Since Colorado first legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, 16 other states have joined in, including 5 new states in 2020 alone. With 321,000 full-time jobs and over $18.3 billion worth of sales in the last year, cannabis is the fastest-growing industry in the United States. But like so many markets with massive money-making potential, the make-up of those getting in on the ground floor is exceedingly and unsurprisingly white.
Our Academy is a volunteer-run, non-profit mentorship and workshop program that provides social equity applicants and BIPOC independent cannabis entrepreneurs with the resources and contacts they need to thrive in the legal cannabis industry. In their 13-week digital program, mentees learn how to approach investors, negotiate contracts, apply for licenses, set up a supply chain network, market their brands, and build communities around their products. In their 2020 debut class, more than half of the 110 participants were paired with mentors who specialized in various sectors, from law to business to advertising.
Whether participants come from the legacy market or new businesses, with ideas or without, Our Academy’s aim is to help people from systemically disadvantaged communities get a piece of the pot pie.
The People Behind The Plants
Tre Hobbs grew up immersed in the legacy market in Detroit, Michigan. He pursued professional football as a way to escape it, but got injured early on. Soon after, he returned to selling cannabis. Tre wanted to find a way to take care of himself and his family without the risk, so he travelled west to all the states where weed was legal, growing his network and taking in as much information as he could. He found Our Academy on social media.
“Honestly I thought it was some B.S.,” he said with a laugh. “But I got into it and at the first meeting, I was like, ‘This is what I needed.’ It came at the perfect time.” Tre learned how to leverage his skills from the legacy market and to apply them to a legal business, though starting that journey felt unrealistic at the start. “It seemed like a giant.”
But in just 3 months, all of that changed. “I know what the hell an SOP is now, a pitch deck. Now I know all of this terminology,” he said. “The way they deliver that information is in a way that I can understand it.” But perhaps most enriching was the way in which these lessons showed mentees that they could be a part of something bigger than themselves. “I learned how to value myself, how to go into a room of investors even though I come from where I come from.”
Neighborhood Essentials is Tre’s company. It is an indoor flower line that is committed to both sustainable products and sparking the next generation of minority business owners. Additionally, part of the proceeds go toward food and education programs in South Central L.A. and Detroit.
In 2020, Miko Banks became the first woman of color to receive a cannabis Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for a ground build-up incubator facility in Sacramento, California. In addition to Our Academy, she is a Sacramento (CORE) graduate. Many programs in the United States help participants get the licenses they need to start their businesses, but leave out the key elements that lead to success. “It’s very difficult to find locations,” she said over Zoom, and after finding a piece of land, many questions remained about what to do next. “I didn’t have the resources after I finished the Sacramento (CORE) program. That’s where I found Our Academy.”
Like so many other entrepreneurs taking advantage of cannabis equity programs, Miko is concerned with more than just her own achievements. She wants others to follow. Resziin Farms, of which she is the founder and CEO, contains six suites that start-up businesses can use in conjunction with mentoring and networking opportunities to grow their products. “The ‘War on Drugs’ left people that look and live like me severely disadvantaged and fearful about what is now a thriving marketplace,” she said. Which is one reason why so many people of color, especially those coming from the legacy market, are slow to getting involved.
Javier Armas was born and raised in Oakland, California. He began selling weed at the age of 14, and began organizing walk-outs against prison formations by the age of 16. He became a budtender when his close friend opened a club in Hayward, and continued to find work in that role through college. “The DEA shut down the club and my friend went to jail, and that had a big impact on me.” He learned early on what kind of risk was involved with cannabis.
Through his experiences selling weed both in the legacy market and as a budtender, Javier grew to understand the nuances of that role in a way that many of his peers did not. “I saw that budtenders didn’t have a proper education, which planted a seed in me.” Javier published Budtender Education, a guide to selling cannabis in the legal market from an Oakland equity perspective, available in English and Spanish.
“All the cannabis educators and institutions have nothing to say about the retail experience,” he said. Yet, budtenders are expected to sell hundreds of pounds of weed. “That pressure is enormous, intense, and there is zero literature about it.”
With the book getting off the ground, Javier is launching a 12-week series in conjunction with Stiiizy’s new equity store in San Francisco. The owner, Cindy de la Vega, is not only the first Latina to own and operate a cannabis dispensary in San Francisco, but she is also a community organizer with BALCA, the Bay Area Latino Cannabis Alliance, of which Javier is the founding member.
“We’re building a community organization that’s about empowering everyone,” he said. They are 100% volunteer with no corporate connections.
Kimberly Dillon is the founder of Frigg, a hemp and adaptogen health wellness brand, and Plant & Prosper, an agency that offers marketing strategies to equity cannabis companies. Before that she was the Chief Marketing Officer at Papa & Barkley, making her the first black CMO in the industry. She comes from a corporate background, and holds an MBA from the University of Michigan. She joined Our Academy as a mentor and workshop host in 2020.
“I watched as social equity was going pretty poorly in L.A.” she said, noting how few people of color were being included in the cannabis boom. “It was always important to me to give back and pay homage.” Kimberly’s educational and professional background supplied evidence of how a successful business is run, and more importantly, how people of color can fit in.
Because there is so much potential for financial gain, “a lot of what’s happening in this industry is in secret,” Kimberly said. “There’s a lot of mafia mentality. There are all of these groups that just do not have alliances. Collaboration does not happen. It’s very sharky.” This same attitude permeates through the equity programs that give you an idea of what you need, but not the full picture. “They say, here’s how you pitch, but there was no template. Here’s how you build a business model, but it was a screenshot of a balance sheet. The tools weren’t really tools. That’s the difference with this program. Everyone is in the grind, doing the work right next to you, cheering you on, and putting in that sweat energy.” This emphasis on working together, on celebrating the entire cohort’s success rather than the program itself, is a big reason why so many people want to get involved with Our Academy.
Rusty Wilenkin, the CEO of Old Pal, and a mentor and workshop host who found Our Academy through the marketing side of his company, added, “Our Academy’s philosophy really aligned with ours, and we, being a cannabis company founded by two younger white guys, really wanted to give back and be a good part of the community.” Rusty not only offered his knowledge, but his contacts as well, helping his mentee Charles of Cannabis on Fire to ramp up production.
“It was easy to do for two reasons. One: his business is not competitive to ours, it’s positioned differently, it’s a different message, different everything. And two: we believe that a rising tide lifts all ships, and there’s enough to go around.” For Rusty, like so many other mentors in the program, “being able to help good people is almost as important as doing good business.” And this sentiment rings true for nearly everyone who goes through an equity program as thoughtful and involved as Our Academy. The reward of lending a hand becomes contagious.
As a mentee, mentor, and workshop host, Morris Kelly learned above all how valuable it was to constantly be creating new relationships, and how Our Academy gave that first step that led to many. “I never would have been able to put myself in a position to have a mentor that had that kind of experience in the industry,” he said, “someone that has been there before, who’s done the things I’ve done, who could give me first-hand advice.” Morris is the CEO and founder of SF Roots, San Francisco’s first verified social equity brand. As a mentor, he was able to pass that on, speaking with individuals who were like him, only they had not yet transitioned into the legal market.
“Trying to transition from the traditional industry to the legal market, like, you have to be mentally prepared to do that.” Not only do you have to learn how to apply for licenses, speak to lawyers, and sell your products in a new way, but you also have to give up the streams of revenue that you previously relied on. But it’s more than just a business risk, it is a leap of faith.
“When I took that leap of faith, I was facing considerable time in jail, I was fighting my case. But, I’m letting [my mentees] know that I don’t have those same worries anymore, and I’m still selling a shitload of pot,” he said, making everyone on the Zoom call smile. “It’s doable. You can relax, feed your family, give your brothers jobs, and really create something.”
Which touches on the profound change that Hilary Yu and Timeka Drew, the founders of Our Academy, are tackling in earnest.
Tackling Legal and Financial Risks
People of color have always taken on substantial risk in the legacy market. Not only are they more likely to be stopped by police, but they are also more likely to be sentenced to harsher punishments than their white counterparts. But starting something in the legal market had its own risks, many of which were completely foreign to those in the legacy market. “There were a lot of these horror stories of equity applicants signing contracts with aggressive and unrealistic loan terms,” said Hilary, and many “could strip them of any control over their own businesses because they didn’t have the right counsel and were misleadingly told they could make millions.”
Hilary conducted dozens of interviews through Our Dream, her media platform that centers on minorities in the cannabis space. Timeka, an activist and equity applicant, traveled all around the country talking to social equity entrepreneurs and future license-holders about what they have and what they need as they try to compete in the industry. The recurring theme was the “lack of a real network.” Timeka explains, “there is not one singular ‘solve’ (i.e. a license, an investor, a retail partnership) that would adequately address their lack of a competitive edge in an industry dominated by white men who are already independently wealthy.”
And the same standard permeates almost all business encounters in the industry. “It’s like the PPP loans,” said Morris. “You had a rush of corporate companies that were able to scoop up a large amount of these funds because they had accountants, they had, literally, finance departments waiting to push this paperwork through, and they were able to get it.” It’s the exact same thing that’s happening with cannabis as it grows into a white-washed financial honey pot. “We don’t have the same resources, but we’re expected to compete, and then we are looked down upon for not having these resources that were never [available] to us.”
Connections, not money, is what really defines wealth and success in a hungry capitalist ecosystem. “The craziest part is that we don’t even know about it,” he said. “We know that people have rich parents, and that trickles down, but, all we know is the hustle.” And even with the aid, the hustle remains, but by “creating a system where everybody works together, even though people may not have the financial resources,” says Hilary, “that creates connections that add more value to each other than if they just had the money.”
This held true for many of the entrepreneurs I interviewed, who said that quality relationships that extended into the future were the most important part of what they took away from their experience. “Our Academy did not give me a silver bullet, like, this is your answer,” said Javier. “It gave me a rich community with all of these interesting people with great ideas who want to collaborate.” When I asked if these relationships really did continue after the final days of the program, the answer was a resounding “Heck yeah. I’m still in contact with my mentor to this day.” They follow each other on social media, reach out with new projects, and find ways to support each other’s work.
But most important, and most resistant to alteration, is the philosophy at heart of American business. “[Our Academy] has changed my outlook on industry in general,” said Kimberly. “Collaboration and conscious capitalism is the way forward. Collaboration over competition.” Learning how to help one another, and seeing that as a way to help ourselves.
“It doesn’t have to be a dog-eat-dog world the way it is in the legacy market,” said Tre. And for the first time in our nation’s history, we can finally see industry begin to heal the scars of our past. “We can spread the dream of creating generational wealth within our communities,” said Morris, “and the first step of that is being able to provide economic support, and past that, providing education.”
“At the end of the day, we want to see good people win,” said Hilary. “We named it ‘Our Dream,’ and the non-profit side of this organization ‘Our Academy,’ because this is really a collective that belongs to all of us and will require a collaborative group effort to keep this program and our dream of creating a better society and a better industry with higher standards.”
Our Academy offers programs to mentees free of charge. Below are some ways you can help support them or get involved in the program:
Learn more about the program at thisisourdream.com/our-academy/