I would one day be the owner of multiple cannabis shops, I would have laughed in their face,” she said. “Now I look at what we have built and I’m damn proud to say:  Yup, I am the owner of very successful cannabis shops.”

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