4/20 Women & Weed Featured Interview: Vashon Velvet

Photos by Amber Fouts (originally photographed for Seattle Met)
Interview by Meg Wachter & Jen Levy (of Greyhorse BK)

Susie Gres, Ivy Gress, and Kay Rice

Susie Gres, Ivy Gress, and Kay Rice

‘How would I feel about starting a pot farm?’ 
The last words I was expecting from my mom.
— Ivy Gress

Can you introduce yourselves? How did Vashon Velvet start, and what is your favorite part about being in the cannabis industry? 

Susie Gress: A few years ago I guess you’d describe me as a typical soccer mom. Then my husband passed away suddenly and my daughter went off to college. I had to rethink my life. There were a few false starts––I found I don’t want to live in Florida for example.  

While exploring how to reset my future I started reading about cannabis as medicine. I have a science background so it intrigued me. I found some seeds and started a little indoor grow, but I was still thinking of it as just a hobby. Then Washington announced their rules for getting a license to grow cannabis and click––that little little light bulb you see in cartoons went on over my head. There was a 30 day window to apply for a license, and if you missed it there would probably never be another chance. The application didn’t cost much, so I decided to send in the paperwork and see what developed. From there doors opened, the way they do when you are on the right path. Luckily, I had my sister Kay, Seattle’s top designer, to call on to create our packaging and artwork, and my talented daughter to create a brand and get us on the shelves.

Kay Rice: Vashon Velvet started out as quite a surprise of an idea, that I was 100% into from day one. I have no clue how to grow, but I love graphic design & packaging. The beautiful thing was that we all had our unique talents that we brought to Vashon Velvet - and not having any pre conceived ideas on how to grow or how to package, we did what we felt was right for us. My favorite part of being in the business is being so proud of our product!

Ivy Gress: I was just graduating from college and was ready to send in my acceptance to law school when my mom called and said she had a question, “How would I feel about her starting a pot farm?” The last words I was expecting from my mom. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to be a part of what I saw as a once in a lifetime opportunity. I decided to put aside my law school plans and move back to Washington after graduation. To me the decision was easy, and about much more than cannabis. I was raised by two true self-made and scrappy entrepreneurs, with my Mom being the force that guided my Dad to success. My mom’s new venture into cannabis was an opportunity for me to learn from my parent’s business experience while being guided by the strongest woman I know. 

What makes Vashon Velvet different from other cannabis farms? 

Susie Gress:Being run by women makes more of a difference than I thought it would. Most of the male growers I know spend a lot of time on what I call plant torturing.  They trim and prune, twist and bend, until the poor plants look like poodles. We have a more motherly approach to growing. We honor the plants, and believe they know how to grow.  Happy plants resist pests and disease, and make the best buds. Our flower room is a happy place. I was really proud when Dr Ethan Russo, a world famous cannabis researcher, visited our farm and said it was the most pleasant grow he had ever been in.  

We are dedicated to growing with environmentally conscious methods and with natural nutrients, so use all high quality LED lights designed to provide the specific light spectrum plants need. We grow hydroponically because it is the most water conservative growing method––not a drop is wasted. Plus, in my trials, the soil grown plants produced smaller buds.  

Being run by women makes more of a difference than I thought it would. Most of the male growers I know spend a lot of time on what I call plant torturing. They trim and prune, twist and bend, until the poor plants look like poodles. We have a more motherly approach to growing. We honor the plants, and believe they know how to grow. Happy plants resist pests and disease, and make the best buds.
— Susie Gress

How would you describe your experience in working together as a mother-daughter duo? In what ways does that affect your personal relationship with one-another?

Susie Gress: I am the first to say that we would not be where we are today if it weren’t for Ivy. When you start a business it takes 150% of your time and energy, and if one partner is ready for that commitment but the other isn’t it’s a disaster. While I concentrated on growing plants, she took the lead on everything else- getting the packaging designed and ordered, handling social media, and most important, building relationships in the industry that put us on the shelves.  

There have been times when we have butted heads, sometimes she wins and sometimes I do, but at the end of the day we take off our Vashon Velvet hats and are mom and daughter again. I think she is the brightest, hardest working woman on earth and I think she feels the same about me. Does it get any better than that?

Ivy Gress: This has been the best learning experience I could have ever imagined. As I mentioned before, my Mom has years of small business experience under her belt. From pulp and paper to garbage to marinas, she’s proven it really doesn’t matter what industry she enters––Susan Gress is one of the strongest, most business savvy entrepreneurs out there. Beyond learning how to deliver the perfect sales pitch or how to analyze P&L statements, my mom has taught me the importance of kindness in business. From her I’ve learned that when you are kind to the people you work with then people want to be kind to you. Happy employees means a happy workplace means happy plants means incredible cannabis!

Having my mother as my guide, my boss, and my business partner has been a blessing to say the least. In this situation, having my boss also be my mom means that every move we make is done with both me and Vashon Velvet’s success in mind. It doesn’t matter how healthy the culture of a company may be, there’s not a CEO in the world who will have your back like your own mother. 

What has been your personal experience in being a female-owned and operated business in the cannabis industry?

Susie Gress: It’s funny, but I didn’t think about being woman owned as anything special until someone mentioned it. Maybe it’s because anyone entering the cannabis world tends to be pretty progressive, but I can’t think of any time we have been treated with anything but kindness and respect from the retail store owners or other growers we deal with, men or women. I am the only woman on the board of the Washington Cannabusiness Association. Most of the men on the board own companies much larger than ours, but they always go out of their way to be helpful both in business and personally.  

Of course I come from a time when discrimination was not subtle.  As a chemical engineer working in the paper making industry, back in the day I was told I should stay home because I was taking a man’s job.  Thank goodness those days are gone––I hope.

Ivy Gress: This is always a tricky question for me because I understand the uniqueness of our all female company, but at the same time I wish accomplishments weren’t associated with gender. My mom has always taught me that true feminism means I am just as capable as my male counterparts––I am not a female in cannabis, I am a person in cannabis. 

That being said, I think the question is asked so often in this industry specifically because cannabis has traditionally been geared towards males. You see it less and less today, but when we were first getting started bikini models were used to sell anything from a dab rig to hydroponic nutrients. Personally I believe my experience as a woman in business in cannabis brings me roughly the same challenges as any other woman in business. Hopefully one day we will feel less of a need for women specific business groups. To me feminism is about equality, I believe women belong in the larger conversation. 

Are you concerned about our current administration their stance on marijuana – recreational and otherwise? 

Susie Gress: Attorney General Sessions has said that he probably won’t go after states that operate under the Cole memo, a list put out by Obama’s attorney general that said the fed’s won’t bother states that do things like keep pot away from children, don’t allow interstate transfer, etc. We are very lucky in Washington because our Liquor and Cannabis Board has done a great job of creating a system that closely follows the Cole memo, so we should be protected. 

My concern now is the new Drug Czar, Tom Marino. He has consistently voted against things like allowing CBD as medicine, and says he will only vote for cannabis if thorough research shows it is effective as medicine and then it must be in pill form. So much ignorance about this wonderful plant.

Susie Gress with her happy plants

Susie Gress with her happy plants

Why do you think there is still so much stigma surrounding the use of weed? 

Susie Gress: To me it’s amazing how fast it is becoming accepted. I grew up in the reefer madness days. We were told if we tried one puff of marijuana we would end up in a ditch with a needle in our arm. I think the media attention given to the obvious benefits of CBD as medicine was the first crack in the wall. People who would never dream of ‘getting high’ go to a store for CBD and become educated about our bodies endocannabinoid system, and the medicinal effects of the whole plant, including THC and terpenes.

What are your favorite uses for marijuana recreationally? What are the best success stories who've heard of it used medically?

Susie Gress: Uh oh, don’t get me started. First I would like to correct some common misconceptions. All marijuana is medicinal, both THC and CBD strains. Even the state of Washington had to admit this when they tried to make separate rules for medical and recreational pot. The only difference is that cannabis sold with the state ‘medicinal’ sticker has had more tests done to detect illegal pesticides. 

Second, world famous medicinal cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo, MD, has taught us that 100% CBD does nothing, and 100% THC will leave you curled up crying in the fetal position.  You need a combination to be effective as medicine, which he calls the entourage effect. In combination he says that there is no doubt cannabis kills cancer. 

I am not a female in cannabis, I am a person in cannabis. 
— Ivy Gress

I have been researching cannabis as an aid to women who lose their sex drive after menopause. It’s something people joke about, but it ruins a lot of marriages when the husband still wants a sexual relationship and the wife would much rather read a book. I searched the world for a cannabis strain that would be an effective aphrodisiac for women (men have entirely different CB receptor distribution) and I finally found it in our Canna Sutra strain. Women’s reproductive systems are rich in CB 1 and CB 2 receptors, and a little smoke of Canna Sutra can work wonders. I have given talks to several women’s groups about how cannabis has been used for ‘female complaints’ and as a female aphrodisiac by my many cultures throughout the world, for thousands of years.  

Some of the women I speak to come back to tell me that not only had they “totally forgotten how fantastic sex can be”, but that it had reinvigorated their marriage in a way that carried over to a renewal of affection they hadn’t experience in years.  

What plans does Vashon Velvet have for the future?

We don’t want an empire, we just want to be able to grow great medicine. Our biggest problem has been that we can’t grow enough to keep up with demand. We are working with some other growers who haven’t been able to market their product very well. We want to share our special strains and growing methods with them, and perhaps allow them to grow under our name so more people can enjoy Vashon Velvet’s beautiful cannabis.

What women do you currently "crush on" or admire?

I definitely have a crush on Jody Hall, owner of the cannabis edibles company The Goodship, as well as the Cupcake Royale chain. She is nothing short of inspirational. Jody created ‘Higher Education’ nights, that remind me of something where Gertrude Stein and Hemingway would have hung out. She invites an interesting speaker to explore a topic like infinity, or architecture of the future, and asks guests to come “pre-loaded’. They are the hottest tickets in town.  When I asked Jody the secret to her bold business decisions she said "Just keep looking up, never look down.” Great advice.  

ALL marijuana is medicinal... The only difference is that cannabis sold with the state ‘medicinal’ sticker has had more tests done to detect illegal pesticides.
— Susie Gress
Vashon Velvet grow room

Vashon Velvet grow room