Women Who Lead

Jennifer Thomas Pours into Her Journey From Professional Ballet to Corporate Law to Brewing Cannabis Beer

From startups to restaurants to high-tech corporations, women are taking the business world by storm and leaving their mark. Co-founder of Province Brands of Canada, Jennifer Thomas talks about how her experiences as a ballet dancer and as an attorney, led her to the cannabis industry.

Although she was enjoying her training as a classical ballet dancer, Jennifer Thomas felt she wasn’t stimulated enough through the art form. During college she moved into a structured career of corporate law that would eventually bridge into working with Dooma Wendschuh, to create Province Brands of Canada. The company brews beer straight from the cannabis plant—instead of infusing it into the finished product.

As an attorney, she worked for big companies such as Spanx, Pepsi, and Sysco. She worked in highly regulated industries, including the alcohol and tobacco industries and with the luxury consumer goods within them. She noticed the “companies did somewhat terrible things to consumers and the environment.”

A friend of Thomas’ told her they met a guy with a crazy idea and thought Thomas could help him bring it forward. She saw the transition into another highly regulated industry, cannabis, as a natural career progression.

During the creation process, Province takes the excess, leftover material from the cannabis plant and pre-treats it. A craftsmanship-like approach transforms it into an actual sugar and fermented into a brewed beverage.

Only four ingredients—cannabis, hops, water, and yeast—are used. Along with “clean” ingredients and structuring their facility (located in Grimsby) close to zero-waste, their mission to bring a natural alternative/product to the social scene hits a sustainability mark intuitively. Some may think their product is another party drink but alcohol and marijuana “are two psychoactive intoxicants that don’t need to be mixed,” Thomas says.

“I want to be able to have business drinks with my colleagues or with friends and family, and I don’t want the negative things that come along with it. I don’t want a hangover. I want to be at my peak performance. If cannabis is something that can supplement the lifestyle that I already have, in a social way, I’m drawn to that.”

Here, Thomas shares her insights.

What are the obstacles in your line of work?

Transitioning from saying ‘I’m a professional ballet dancer’ or ‘I’m a lawyer’ to saying ‘I’m a co-founder of a company that is creating cannabis alcoholic beverages,’ there’s a different kind of pause.

It’s interesting to go from a traditional career to where people don’t have a welcoming feeling when you tell them about what you do. That’s always constant navigation. As a person of colour, as a woman in the industry, I often find people don’t look like me.

It’s up to everyone to make sure we are bringing many different types of ideas into the fold and marketing products to consumers in all different incomes and genders. I do think sometimes there isn’t a lot of representation from other groups.

The industry has been fairly welcoming to me and it only takes each of us making the jump, to inspire other people to do it too.

You recently blogged the quote: rudeness is a weak person’s imitation of strength. Be not rude, be strong. Tell me more about what it means to you.

In a new industry, there’s a tendency for people to take the fact that we’re trailblazers and be bombastic, rude and not considerate of the world around you.

I’m always pushing my team and internally, the way we behave and the way we treat people is just as important to our function and our success as a company.

That’s a principle I really try to drive home in our corporate culture. There’s strength in being good at what you do—well researched, smart, treating people with respect—being the smartest person in the room without having to tell everyone about it.

What lesson did you learn from the discipline of ballet?

I don’t think I’ve been in any job, career or educational environment that teaches you as much vigor, ambition, and self-discipline as ballet. There is no shortcut in ballet, you always start from the beginning. Whether you’re a beginner ballerina or a senior dancer, everyone starts at the bar. You always practice and perfect small routine steps into more elaborate steps to keep getting better. Also in ballet, you are constantly in front of a mirror during classes.

You have to focus on yourself, you don’t look around and you might be in a class full of people that you’re slightly competitive with. The constant focus is self-improvement and how to make your skill better, every day, and the advances are always tiny.

You become okay with small victories—like that one more half-turn—because you know it gets you to that longer performance. There’s a stamina and self-discipline that you build up, I think that is directly transferable to being an entrepreneur.

If you’re starting a business, you have to be focused on all the tiny details and how they get you to a larger victory. You have to be self-focused, not look around at the other competitors and be excellent for yourself. That’s how ballet translates. It’s a way of thinking about yourself and about your work.

What is a way we can also support the people beside us, who are also focusing on themselves?

This is the most important thing to me. If you don’t support other people then what are you doing it for? I am a co-founder but I also run our legal and finance department. We have a junior lawyer on our team and once every few months, we get together and I tell her I don’t want her to leave Province but if she does, I want her to have something to show for her time here.

Some think if you build people up, you’ll put them in a position to leave. In my mind, where would they want to go? There’s no other place they would feel supported, where their boss would tell them I want to make sure you feel supported and your career is being developed.

I do this with everyone on my team. We set a list of goals and I say what do you want to do? How can I support that? It’s not real support if it only makes your business better. From a corporate standpoint, we don’t tear down other companies.

Imagine if more employers in the world thought this way?

The law firm model is “you eat what you kill,” meaning the person beside you is competitive with you. When you eat what you kill, you hoard, there’s natural selection and you don’t help other people advance. I promised myself if I ever got the opportunity I would do something different.