Spotlight on Women in medical cannabis: Interview with Monique Ellis

by Ella Walsh

For the latest in our series spotlighting women in the medical cannabis industry, we spoke to Monique Ellis, CEO and Co-Founder of CHILAM.

During our chat, we spoke about Monique, her journey into the sector, the work she does at CHILAM, and how her background in tech has prepared her for working in this predominantly male sector.

When and how did you enter the medicinal cannabis space?

I entered the space in 2019. We founded CHILAM, not just because it’s obviously a very exciting time in this space, but also because we were really inspired by close friends and family, and also my own journey with endometriosis. We founded the business to tackle the problem of ethical and plant-based pain management, and we’re only focusing on high quality full-spectrum cannabis extracts and products.

CHILAM is a UK headquartered company with the operational entity in North Macedonia, which for us, also, is really important for patient access because we can produce high-quality products at a much lower cost. Ultimately, if we can reduce that cost along the entire supply chain it means that there’s greater accessibility for patients down the line.

What is your current role, and how has your previous experience helped in this sector?

I’m the CEO and co-founder of CHILAM. Prior to establishing CHILAM I was in a leadership role for 10 years working for one of the world’s leading entertainment and sports streaming media providers. I’ve led large, global, multidisciplinary teams and was responsible for new key technology market launches, for example Britbox here in the UK, and Danish broadcast TV and WWE networks globally. I think there’s actually a lot of similarities between the ever-evolving world of streaming video technology and medicinal cannabis in the sense that both have been at an early adoption and evolution stage.

You’re facing on a daily basis, a very fragmented supply chain, regulatory frameworks, and really trying to understand exactly where the market is going because it is moving so quickly. You have to build solid initial teams with diverse expertise, as well as really solid commercial partnerships within the markets so that you can positively impact how you deliver the product to market and, ultimately, drive accessibility and awareness for patients. 

Why do you think we need more people coming into the space with diverse skill sets?  

One ongoing issue within the medical cannabis sector is diversity and inclusion, and the reality is that great minds don’t think alike. There’s a huge amount of merit in building teams that actually represent the country, the city or the town in which you operate as a business. When you look at where the market is, at the moment, it needs a lot more transparency and structure that needs to be introduced.

We’re operating in the medical sector, but we are handling what is deemed a controlled drug. Therefore, you need to introduce professionalism, structure and governance into your daily work life and how you operate as an organisation, so that you can build a business that’s credible, and that can also really make a difference. 

We need more of this because when you look at the talent pipelines into the industry, a lot of those are coming from STEM-related sectors. I think it’s really vital that we support STEM, and build awareness of the education and professional aspects of the STEM categories. I think we need to set up programmes that help students enter into the workforce within the medicinal cannabis sector; no different from what it’s like within other medical categories, and also science and technology-related fields.

Are there any key issues in the medical cannabis space that you are working on?

As I mentioned, around diversity inclusion and the other area is a key focus on advocating and leading a change in female health and pain management, which is really vital. It’s an underserved market and when we look at chronic disease states like endometriosis in Europe; the World Health Organisation published a paper back in May, we have now 14 million registered cases of endometriosis in Europe alone within women and there’s a lot of awareness and education that needs to happen, not just within the UK but also within the global markets to really make a change.

I think that’s also evident when you walk into a pharmacy today and what you see on the shelves, even with over the counter products I think there needs to be a significant shift, and that comes back to diversity and inclusion. That key topic is not just from a company culture and operational perspective, but it’s also how you go to market, it’s how you build communities, and how you open up education and awareness that there is a treatment out there for what is still deemed to be a chronic disease.

Do you have any hopes for the future of medicinal cannabis in the UK?

My hope is that we are in a near term future where patients are truly empowered to make their own personal decision to have access to better choices for their pain and health management. Ideally, specifically within females, that happens at a much earlier stage than coming into your late 20s or early 30s, where you know enough to be able to look into alternative pain applications. I think that also lends itself to accessibility and holistic management through the evolution of technology platforms, to assist with both access and then also management.

I think the realistic aspect as well is—a key part is on the education. If we can find better means to support and build awareness, both on the financial side, but also on the market understanding of the organisations that are focused on cannabis education—such as Medcan, PLEA, the CIC and Drug Science—,  because ultimately they are key to unlocking a huge shift in the market and patient numbers in the UK.

What is it like to work in this male dominated sector as a woman?

In my experience it’s not too dissimilar from the technology sector. You need to surround yourself with people who share the same values and that are focused on building something really special. Personally, I’ve been really extremely lucky to have an amazing group of people— both female and males—that have been on board and behind CHILAM from the infancy stage; who also have come on board either our operating board or our advisory board. They really are your ambassadors to driving better outcomes, both on a day to day basis, but also at an industry level.

I also think groups like the Women in Medical Cannabis Leadership are great, because you’re welcomed by really warm and supporting arms from all of the other members. I think this is really vital to making a difference, and feeling like you have a support network for discussing topics, challenges, and to help build a sense of community in collectively shifting this industry forward.

Is there any advice that you would give to any women looking to enter the medicinal cannabis space?

I would say it’s a really nice industry, and it’s all about unlocking opportunities. There is a big difference with the medicinal cannabis industry and other sectors, especially here in the UK, in my experience everyone has been really open and supportive.

You need to seize any opportunity for connection and networking that you get. I would also say that it’s about making sure that you do a great job, stay true to your values and beliefs, and you also make sure that you enter into a company that’s going to be able to support you on that journey.

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