“You may not know where you want to be in five years because your job may not exist yet.”
My best friend sent me these words from an inspirational Instagram post. She said the quote reminded her of me, and it was refreshing to feel understood at that moment as a female at the forefront of the cannabis industry. I thought about what my last five years had been like and what the next five years to come would entail; I was clueless, but ready for anything. This same drive was evident in the other Asian entrepreneurs working in the cannabis industry we interviewed in this story. I remember that quote as it relates to each of us today as Asian and Asian Americans embarking upon the exciting and uncharted world of legalized cannabis.
My parents are first-generation immigrants from the Philippines. As such, I firmly believe they would have never expected me to end up in this industry. In fact, I hid my interest in it at first. Even when cannabis was legalized in the state of California, I still thought it best to not share my career with my parents until I could prove its merits as a profession. Looking back, I’m not sure what I was more afraid of: that my parents would find out I was working with a taboo drug, or that they would deduce that I enjoyed smoking it. I don’t know which was more shameful because similar to my peers, I kept my habit a secret. We consumed cannabis behind closed doors because we feared our families could never understand. Yet the power of the plant had already made its impact on us. The results were real: cannabis not only helped us live mindfully and with more balance, but it also revealed a path to create career opportunities on our own terms, unlike any other industry.
Ryon Wu, a model and cannabis enthusiast, is passionate about embarking on his own virtual reality rituals while consuming at home to chill out. When on set, Ryon lights up at the opportunity to show his support for Wizman, a Hong Kong-based vape company with a kitschy, video game-inspired aesthetic. Ryon leverages his social following to promote the brand and normalize the idea of “Oriental stoners.” Although he is open about sharing his cannabis usage on social media, he has no interest in telling his family about his consumption.
When asked what his parents might say if they ever found out, Ryon says, “I will continue to use cannabis because it helps me mentally and physically. And although I keep it a secret from my family, I wouldn’t mind if they found out because I feel that cannabis shouldn’t be viewed negatively. Slowly but surely, it will get the positive recognition that it deserves.”
Siblings Ayumi and Kensuke Hanaoka co-founded 2WNTY3, a brand infusing art, music, fashion, and other cultural components into its line of cannabis vape and concentrate products. (Their brother Daisuke, not pictured here, is also part of the company). Before launching 2WNTY3, Kensuke worked in the cannabis space, pre-legalization. His mother had reservations. However, Kensuke speaks of their late father as “quite the progressive entrepreneur” and doesn’t think he’d disapprove of the venture. Their mother has since come around to the idea of them working in cannabis. The only thing she asks of the siblings now is to ensure they won’t let business negatively impact their relationship with one another.
The siblings have combined their expertise in 2WNTY3 to jumpstart a movement in the industry. As the oldest sibling, Kensuke brings nearly a decade of experience in cannabis to the team; Daisuke works directly with oil and concentrates, and Ayumi brings her fashion background to the brand. 2WNTY3 promotes PLANT—“Peace Love And Natural Treatment”—a mantra that represents #plantlife and holistic wellness.
As the visionary behind the brand, Ayumi infuses this mantra into product that speaks to different types of people, especially those who remain secretive about their use. “Whether you’re Asian, a sneakerhead, a fashionista, a lazy stoner, an athlete, a punk, a snob, rich, poor [or] any type of person or group, 2WNTY3 can apply and fit somehow in your life.”
Michelle Lhooq, a music journalist who has covered raves all over the world, has been connecting the dots for some time now. Her goal is to change the conversation around both rave and cannabis culture.
She understands that people don’t associate weed with rave culture, “It surprises me because there are a lot of rave histories that are intertwined with weed,” says Michelle. “For example, [certain genres of electronic music like] dub music, jungle music, and drum and bass are really, really covered in weed. But I think that it suffers this reputation of being a substance that will put you to sleep.”
Michelle disagrees and believes that PLANT is spiritually synonymous with the rave mantra of PLUR (“Peace, Love, Unity, Respect”) and brings that to life in her party series, Weed Rave. She believes that “weed pulls you into music and heightens your enjoyment of it” and cannabis is the more holistic approach to self-care—especially when you’re dancing! Michelle also recently authored a new cannabis-insider book, Weed, Everything You Want to Know But Are Always Too Stoned to Ask. She decided to reveal her relationship with cannabis when the book deal was solidified. Her parents, who are based in Singapore, took the news well, seeing that Michelle is gaining success in the industry.
For Vince Ning and Jun Lee, they kept their families in the dark about working on NABIS, a software-enabled cannabis distribution business, until Vince’s father found out about the venture from a Forbes article. To Vince’s surprise, his father was supportive and positive. Growing up, he kept his consumption to himself in order to fulfill expectations and be a responsible role model and voice of reason for his younger brother.
Jun, on the other hand, had early support from his older brother, who expressed to him that he wanted to invest in the cannabis space even before NABIS was even founded. Even though his parents aren’t completely in the know about the product he works with, he talks to them about the technological aspects of the business that interest them. Vince and Jun founded NABIS as a modern cannabis services group that aims to be the future of cannabis distribution nationwide. With prior experience in the tech space, Vince and Jun are solving logistics issues and distributing some of the best cannabis brands and cultivations across California.
When asked why he chose to work with cannabis now, Vince says, “Cannabis provides a new perspective on business. As a technologist, you’re focused on more service-based solutions. In cannabis, there’s a social good component to solving problems.” Jun adds, “It’s different than tech. At the forefront of this industry, there are open-minded people [who are] going beyond the hurdle of addressing the social stigma.”
Jennifer Seo, general manager of LAPCG (Los Angeles Patients and Caregivers), Southern California’s oldest dispensary, still navigates the taboo of cannabis in Asian culture with her family. She hasn’t come out of the weed closet just yet and has avoided the conversation for fear of being disowned. When she first got into cannabis, it was right before the hype of it exploded into mainstream consciousness. Jennifer attributes her quick growth at LAPCG to the fact that “there aren’t any rules, we are all changing them [as we go] because it’s such a new industry that’s changing constantly.”
As general manager, she oversees the retail experience at LAPCG and leverages her studio art background for design and packaging needs for the dispensary. Through her role, she has been able to create a community with her patients, a platform for cannabis education and personal bonding. However, despite being respected and well-known in the space, Jennifer isn’t ready to tell her family about what she does for a living.
As for me, my mission is to collaborate and connect businesses and consumers to cannabis every chance I get. I entered the cannabis space with experience as a merchant in retail tech and startups. After meeting Gretchen and Jason Miller, co-founders of the northern California-based cannabis brand Kiskanu, I jumped at the opportunity to work with their plant-based beauty products. The power couple has more than 20 years of experience in the industry and continue to prove that quality cannabis creates better products.
At Kiskanu, my role includes cultivating community, managing collaborations, and developing marketing strategies across communication channels. I am also the co-host and co-founder, with fellow Asian American female Kieryn Wang, of the cannabis-friendly podcast almostchill—a podcast for the masses, but targeting Asian women. The podcast aims to speak on mindfulness and other topics people don’t want to talk about.
I met Kieryn at an event where VICE was filming a mini docu-series on women in the legalized cannabis industry. I was featured speaking about my beliefs on female consumption of the plant. After it aired, I was outed to my parents about my relationship with cannabis. My parents were open to discussion and education after they found out. Today, my parents are fully supportive of my journey and even go as far to promote cannabis topicals and CBD to their friends. Since then, I’ve focused my efforts on building relationships and connecting the dots between people and brands through herbal education. I have learned the cannabis movement is driven by collaboration.
For the Blazing Asians featured in this story, their reasons behind working in the cannabis industry are rooted in the same values that brought our immigrant families to America—opportunity. As radical as it may seem, this small sampling of Asians and Asian Americans in the industry demonstrates our potential for growth: in our industry, professions, and communities. With heads raised high, we look forward to leading the way into the unknown and defining today’s cannabis industry.
This article was originally published in Banana Magazine. Order your copy here!