Virtually no women were in Priyanka Sharma’s chemical engineering doctorate classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago just a few years ago, something she said leaves the women in that field feeling particularly vulnerable — alone, and isolated, with few female mentors to champion them.
“Women are very vulnerable in all stages of their life,” she tells SVN. “Societal pressures push them to fulfill certain roles; we have to be daughters, sisters, friends, partners, mothers,” … but not PhDs of chemical engineering. She didn’t want to accept those limits.
A Woman, A Scholar, A Doctor, A Visionary
Sharma took on both roles and became a wife in the midst of her doctoral pursuit. “A lot of people in my life who assumed this would lead to me leaving or taking a break from the doctoral program,” she said. But to the contrary. The now-doctor Sharma drew inspiration from her father’s chemical engineering career and knew a “wealth of opportunities” awaited her once she finished her dissertation and earned the letters at the end of her name: Priyanka Sharma, PhD.
“STEM degrees in general are intimidating to women,” she said. “There is little exposure to STEM degrees for women at early stages in grade school and high school. Any chance I get, I will spread the word on STEM degrees and the college experience and offer to mentor younger women. The more we can talk about this openly, the less intimidating these degrees seem.”
Gender norms and cultural expectations around a woman’s role in society didn’t stop her from kicking ass in grad school; we were told that Dr. Sharma published “three journal articles, one review article and one book chapter all focusing on her work in molecular modeling of functionalized gold nanoparticles with various ligands, and their behavior in biological systems,” and we are not even 100-percent sure what that last bit means. Her mission upon graduation: “fill a hole where lack of mentorship and legitimacy for women in engineering exists.”
Those gender-hurdles she overcame trained her for getting into the field of cannabis, too. Shortly after graduating in 2016, Dr. Sharma founded Kazmira: a B2B technology organization with a mission to “provide CBD brands access to safe and quality Hemp-derived extracts.”
Dr. Sharma Starts a Revolution
If you know anything about CBD (besides “it’s popular” and “it may be used for anxiety, epilepsy, and pain”) you know that the industry is a whirlwind right now. What is and isn’t legal, what is and isn’t safe, what is and isn’t ethical — all of these are big question marks. The green boom has spawned an infantry of back-alley botanists hawking fake or potentially dangerous products to make a quick buck (or a quick million); in turn, they’re making it difficult for consumers to navigate the ins and outs and making it difficult for honest CBD brands — brands trying to make the world a better, healthier place — to find reliable extract.
In comes Dr. Sharma, with a familiarity with cannabis, a doctorate in chemical engineering, and a vision for how to enact powerful change. She began learning about the history of Hemp (including the things we love: textiles, fibers, and concentrated CBD) in early 2016; her research led her to the use of cannabis in India and Southeast Asia for thousands of years. She experienced the effects of topical CBD (“Anything from cooling gels to creams and transdermal patches; I loved the experience of using natural products crafted for targeted areas of application”) and witnessed the health and wellness of her friends and family improve thanks to cannabis, and light bulbs went off.
“I knew that many people in the US had started to pursue plant-based products, and CBD was going to be part of the natural products industry,” she tells SVN. “I saw an opportunity for my husband and I as chemical engineers to offer technology to this space that had not been implemented. We knew if we could innovate and develop extraction technologies to provide safe products, consumers would be able to access the highest-quality CBD products.” Enter: Kazmira.
Kazmira Disrupts the Cannabis Industry
Dr. Sharma is no stranger to a male-dominated space. While infiltrating a man-heavy industry, she has a not-so-secret weapon: her support team. “Women need to surround themselves with friends and family that push them into completing their goals and dreams,” she said.
And so, she entered the cannabis space, in part thanks to the support of her husband (it doesn’t hurt that said husband is also a chemical engineer). The Colorado-based Kazmira has been a standout in a disorganized industry. “There were few technology companies committed to safe Hemp extraction operations and quality product development [in 2017]. We wanted Kazmira to serve as a go-to for brands searching for quality and safe CBD raw materials to begin their brand story,” she said.
But Kazmira doesn’t just provide the raw materials for your favorite sublingual oil or topical balm. “We provide an R&D product pipeline, which our customers can build upon and use to create differentiated CBD finished products,” she said. “Our products are all non-detectable of THC, and we provide different forms of this raw material in varying terpene and cannabinoid content.” So, there’s an ability for brands to customize their product based on the desired finished product, delivery, and effects. “We also provide technical service to our customers where we aid in the formulation and product development, which is unique in this space.”
And Growing Female Representation
One of the biggest barriers women face when entering a primarily male-dominated industry, program, or arena is a mental barrier. Yes, there are a slew of hurdles once you’re in the space itself (including discrimination, harassment, and lower pay, to name a few), but Dr. Sharma warns you to “not psych yourselves out.”
She acknowledges those obstacles you’ll undoubtedly face as a woman. “Not only is it hard to create female relationships in the workplace, but we are constantly being questioned as to whether or not we are knowledgeable enough in the first place,” she said. But there’s one thing you have control over, and that’s your mindset and attitude.
“I think the more women worry that there is not enough female representation in the cannabis industry, the more they will psych themselves out and end up focusing on that aspect instead of growing their business or career within the space,” she said. “My advice is to be yourself, even if no one else in the room is saying the same things or thinking the same things you are.” Reminder: this is coming from a woman of color who not only survived an undergrad and graduate program in engineering with nearly all-male mentors but then also started a revolutionary technology company in the Hemp world. We know this sounds like an annoying Pinterest motivational quote, but if she can do it, so can you.
“The most well-known brands in the space started with founders who had intense passion and kept driving their ideas into the minds of their customers and brand ambassadors,” said Dr. Sharma. “If you follow your heart and your passion, you will always have the respect of those around you. Then, it will not matter on your gender, race, or other identity.”
If you’re considering taking a leap into this unchartered territory, Dr. Sharma wants you to know she stands with you and is your advocate. She wants women to know that cannabis is a modern, thriving and reputable field (and if you didn’t gather already, we feel the same way). “There is more flexibility for a work-life balance, and travel is almost non-existent,” she said. “Women, it is time to join the forefront of shaping the science of the future.”
Thanks for this publication. Yes, we do need genuine science and leadership in this crowded space.
Great work done by Dr Sharma. Keep it up.