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 in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.