While a beauty queen title and a handsome NFL boyfriend might be the makings of a Hallmark movie, for newly minted entrepreneur Jessica VerSteeg, a seemingly perfect life in the spotlight took a traumatizing, but eventually rewarding detour.
The brunette beauty queen, who won the Miss Iowa US pageant in 2014, has launched an unlikely business in an unlikely industry, and it's because of a personal experience that forever changed her life. SWAAY spoke with VerSteeg about her crown, her difficult path, and the new marijuana business that emerged as a result.
“I would love to have my own dispensary one day," says VerSteeg, Chief Executive Officer of marijuana subscription business, AuBox. “The cannabis industry has given me a new sense of purpose."
Back in 2012, VerSteeg was gracing the covers of magazines and dating a New York Giant named Tyler Sash. The two were living in Iowa part-time, and VerSteeg said her life was like a dream.
“He bought us a home in Iowa so we could be near our families and we spent a lot of time there during the off season," says VerSteeg, a working model at the time. “I thought maybe I could become Miss Iowa and help bring attention to the state."
Her confidence proved predictive, in 2012 VerSteeg went on to compete in the Miss Iowa USA pageant, where she placed first runner up. In 2013 VerSteeg's then boyfriend was released from the Giants due to what was at least his fifth NFL concussion. VerSteeg and Sash decided to move back to Iowa full-time so Sash could be around family and focus on getting healthy. While spending more time in Iowa, VerSteeg decided to try out for Miss Iowa USA 2013 and after again being named first runner up, she entered the Miss United States pageant, the precursor to Miss World. This time VerSteeg won the 2014 Miss Iowa US crown, and went on to compete in Miss United States, where she placed in the top ten.
VerSteeg says that despite the public smiles, she was struggling at home because her partner was suffering from immense pain - emotionally, mentally, and physically. The man she loved had been changing over the last few years, developing intense mood swings, and in 2014 the changes became "scary. His depression felt like a nightmare, his memory started to slip, he was vomiting daily, and sleeping non stop," she says.
VerSteeg thought maybe Sash had early dementia due to his head injuries and increasingly erratic behavior, but the people she confided in would tell her it's impossible because he is so young. “Everyone thought I was crazy for thinking it's something more, but I knew something was seriously wrong," she says. "His actions were becoming unpredictable."
According to VerSteeg, the NFL led him to a dependency of prescription painkillers and then did nothing to help him after ending his contract. "They did nothing to help him with all of his pain, and they did nothing to slowly wean him off of the disgusting amount of painkillers they were giving him while he was playing in the NFL," says VerSteeg, who became physically and emotionally ill from the mental strain.
“You could tell something was wrong with me, but I tried to hide my stress and all of our fights for almost two years. Mostly because I thought he was going to get better and I didn't want people to judge our relationship on all of the fighting," says VerSteeg.
After trying to make the relationship work, VerSteeg says she realized she needed to move on and find peace in her own life. With the help of her parents she moved to the Bay Area and tried to regroup from the trauma of a relationship she says became abusive at times. It was at this time she began exploring the cannabis industry.
“I didn't know anyone in my new town, and that was on purpose; I used my condo as a hideaway," says VerSteeg. “San Francisco is an extremely entrepreneurial city, and there were new startups popping up all around me.
I started getting to know [these young founders] and hanging out with them. Because San Francisco is also a very weed-friendly city, I noticed many of these entrepreneurs were smoking marijuana and still creating these amazing companies that save lives or change lives. I realized weed wasn't as bad as I had thought."
After about a year of recovery, VerSteeg says she heard from Sash, who reached out as he knew she would be heading home for a visit in October.
But before she could make it back to Iowa, Sash passed away suddenly, leaving VerSteeg heartbroken and in a state of shock.
“My perfect American life just crumbled," says VerSteeg. “I thought 'Why did this happen to my Prince Charming."
Despite feeling totally deflated, it was around the same time that filming began for the Amazing Race, a show which VerSteeg had previously signed on for.
“Thankfully I had signed up for the Amazing Race and I had to go," says VerSteeg. “I had a partner I was committed to and a contract with CBS, so I stuck to my commitment and went on to film the show. We were traveling around the world yet I was stressed and in a sleep deprived state. But The Amazing Race was my life savior. It kept me going. In the end I decided life isn't about what has happened to you it's about what you can do to change it and help others. I didn't want others to suffer the way I did, the way he did, the way his fans did, the way his family and then girlfriend did, the way his teammates did. I decided if I'm going to keep going, the only way was to tell the truth about what really happened to help people in a positive way."
Looking back, VerSteeg says she wishes she knew how many pills the NFL was really giving Sash. She also wishes she had known more about CTE, but at the time the diagnosis was virtually unknown.
"The NFL hid CTE from the players and their families for a while," says VerSteeg. "After a few players passed away and had positive tests of CTE, the NFL had no choice but to acknowledge it. It's too late for the strong men we have already lost, but now future players will be aware of this disease."
Once she got her bearings after Sash's death, VerSteeg became even more committed to seeing through her cannabis idea into a business, inspired in part by her former boyfriend's memory. At the time of Sash's illness Versteeg had no idea how addictive painkillers really were and how helpful cannabis was for pain, so "looking out for his best interest I told him to not risk the NFL career he worked so hard for and to trust the NFL doctors."
However, once she learned more about cannabis, VerSteeg says, “I thought maybe if he would have smoked weed, he wouldn't have had this addiction and this accidental overdose wouldn't have happened. I started to talk to other ex-NFL players. They told me they smoked because they too were scared of the pills. At that point I knew I had to do something. I wanted to help people in pain. I rallied and picked myself back up."
Inspired by her favorite color gold and luxury, VerSteeg launched a self-funded subscription box business, comprised of marijuana inspired accessories and infused snacks. Including between five and eight items in box like 24K gold rolling papers, gilded vape pens, hemp-derived coffee, beauty products, and an ample variety of edibles like honey, gummies and elixirs, the box retails for $100, but is valued between $175 and $190 a month. Customers can choose between subscription packages for 1,3, 6 or 12 months, or individual purchases of a la cart products.
Looking to the future, VerSteeg, who spends a lot of time attending city council meetings and following how the marijuana laws are changing, is optimistic for the industry.
“I do foresee it changing, one thing I think will come into action is a way to ship and deliver across the states, but that's years ahead of us," says VerSteeg, who is currently looking for investors. “With marijuana everyone understands the laws are difficult to work with and ever-changing, and so is my business model. I would love to eventually have my own brick and mortar in LA and SF so we don't have to hire drivers to transport it so far."
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."