Christy Ai was trained from birth to move gracefully between two distinctly different worlds. Part of her life was lived in the Chinese language, among family in Asia, embracing the traditions of generations. The other part was rooted firmly in the U.S., where her parents moved to finish their studies as college post-graduates and where she was born, naturally conversant in English. Ai moved through the world as an American when in the States, as a Chinese when in China—and, it turns out, as a rebel throughout it all.
A “good” girl careful to fulfill her responsibilities, Ai does things her own way—with a bit of punky mischief. She made her family in China happy by being accepted to Cornell University and taking a degree in hospitality, but her rebellious side drew her academic focus to casinos and gambling. She went into banking as a financial executive with J.P. Morgan but ended up working with alternative finance. She launched a highly lucrative business but centered it in cannabis.
Ai, 32, was accused by her family of being a drug dealer and bore the accusation with grace. She’s confident she’s not breaking any laws by growing cannabis and selling it according to California’s dictum. Plus, her grandmother has been enjoying the effects of the CBD/THC-infused balms and edibles Ai has been supplying her with since 2017. A relative with autism also appreciates how the plant products Ai gives him can calm his anxiety. Meanwhile, China itself has changed its stance slightly, beginning to experiment with hemp production and CBD development in a big way. Things generally come around to Christy Ai’s way of doing things—and when they don’t, she charts her own course.
Having watched her best friend’s family suffer bankruptcy as the result of the 2008 financial crisis, Ai became interested in crypto in early 2011. Things were bad enough in the States that year, but they were even worse in China, which Ai says already constrains citizens’ access to their own money; ordinary cash transfers between Hong Kong, say, and Macao can be difficult if not impossible to complete. The idea that money you yourself worked hard to earn and save can be kept from you by the government was bewildering to Ai.
When cryptocurrency came to prominence, Ai could immediately see that it was a way to access the money you earned and grew and saved without anyone telling you if you could or not. Crypto was a way to be free.
Intrigued, Ai was an early adopter of the currency while still at J.P. Morgan. When cannabis became legal in California, she was interested in learning more and was soon active in the Discord crypto community that surrounds cannabis. Eventually she purchased a KODA NFT from the same group who created the Bored Apes Yacht Club collection. Her NFT, Koda #13528—a cuddly nine-eyed bear-like creature with fringed ears and an adorably chubby build—is one of only 10,000 “rare alien”creatures released to tease the launch of a new virtual community.
Connecting the Dots
But back in 2020 when she and her partners were attempting to bootstrap the lease of an 1880s building in downtown Los Angeles, a 100,000-square-foot former adult diaper factory that they intended to revamp into a state-of-the-art cannabis grow facility, Ai hadn’t yet connected all the dots that would become the road map to her future.
“We had our operating license in place and all of the other missing pieces, but the one thing that was an issue was funding,” she says, still sounding frustrated. “And it wasn’t just funding in terms of the money needed to build an entire cultivation, but it was also: how will people pay you? How do you pay rent? Landlords don’t take bags of cash. Utility companies don’t take bags of cash. I realized cannabis was really the true, modern day, unbanked industry for a First World country. I thought about it until the answer occurred to me: The answer was crypto.”
Harnessing the power of crypto allowed Ai and her partners to procure and establish a robust $10 million grow facility known as Vangarde Cultivation in that old building in DTLA. Today they operate under a social equity license to provide some 30 employees with full time employment. Operations are focused on small-batch craft cannabis that is hand-raised, hand-harvested, and stick-trimmed by hand. Each of the nine grow rooms is personally overseen by a specific individual who is charged with the success of the flower inside.
For her part, Ai sees herself as being personally charged with the success of each specific human individual inside the building. She and her business partner provide services like apprenticeships and training, housing and even cars to employees who may have sacrificed due to their involvement in the cannabis industry. “We give a lot back to our employees in terms of literally helping to get new apartments and cars because you don’t have a credit score when you work in the cannabis industry,” Ai says.
Break On Through to The Otherside . . .
Not content with merely co-owning Vangarde, one of the largest indoor growing facilities in Los Angeles, Ai struck out on her own to found The Otherside flower brand (as in: The grass is always greener on . . .) in 2022. Her KODA NFT proudly acts as the brand’s mascot and its silent voice.
The Otherside’s small-batch craft cannabis is currently found in 13 California dispensaries—and counting. The brand’s three proprietary strains include perennial best-seller Sugarberry Cream, a trichrome-rich flower that bursts with lemon meringue and cherry-touched cotton candy flavors, as well as Bittersweet Jealousy, and Sunrise Papaya.
Ai’s KODA NFT is adapted to be slightly different for each strain it represents. But here’s the secret: If you look closely, you’ll see that the KODA is making a different American Sign Language (ASL) sign for each strain.
Ai explains: “Our spirit is reflected through the infamous KODA NFT that pays homage to the war against cannabis prohibition and celebrates the power of cryptocurrency. This KODA is our secret little ‘eff you’ message to everyone who tries to keep the industry down and to all the discrimination we still face as an industry today.”
Here’s the code:
- SugarBerry Cream’s ASL sign says Asshole. “Because that is secretly what we are all thinking when we get denied a bank loan. A car loan. A mortgage. Or even that person giving you the side eye when you say you work at a dispensary,” Ai explains.
- Bittersweet Jealousy’s ASL sign is Bullshit. “We’re calling bullshit on the fact that cannabis is not federally legal, but things that are far more dangerous like alcohol, tobacco, and opioids are, which is complete bullshit,” Ai says. “Americans die from alcohol consumption every year, but cannabis has not been shown to increase mortality or case overdoses, and yet—cannabis is still being targeted.”
- Sunrise Papaya’s ASL sign says Twat. “We are referring to those bureaucratic twats who still can’t make up their minds if they want to legalize it or decriminalize it—but who definitely want to profit from it, raking in the tax revenues created by all the hard workers in the industry,” Ai fumes. “How are you supposed to regulate an industry you know nothing about?”
According to Ai, who is always up for a bit of disruption and is known for swimming against the stream, this is a clever way of throwing shade while nodding to the ASL community and indulging in a bit of mystery.
“I thought of it as a code, as a secret message,” Ai says. “We wanted to incorporate if-you-know-you-know messaging. That’s why it’s silent, like ‘They’ve been judging us the entire time and now we’re just silently judging them back.”
Find The Otherside online at otherside-la.com