Jennifer Chapin and Amanda Jones were occasional cannabis consumers for most of their adult lives—usually only indulging once a year on homemade pot brownies during an annual girlfriends getaway.
Today, they are at the helm of Kikoko, California’s top-selling cannabis beverage brand, available through more than 300 licensed retailers and delivery services across the state. As co-founders and co-CEOs, Jones, 56, and Chapin, 57, have turned cannabis into encore careers, self-funding the startup with $80,000 in 2015.
Four years later, the Bay Area-based women recently marked the 20th anniversary of their Stinson Beach sojourn (Kikoko’s parent company, Stinson Brands, is named in its honor), where along with their tight-knit group of friends, celebrated the closing of an $8 million round of Series A funding led by Bengal Capital. Flow Kana, Kikoko’s distributor and supply chain partner, also participated in the raise, bringing Kikoko’s total funding to $14 million to date.
Women in the C-suite
It’s a rare feat for a woman-owned business, which according to Jones, only accounts for 2.2% of all venture capital raised in the United States. In comparison, companies with all-male founders receive funding after their first round 35% of the time.
“Kikoko was built on the idea that gender equality in the workplace must be made a reality,” Jones told me over the phone from New Zealand, where she’s personally sourcing a batch of manuka honey for Kikoko’s HoneyShots.
A native of the Bay of Plenty, Jones says she was “born a feminist” and has spent her life advocating for women’s rights and education for girls. With Chapin, also a lifelong activist, she co-founded Cynthia’s Sisters, a non-profit that funds women’s law school scholarships in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The sad thing is that there’s just not as many female funders out there [as] there are male funders, so you’re kissing a lot of frogs. Fortunately we found some wonderful frogs [at Bengal Capital and Flow Kana]—who wholeheartedly believe in plant medicine and women.”
According to Flow Kana co-founder and CEO Michael Steinmetz, around 36% of cannabis executives were women in 2015, but today that number is much lower at just about 17%.
“At the heart of our company is the belief that cannabis can be a catalyst for change, and this includes change with regards to female representation in the cannabis C-suite,” Steinmetz shared via email. “We as leaders in cannabis have an imperative to stand up for what’s right and set the stage for how the cannabis movement will evolve. As a company co-founded by a woman [his wife, Flavia Cassani], and that sources from farmers, many of whom are women, Flow Kana is dedicated to supporting women-led companies in cannabis.”
Powerful plant medicine
Before cannabis, both women have had as colorful careers: Jones travelled the world as an adventure journalist for the likes of Vogue, while Chapin was a serial entrepreneur, founding and growing companies including USAopoly, a gaming brand that became Hasbro’s leading licensee. But when their dear friend Jan was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the duo decided to go all-in on women and weed.
“She was using cannabis to help with her symptoms of nausea, pain, appetite loss, mood, and anxiety; she was using it medicinally, but she was getting too high from all the products,” explained Jones. “Sadly, she died from the cancer, but it was her idea. She came to us and said, ‘Look, there really needs to be a brand that’s for women … that’s marketed for women, that’s packaged for women, and isn’t as high in THC.’”
Kikoko’s signature teas, which come in printed tins commissioned by female artists, were formulated to address four specific health concerns: Tranquili-Tea for insomnia, Sympa-Tea for pain relief, Sensuali-Tea for sex, and Positivi-Tea for mood elevation. HoneyShots, its line of cannabis-infused honey sticks, are blended with manuka honey, which is known for its antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant benefits.
Start slow and dose low
“Amanda and Jennifer are just phenomenally smart and forward-thinking entrepreneurs. Before the phrases ‘microdose’ or ‘endocannabinoid system’ were even a part of the cannabis vernacular, these women had already developed a line of artisanal, organic products not only infused with microdoses of cannabis, but also designed to help regulate sleep, mood and libido,” added Steinmetz.
Having post-legalization foresight on the fact that Americans would soon start to see cannabis as a wellness supplement rather than a means to just getting high, Kikoko was created to address the ailments of aging women and to give new consumers the easiest entry point. The name itself is a combination of a Samoan word and a Hawaiian syllable, which Chapin and Jones chose as a tribute to Jan, who spent her last years in Hawaii.
“We started witnessing our friends starting to medicate a little bit more and being more reliant on Ambien, Xanax, and alcohol in a way that they weren’t before. That was really the big motivating factor … our own peer group,” Chapin said.
“There is a growing number of women that don’t want to get crazy high, but have issues they’d like to treat without pharmaceuticals,” echoed Jones. “There’s still quite a stigma that needs to be dealt with, so we are coming out with even lower dosed products to help women find the exact number that works for them. We’re big believers that a little bit of THC goes a long way.”
The research and development of Kikoko went through three science teams over two-and-a-half years to determine the perfect balance between THC and CBD once the sachets were submerged in water. Products hit dispensary shelves in 2017, and range from three milligrams to ten milligrams paired with CBD or the lesser known cannabinoid CBN, lauded for its insomnia-relieving properties.
“When we started Kikoko, there was no momentum in the cannabis industry around women, beverages or wellness,” added Chapin. “We saw an opening for innovation and leadership, and an opportunity to own the women’s market and create our own category. We chose tea as our anchor product; we knew that if we could succeed with tea, we will succeed with other products.”
Think Tupperware, but make it cannabis
Recognizing their demographic was hesitant to even enter a dispensary, Jones and Chapin started hosting “High Tea” parties to introduce their long-awaited line to their community and also as a thank you to the friends they enlisted for focus groups. Citing “Avon and Tupperware, but for cannabis,” Kikoko’s early soirees served as a blueprint for women throughout California to host their own. With education as the focus, each event begins with a brief PowerPoint presentation on the history of cannabis as a plant medicine and common misconceptions followed by a traditional tea party to try Kikoko’s products in a fun and safe environment.
With the new capital, Kikoko plans to continue to build its team (the company grew from 27 employees to 41 this year), formalize “High Tea” parties through an affiliate program, build out its direct-to-consumer sales platform, create a corporate social responsibility arm, and launch new products. Look for Little Helpers, cannabis-infused botanical mints, next month with a line of Day and Night tinctures debuting in January.
The company has also pledged that by Q1 2020, all packaging will be either compostable or recyclable—something not often seen in the cannabis industry and in line with…