Recreational cannabis was still illegal when Nancy Whiteman left her high-paying consulting job to cook edibles in Boulder, Colorado, in 2010.
Four years later, the state legalized retail sales of marijuana, and Whiteman's gamble paid off. The 64-year-old founder of edible cannabis company Wana is now one of the richest self-made women in the U.S., with a net worth of $225 million, according to Forbes.
"I like to say I went from the most traditional industry to the least traditional industry," Whiteman told CNBC Make It in 2018. "I wanted a business where I could build value, and it didn't depend on me. I also love to cook."
Much of Whiteman's fortune comes from selling Wana for $350 million in 2021 to Canopy Growth, an Ontario, Canada-based cannabis company. She owned 100% of the company at the time of the acquisition — and was paid an initial installment of $297.5 million in up-front cash, according to the sale announcement.
Whiteman remains CEO of Wana today. It all started with the father of her daughter's friend, who dropped hints in conversation that he worked in a somewhat illicit industry, Forbes reported earlier this month.
That "got my undivided attention," Whiteman told Forbes.
Initially, Whiteman and her then-husband, John Whiteman, decided to team up with the friend's father and experiment together in a local commercial kitchen. Within a year, the couple decided to go it alone, investing between $50,000 and $60,000 of their own money to start Wana from their kitchen.
Without outside funding, Wana conducted market research by visiting dispensaries to see what was popular, and the couple often had to cover payroll with their personal cash, Whiteman said. She also picked up occasional marketing consulting jobs to make ends meet, she now tells CNBC Make It.
She and John got divorced at the end of 2011, but decided to remain business partners. Colorado legalized off-the-shelf cannabis sales for dispensaries in 2014, and as nationwide interest in edibles grew, so did Wana's annual revenue.
By 2017, it had climbed to $14.5 million — up from just $100,000 in its first year, Whiteman told CNBC Make It in 2018. A year later, Whiteman bought John's remaining shares in the company.
In the 13 years since Wana launched, 23 states and Washington D.C. have legalized recreational cannabis use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some experts warn the booming growth is slowing, partially because many people are trying to create and sell their own edibles. U.S. cannabis sales skyrocketed during the early days of the pandemic, but revenue stalled and then dropped in 2022.
That's a challenge for Wana, which is now leaving California — the U.S.'s largest cannabis market — and is in the process of exiting Oregon.
"We happened to enter the market just as wholesale pricing started to really plummet," Whiteman told Forbes. "We ended up in an unenviable position of being a very expensive product in a market that was experiencing serve price compression."
Correction: A chart in this story has been updated to reflect that medical cannabis is legal in Oklahoma.
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