As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Elana Goldberg.
Elana is the CEO of The Cannigma, an evidence-based cannabis education platform. She got her start as a breaking news editor at The Jerusalem Post before becoming the managing editor of the online edition. Elana has 15 years of experience in digital publishing and online content, spanning journalism, non-profit, and the private sector. She excels at building and educating online audiences, crafting clear messages, and developing industry experts into successful writers. Elana is passionate about The Cannigma’s mission to make credible and science-backed cannabis information accessible to those who need it.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I guess I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. I started keeping a journal when I was around 5 years old, and loved sending letters from Sydney to my cousins in Israel from an early age. To me, people and their stories are just so compelling — as a way to learn and to teach, to understand and to grow.
This is how I explain my love for digital content — sculpting clear messages, understanding why people click where, educating audiences — but really, it kind of happened by accident. I moved to Israel when I was 23, and a friend from my first job here — a call center for AOL — got a job at The Jerusalem Post and recommended I apply, too. I got the job, worked my ass off from day one, and the rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading The Cannigma?
After spending a year helping to build The Cannigma as chief content officer, I took over as CEO in August last year. This change came as a result of months-long strategic alignment process that the former management team and I went through to hone in on the right direction for the company. When we started the process, I wouldn’t have dreamed that this would be the direction we’d end up taking — both in terms of the publisher focus and my leadership — but as we progressed it became clear that it was our best bet.
That process was a major learning curve for me — I was confident in my professional abilities as a content creator and team leader, but the business world was relatively new for me, and I had to learn fast. And of course, stepping into this role during the pandemic made it even more challenging, with rolling lockdowns and restrictions shaping the way we worked. Lucky for me, I had our brilliant COO, Wassim Bahous, an experienced entrepreneur, to guide me through the transition.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh of course, I’ve got billions! When we began building The Cannigma, I was sure I’d be able to build out the content like I’d done on many other websites and projects — find talented journalists (I knew many), give them a good brief, edit thoroughly, and publish. Easy!
Not so much.
While the first few pieces I commissioned were fine from a pure writing perspective, we found that even with thorough research, writers with no experience in the cannabis space were unable to dig into the science and explain the complex issues in a satisfactory manner. Our head of content strategy, Matan Weil, knew this all along of course — but I had to do it my way first to learn the lesson.
From then we started building what is now a pool of dozens of cannabis and science writers, advisors — so we always have the right person to write and review every article.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m a big believer in having a solid personal advisory board. The two team members I already mentioned — Wassim and Matan — are key figures on mine, as well as my brilliant former manager and mentor, my siblings who are all professional leaders themselves, and last but not least, my husband, Uri.
Not to go all Frank Underwood on you, but Uri is basically my secret weapon. A former McKinsey consultant and government policy analyst, he gives me notes on every presentation (as well as listening to me practice over and over), challenges my business assumptions, and offers guidance on investor management.
When I took over as CEO, Uri helped me to build a 100-day plan — mapping out my most important goals and the tactics I would use to achieve them as I settled in. For Uri, having worked with dozens of new CEOs of much larger organizations, this was a no brainer, crucial for success.
Throughout those intense first few months, I was able to come back to this roadmap whenever I was at a loss for what I was meant to be focusing on. It was incredibly rewarding to look back on the plan at the end of that initial period and find that I’d been able to cross almost everything off the list.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I take something of a mix-and-match approach here, depending on the situation.
If I’m feeling low on energy I’ll move around a bit — maybe throw on some music and dance, do some pushups, lift some weights, or get out and take the dog for a walk. Of course, this sort of approach is much easier when we’re working from home!
If I’m feeling nervous or doubting myself, I might use the RAIN meditation technique, something I learned recently as part of my training to become a certified mindfulness teacher. The acronym stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture — and I find it can be very powerful in managing big emotions when they’re present.
I’ve also been known to go in the other direction — perhaps a more masculine approach — and employ some techniques I learned when studying Neuro Linguistic Processing (NLP), and in Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within workshop. Things like power poses, positive mantras, and role playing. I find I need to suspend my cynicism a bit for some of these — but they can definitely work!
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for The Cannigma to have a diverse executive team?
I think actually the whole world is facing something of a self-reckoning on the race and DEI front — though the details and timelines differ somewhat. Understanding the power differentials and patterns of oppression that underlie our societies is a crucial first step to rectifying them and creating a new, more balanced way to being — which I believe we’re moving towards globally.
And cannabis is a perfect example. There are really no good reasons that this plant was made illegal some 100 years ago, and instead many stories that are steeped in racism and misinformation. And if you look at the United States specifically, the brunt of the “War on Drugs” has fallen on Black Americans. Happily, we’re currently witnessing the end of cannabis prohibition, and there are many initiatives focused on giving a second chance to people who were harmed by cannabis regulations in the past.
So back to Team Cannigma, we value diversity first and foremost because it fits into our wider values. But it’s also important because of the cannabis story specifically, and because our audience is diverse. Cannabis patients and consumers — and potential patients and consumers — span all ages, races, and socioeconomic strata.
I love our diverse team — and not just because of the variety of foods we all bring to the office when we meet in person (think Arab desserts, French cheeses, Norwegian cakes, British baked goods, American chocolates, and Aussie wine!). Our differences also bring varied points of view — which in turn means we’re able to produce content from a more nuanced and race-informed perspective.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
One of the imbalances I’ve been working to rectify in Team Cannigma recently is the gender balance — and I’m constantly surprised by how difficult it is. I guess I’d think that as a female CEO it would just be easy and obvious, but it’s just not that simple.
If you look at the hiring process for example, it starts from the moment we start going through CVs. More men apply for all of our positions by far, and they seem to be more confident to submit an application even if they don’t perfectly fit the job description. So if I’m not intentional about egalitarian screening practices, I find myself interviewing more men than women, which of course means that the chances of me eventually hiring a man for the role are higher to begin with. After that, I find that the confidence piece is often an important factor. At this stage I’m really looking for people who can get into the Israeli startup vibe, get their hands dirty, speak up when they see issues, work independently and bring ideas to the table — and of course these aren’t inherently gendered traits, but I do find that men are more likely to say and act like they’re up for it than their female counterparts.
So it’s a combination of being aware of my own ingrained predispositions and prejudices, questioning my own beliefs and “gut feelings,” and overriding them when necessary. We’re still nowhere close to where I’d like us to be on this front, but we’re working on it — and I imagine we’ll need to keep working on it once we get there, too.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I believe it’s right there in the name — a CEO’s chief role is to execute. Yes, there’s also management and PR and investor relations and many other important responsibilities in there, but my primary function is to make sure the machine is running at its best.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
It differs from organization to organization, but for me one myth that comes to mind is that I don’t do the small stuff anymore — I do plenty of it! I’m fanatic about keeping my inbox and calendar in order — because I believe this is key to keeping my flow — and thus the flow of the organization — running smoothly. I approve every invoice, vacation day, and new hire. I edit articles. Of course, other members of the team also take responsibility in each of these areas — but I’m still involved.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
In my experience, many of the challenges come from within. For me personally, moving forward in my career and stepping into bigger leadership roles required digging into my own beliefs about myself in the workplace. I found that I was often worried that exhibiting my more female characteristics at work — such as being emotionally expressive or nurturing — would be judged unfavorably by my male counterparts. And don’t get me wrong — sometimes that’s true! But I ultimately decided that holding back on my own instincts wasn’t in anyone’s best interest. The more I was able to let go of that fear of being judged for not fitting the male business leader mold, the easier it was for me to forge my own professional path.
This sort of second guessing and pandering to the male majority is a massive, ongoing challenge for women executives. I hope that we can ease this in the coming years by speaking to each other, to the men we work with and, perhaps most importantly, to our junior female employees and our daughters. Setting a good example is key here.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Honestly, I didn’t really have that many preconceived notions of how this job would be — and I certainly don’t think it’s the classic CEO role in any case. We’re still very young and dynamic, the majority of our growth took place during the global pandemic, and Wassim and I have a unique split on the CEO-COO division of responsibilities. I’m just taking it as it comes!
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There are many different types of leaders, and thus many different types of executives. I think that in general people who are driven by making a difference, love working with people, and can deal with some basic mathematics when needed are going to make better executives — but I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions that prove the rule. I suppose I wouldn’t encourage someone with low energy who hates talking to people to shoot for the c-suite — but why would they?? Personally, I don’t think anyone should avoid aspiring to anything — as Theodor Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Don’t be afraid to bring your whole self into your work. You’re going to do things differently than a man in your position would (or any other person for that matter) — embrace that and your team will thank you for it. That doesn’t mean throwing professionalism out the window — but it might mean a bit more sharing of feelings than most businesses are used to, and that’s okay.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I think the two roles that I’ve gotten the most out of in my career — this one and being managing editor of JPost.com — both aimed to make the world a better place, starting with information. Say what you want about the media but I strongly believe in the core values of journalism — speaking the truth, public accountability, and impartiality. The more access the public has to information that fits these standards, the better our societies can be. These values were central to my work and management in news media, and they drive a lot of what we do at The Cannigma, too.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Double, triple, quadruple check every number before you send it out. This is equally important for monthly excels you send to your board and proposals for prospective clients. Once you’ve given someone a number it’s basically impossible to back out.
- Make a 100-day plan — and refer back to it often. Luckily my husband did actually tell me this very early on and it was a lifesaver.
- Understand your unofficial advisory board. Professional advisors like accountants and lawyers should be consulted early in your term and then as needed. And don’t skimp on these! If something goes wrong on the legal or financial fronts it’s going to end up costing you a whole lot more. Professional advisors from within the company or your field are just as important — of course sometimes you need to be able to make quick decisions without consulting everyone you know, but for the big ones good advice can be crucial. And lastly, personal advisors — mentors, friends or family members who you trust — can round out the professional advice you receive.
- Sleep on big decisions. Yes, being decisive is important — but so is making the right decision. I find that making a decision and then waiting a few hours before executing helps me to feel more whole with my decisions, knowing that I’ve considered every last angle. After that — let it go.
- Remember that not everyone on your team sees the company as their baby (nor should they). I have to remind myself of this often, especially because a lot of Team Cannigma really does feel the same as me about our mission and path. But the fact is that employees need to be taken care of to keep energies high, and zooming out can give you this important perspective.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe that a world with less alcohol, nicotine and pharmaceutical use and more cannabis use would be a calmer, healthier world. Younger people and older people would be a great place to start here. Imagine less teen binge drinking and more movies and snacks. And less senior citizens taking dozens of pills a day, and more experimenting with cannabis oils and vaping. This change is happening, but there are ways we can all help it along — such as educating healthcare providers, showing positive cannabis references in media, and setting personal examples.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Buddhist meditation practices have been hugely influential in my personal journey, helping me find peace in the present moment, focus on what’s really important at any given time, and connect with my truth. But I don’t believe we need to be heavy and serious to be deep and meaningful. Wassim recently gave me a poster that hangs next to my desk that sums it up pretty well: “Inhale the good shit, exhale the bullshit.”
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
We’ve been trying to get Seth Rogen on our podcast, The Cannabis Enigma, for the past few months. Here’s a video we made to invite — if you can get him to join us we’ll give you a shoutout on the episode!