Bespoke Financial was the first licensed FinTech lender focused on the legal cannabis industry. Founded in June of 2018, Bespoke offers four types of lending products: Invoice financing, inventory financing, purchase money financing and a general line of credit. With just over two years of originating loans to clients, they have benefitted from being a first mover in the cannabis lending space.
George Mancheril is the founder and CEO of Bespoke Financial. He has over fourteen years of experience in finance, with a special focus on asset-based lending, off balance sheet financing of commercial assets and structured credit. Following a stint with Goldman Sachs, he worked at Guggenheim Partners Investment Management’s Structured Credit Group in Los Angeles where he worked on structuring esoteric asset financing for a variety of commercial assets including airplanes, container leases and receivables.
Since 2018, Mancheril and his team at Bespoke Financial have deployed over $120 million in principal advances without any defaults and across eleven states. We sat down with Mancheril and asked him about the history of his business, how it’s been received so far and how the past few years of financial activity in the cannabis sector might shape the future.
Cannabis Industry Journal: What is Bespoke Financial in a nutshell?
George Mancheril: Bespoke Financial is the first licensed FinTech lender focused on the legal cannabis industry. Bespoke offers legal cannabis businesses revolving lines of credit that address the top problem in the industry – lack of access to non-dilutive, scalable financing to capitalize on growth opportunities and improve profitability. Due to the federal illegality of cannabis, traditional banking institutions cannot work with our clients even though these operators are working within the legal regulatory framework of their state. Bespoke solves this problem for businesses across the cannabis supply chain along with ancillary companies affected by the lack of access to traditional capital markets.
CIJ: How does your company help cannabis businesses?
Mancheril: Bespoke Financial offers 4 lending products – all are structured as a revolving line of credit but each allows our clients to access capital in a unique way based on their specific needs. Our Invoice Financing product, allows businesses to borrow capital against their Accounts Receivables in order to manage general business expenses, particularly if the borrower’s business growth is slowed due to a long cashflow conversion cycle. Inventory Financing and Purchase Money Financing allow our clients to finance payments to their vendors, which helps our clients achieve economies of scale by increasing their purchasing power. Lastly our general Line of Credit allows for the most flexibility for our clients to utilize our financing by either financing payments made directly to vendors or drawing funds into the client’s bank account to manage business expenses.
CIJ: I know the company is only a few years old, but can you tell me about your company’s success so far?
Mancheril: [Clarification, Bespoke was founded in June 2018 so we’ve been around for 3 years but we now have over 2 years of originating loans to clients.] Bespoke Financial has benefitted by being a first mover in the cannabis lending space as the first licensed lender specifically addressing the financing needs of cannabis operators, starting in early 2019. Over the past 2 years we have developed and refined our proprietary underwriting model to identify over 50 active clients spanning the entire cannabis supply chain. Since inception, Bespoke has deployed over $120 million in principal advances without any defaults to date and expanded our geographic footprint across 11 states. Our growth and success highlights our company’s expertise in structuring financing solutions which address the unique capital needs of cannabis companies.
CIJ: Can you discuss how the recent M&A activity, current and recent market trends, as well as the pandemic has affected your company’s growth?
Mancheril: The cannabis industry overcame a variety of challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, ending the year with record sales in both new and existing markets. The support from state and local governments, evidenced by the industry’s essential business designation and the easing of regulations, coupled with increasing consumer adoption of cannabis combined to increase the industry’s demand for capital throughout the pandemic. Bespoke was well positioned to partner with cannabis companies across the supply chain and was proud to help our clients thrive during this pivotal period.
Coming into 2021, the cannabis industry and investors shared a very positive outlook for the future based on the previous year’s experience and expectations of material easing of federal regulation. While M&A activity in the industry has increased over the past 6 months, the overall consensus has been that both the frequency of exit opportunities and the corresponding valuations will continue to increase as federal decriminalization opens new sources of capital and materially changes investors’ valuation assumptions. In general, we’ve seen cannabis companies focused on both capitalizing on the increasing opportunity presented by the industry’s organic growth and maximizing the benefits of future regulation changes by utilizing the resources and capital currently available to increase revenue, expand into new markets, and work towards profitability. All of these factors have further compounded the industry’s demand for financing and we expect to see continued growth in our lending activity in line with the industry’s growth.
CIJ: Who has been your most successful client?
Mancheril: We have a handful of cases studies and client success stories here on our website. One of the most exciting growth stories we have seen has been our client DreamFields whose in-house brand, Jeeter, is now the #1 pre-roll brand in the state of California. Prior to working with Bespoke, the brand was not ranked in the top 25 but was able to grow sales over 1,000% within the first year of working with us and achieve the #1 spot in their product category.
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Canndescent is a vertically integrated flower brand based out of Santa Barbara, CA with grow operations in Desert Hot Springs. Having opened the first municipally-permitted cultivation in California, Canndescent has pioneered luxury branding in the cannabis space with a focus on user friendliness. They were the first cultivator to market cannabis using effects like Calm, Cruise Create, Connect, and Charge rather than the strain name. Canndescent also recently launched a social equity brand, Justice Joints, with 100% of all profits going to cannabis-related expungement and re-entry programs.
We spoke with Adrian Sedlin, CEO and founder of Canndescent to learn more about his transition from tech to cannabis, how he thinks about product positioning and the company’s motivation for getting into Justice Joints. Adrian founded Canndescent in 2015 after being approached by his brother-in-law who ran a legacy cultivation operation. Prior to Canndescent, Adrian was an entrepreneur and worked in startup turnarounds.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Adrian Sedlin: I started looking at the industry from a professional perspective in 2015, and once I came to understand how cannabis affects the endocannabinoid system, I became absolutely fascinated by the opportunity to build a world class cannabis company that prioritized consumers. Particularly, I became interested in the adult-use market because I see cannabis as an automobile compared to the horse and buggy of alcohol. Cannabis is a superior adult use solution from a health and society perspective, yet, the entire positioning of the industry at the time was sub-prime, non-aspirational and inaccessible. With Canndescent, the core idea was to counterprogram the existing paradigm and deliver cannabis in a way that was beautiful. To bring the power of the plant to more people, we had to reposition the category and simplify the shopping experience. Moreover, there were too many unsolved consumer problems. For example, in 2015 people said cannabis was a commodity but any stoner knows there are as many dimensions to consider as there are with wine. The opportunity to deliver consumer solutions in a nascent industry that desperately needed advocates while helping to improve the world was enough to get me out of retirement.
Green: Just curious, what was your background prior to cannabis?
Sedlin: I’m a lifelong entrepreneur. I started my first company when I was still in college. After graduation, I ran that business for another four and a half years, sold it, and went back to business school and got my MBA. After Harvard, most of my career was spent in early-stage growth companies, turnarounds and pivots. When someone had $10 million invested in an enterprise or their company wasn’t growing at the rate they wanted, that’s when my phone would ring.
I was lucky enough to shepherd a number of companies to a successful exit several times. During my professional journey, I’d taken a year and a half off between 2004 and 2006, and then pre-cannabis in 2015 I had taken three years off and was getting a little itchy. I didn’t think I was permanently retired; I was just sort of waiting for the next thing to get excited about. And cannabis definitely was the first time I can say in my life that I finally understood what I was put on planet earth to do.
Green: I understand that Canndescent was the first municipally permitted cultivator to open in California?
Sedlin: Desert Hot Springs was the first city to legalize cultivation, and we were the first ones to operate in the city.
Green: How did that come about?
Sedlin: The city had conditional use permits, but a lot of people were trying to do ground up builds. We decided to do a retrofit of an existing facility. So, we were the first ones to get the regulatory permit and cultivate in a way that was truly compliant with MCRSRA which eventually became MAUCRSA.
It took lots of tolerance for ambiguity and incredible patience. There’s an off-putting expression that goes, “pioneers take the arrows.” Well, we took a lot of arrows along the way. A perfect example is within our first year of operation, the fire department sent us five cease-and-desist orders to turn off our CO2. Not because we were doing anything wrong, but because they changed their regulations and then they wanted us to immediately comply as opposed to giving us a transition period. You just got to learn to roll with it. I’d say anyone who got into the regulated cannabis market early – and there’s a bunch of us who are still standing – you just learn to roll with it, be patient and yet, apply boundless energy and passion to the process.
Green: Did you know you wanted to be in Desert Hot Springs? Or did it just turn out to be the permit that was the easiest to get?
Sedlin: That was a binary choice for us. The simple choice for Desert Hot Springs was that it was the only choice. We were doing a professional execution. We were taking investment dollars, and I couldn’t have any ambiguity of being in the gray market. This was before adult use legislation passed in California, so we were functioning under California’s Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA). The only way to be compliant with MCRSA at the time and be a medical cannabis cultivator was to get city-based permission or county-based permission, and the first region to authorize that was Desert Hot Springs. From our team’s perspective, wanting to build a truly compliant company from day one, that was the only choice available.
Green: I understand your facilities are powered by solar?
Sedlin: We have several facilities. One of them is a greenhouse that has light supplementation. We have an indoor facility that is powered by solar. When we opened the facility, it didn’t have a solar project on it. After we opened it, about a year and a half later, we did this full solar retrofit. We found the solar panels offset 38% of our energy consumption.
Green: Your product marketing is effect-forward. How did you come to that positioning for the brand and for the products?
Sedlin: The idea is to simplify life for consumers and unburden them from having to understand the 6,000 different strain names that are out there which have no consistency from cultivator to cultivator. Before Apple popularized the graphical user interface for computers, the standing orthodoxy among engineers at the time was that everyone should have to learn how to code. Everyone who wanted to use a computer needed to go through the mind-numbing MS-DOS process. But computers didn’t scale that way. Apple’s genius is that it built technology to serve humans with a GUI and didn’t put humans in service of the technology. Similarly, you shouldn’t have to learn 6,000 strains, 100+ terpenes and 100+ cannabinoids to make your first purchase. Our goal has always been to put cannabis in service of consumers as opposed to having the consumer in service of cannabis.
To be clear, Apple doesn’t dumb things down. Apple makes things easier, so that more people adopt them, so those things can then get better. And, that’s really how we’ve always viewed it. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if a consumer needs to know that he or she loves AK-47 when one can understand loosely, “How do I want to feel? Am I trying to relax? What am I trying to achieve?” It’s about prioritizing the consumer over the engineer, or in this case the cultivator or breeder, who covets naming rights. We operate with a consumer-centric philosophy and our company is in service of the consumer.
Green: You have a social equity brand called Justice Joints. What was your motivation for that line?
Sedlin: We have the luxury and privilege of participating in a legal cannabis industry, but there are many people who were never afforded that choice and suffered a steep cost. With this in mind, we need to put our dollars and sweat into helping communities most impacted and marginalized by the war or drugs and doing our part to address some of the damage. Justice Joints (JJ), our brand where 100% of the profits go to cannabis-related social equity and expungement programs invites the cannabis community, dispensaries and consumers to vote with their dollars for a better world. “Here’s a vehicle where 100% of the profit goes to cannabis related social justice causes. Are you in? Or are you out?” It gives consumers a platform where they can participate in positive change with their dollars. It’s what the plant is about.
JJ was the right answer for Canndescent because we wanted to build a self-sustaining economic engine for social justice. We launch world class cannabis brands so building one for social justice was the right choice for us and provided a way for all 250 of our employees to give back and feel proud each and every day. Justice Joints isn’t a side project; it’s hardwired into the daily activities of Canndescent and will hopefully evolve into an industry-wide, give back platform.
Green: What’s one thing in the world that you want to change or inspires you the most?
Sedlin: The thing I’m most interested in professionally is popularizing the practice of gratitude into the broader business and social fabric. Canndescent is the first company that I know of to incorporate gratitude as a core value. We do so because we believe that happiness is a mindset and a choice, not an outcome. It’s not how many likes you get on your social media, or how much money you make. It’s how you frame your experience to yourself that makes you happy.
On any given day, there’s 100 things I can bitch about, but that just becomes poison ivy that itches and that would make me angry, frustrated and depleted. Living and acting in gratitude, we can move our minds to a peaceful and productive place where we have control and can be our best self for those around us. For example, I just lost my dad on Thursday but I’m focused on gratitude not sorrow. My dad was awesome, died peacefully at age 89, had a 60-year marriage, and loved and gave love. Naturally, there is sadness, but instead of sinking into that, I focus on the blessing of him and meditate on the good. Operating from a happy place, I’m freed up mentally to be there for my mom, sister, wife, children, employees and investors.
So that’s what I’m passionate about. It’s not so much something I want to learn about as much as it is something that I want to cultivate in the world. There would just be more happiness in the world if humanity exercised the muscle of perspective–gratitude. It’s the greatest time in human history to be alive. To listen to the world around us, it’s natural to forget that. But, I’ll take Covid-19 over the Black Plague and Spanish Influenza anyday. “Yes, shit happens, but are you a shit talker and complainer, or are you the type to say, let’s clean this up.” It’s a choice. Canndescent wants to project light and build a world of gratitude.
Green: That concludes the interview, thanks Adrian!
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Maggie’s Farm is an integrated cannabis company based in Southern Colorado. Maggie’s Farm has seven adult-use and medical dispensaries and cultivates the vast majority of their flower on outdoor farms. All Maggie’s Farm products are sun-grown from seed in soil that is 100% custom-mixed onsite as well as spring-watered, slow-cured and hand-trimmed. Maggie’s Farm does not use any synthetic pesticides or growth hormones in its cultivation. In addition, for the past eight years, Maggie’s Farm has recently obtained Clean Green Certified®, a designation certifying organic standards and testing that mirrors the USDA organic certification. Maggie’s Farm was the first cultivator in Colorado to earn the Clean Green certification.
We spoke with Bill Conkling, Founder and CEO of Maggie’s Farm to learn more about the benefits of outdoor growing, localism and their Clean Green certification. Bill started Maggie’s Farm in 2010 after growing up on cattle ranches and farms in Colorado.
Aaron Green: Bill, thanks for taking the time today. Tell me a bit about how you got involved in the cannabis industry.
Bill Conkling: I am a native of southern Colorado. I was a medical caregiver back in the early days of legalization, and I saw an opportunity to vertically align after my first legal crop in 2010. I opened up the store in 2011. I’ve been a lifelong proponent of medical, recreational and adult use of marijuana.
I come from a background of farmers and I had worked on cattle ranches and farms throughout childhood. As soon as I graduated from college, I went back to work on a large cattle ranch in the four corners area [of southern Colorado]. That’s where I started to incorporate my indoor cultivation experience and skills with outdoor.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the cannabis industry?
Bill: I was one of the first medical operators to support legalization, so I have certainly followed legalization trends. I’ve looked at some other states in our region in terms of growth and legalization.
We’re trying to stay a regional supplier and producer so that we are locally grown. We believe the southwest of Colorado is optimal for outdoor cannabis cultivation.
At Maggie’s Farm, we have followed an organic trend from the beginning and I think that’s becoming more of a trend now. We recently received Clean Green certification to that effect. Our goal is to try to provide the healthiest product at a good value to the market.
I believe that all of the products that are made in the cannabis world come from the flower. Downstream products are only as good as their ingredients. It all starts with the flower. So, we focus on producing a clean, top-shelf quality flower that is produced outdoors.
Aaron: How do you define local?
Bill: Local is staying in the climate that is optimal with the least amount of carbon footprint to the earth. That also means trying to operate so that we’re not moving a lot of product across long distances.
We’re trying to set up farms that are in optimal climates. There is a two or three-state region that I believe is the optimal climate for outdoor marijuana cultivation in our country.
Aaron: What states are those specifically?
Bill: I think Colorado and New Mexico, primarily.
Aaron: What geographies is Maggie’s farm currently in?
Bill: We’re in southern Colorado. We don’t go into the plains of Colorado.
Aaron: So Colorado state only right now?
Bill: Yes. The wet mountain range is one of the mountain ranges that we are in. I’ve also cultivated in the La Plata mountain range.
Aaron: What specifically is it about that region that makes it conducive to cannabis growing?
Bill: I think if you get the right elevation and the right microclimates within those elevations, and you have the number of sunny days that Colorado offers in those areas – the intensity of the sunlight, and the cool nights – all those things are factors that coincide in these areas that we like to cultivate in.
Aaron: We’ve been talking about outdoor growth. Does Maggie’s do any indoor?
Bill: No. We’re essentially an outdoor farm. We do a little bit of breeding and we’ve got starter houses, greenhouses and hoop houses for that purpose. We’ve got one greenhouse that we use for some wholesale, but we are primarily outdoors.
Aaron: How do you go about selecting the genetics or evolving the genetics to meet your local environment, given that you’re growing outdoors?
Bill: A lot of it is honestly through testing and experimentation, historically. You just cultivate and harvest and see how the genetics performed, you know? You test, you take test inputs, you take customer reviews, and blind test results from the team and from the customers and you consider all those facts.
Aaron: Do you produce and use your own seeds or are you purchasing those?
Bill: We have done both. I think I’ve probably created somewhere north of 800 different strains at this point. So, we’ve got a huge seed bank. We do also buy from vendors and experiment with some of those genetics as well.
Aaron: Do you market your seeds in Colorado?“I don’t think that you can get anywhere near the terpene value indoors that you can outdoors.”
Bill: We do not.
Aaron: How did you settle on outdoor-only as the strategy for Maggie’s?
Bill: I believe outdoor is a premium flower. I think it has less impact on the earth. I think that there is a lot less pest mitigation than there is indoors, which makes it a healthier, cleaner product. You don’t have to mitigate the concentration of pests that you get in temperate climates of stagnant corners of greenhouses and buildings that you cultivate indoors. Therefore, you never get into the situations as often or as intensely, where you might have to really work hard at mitigating your pests. You can use the natural predator insects you can introduce and oftentimes they survive and they create their own climates and it’s a more natural, healthier product.
I don’t think that you can get anywhere near the terpene value indoors that you can outdoors. You just don’t have the value of the sun, which nothing compares to. You can hold up as many high wattage bulbs as you want and you don’t even pale to the sun and the effect that the sun has on the flower.
Aaron: What are some of the challenges of growing outdoors that you see frequently?
Bill: You have to be nimble. You can’t rely completely on a schedule. You’ve got to be able to shift around in your planting days and your harvest dates.
You’ve obviously got to be on your toes all the time for weather changes. Higher humidity years can tend to bring more insects or pests. Some years you’ve got higher winds than other years. This year, we had a snowstorm on September 9, which left nine inches of heavy wet snow on one of our farms. So, you’ve got to be nimble, very proactive and ready for those kinds of weather events that happen in very short notice.
Aaron: We mentioned Clean Green Certified® briefly. Can you explain more about the Clean Green certification and why that’s an important thing for you at Maggie’s?
Bill: The choice to become Clean Green Certified® was really an effort to validate the organic process that we have. We vetted out what we believe was and still is the premier, organic criteria certification endorsement in the market for cannabis. To this day, they really do an ethical, vetting-out process whereby if you fail the parts of any of the soils that are sent to federal-licensed labs, you do not get your endorsement. The owner of Clean Green also had a mother company that was an endorser of other agricultural products such as coffee, wheat and dairy.
Aaron: How would you compare Clean Green Certified® to USDA Organic?
Bill: Identical. When the federal government legalizes, we are poised to automatically convert to a USDA Organic certification and endorsement. The processes the founder and owner of Clean Green uses to test cannabis is the same process used to test other agricultural industries. For plants, he takes random samples of soils throughout a cultivation field and sends them to a federal-licensed lab where they test for impurities.
Aaron: Did you decide to get your Clean Green certification due to pulling from the market, or is this more something you decided to do internally as Maggie’s Farm?
Bill: I decided to do this internally. I wanted to be recognized for all of our organic efforts and I wanted to let people know that we have a safe product that doesn’t have synthetics in it. Even to this day, a lot of people in Colorado unlike the coastal states like maybe California are still pretty unaware of a Clean Green certification or even the fact that there is an organic process for cannabis or marijuana. So, it’s really just to let our customers know that there is value in a safe, healthy choice for them.
Aaron: What kind of products do you create at Maggie’s farm?
Bill: We grow flower. We are also a big producer of a very high-quality pre-roll. We are developing promoted products as well.
Aaron: Do you do fresh frozen?
Bill: We do some, yes.
Aaron: Are you selling direct to the dispensary or to manufacturers?
Bill: We finally had produced some excess. So, we started wholesaling flower this year and lots of high-quality shake for concentrates to concentrate makers. Our customer is typically a little more of a mature customer. I don’t want to say necessarily older, but I think we probably do hit a little bit of a higher, more experienced, health-conscious, connoisseur customer.
Aaron: Can you give me an idea of some of the regulatory challenges in Colorado that you’ve faced in the past or are facing today?
Bill: The perpetual change of regulation has been a challenge. Being a competent operator in cannabis means getting used to the change and having the resources to be nimble with compliance. We haven’t had common problems such as metals, mold or mildew issues. However, we have had some hardware issues, which required us to change cameras along with other technical intricacies.
Aaron: How many acres do you have?
Bill: We have about 30 acres of secured premise cultivation.
Aaron: Is that all managed in-house or sublet?
Bill: It’s all managed and operated exclusively by Maggie’s Farm.
Aaron: What’s next for Maggie’s Farm? What are you excited about?
Bill: We want to continue to put a higher scale of a very healthy, quality, value flower out there and to be able to offer that to more states initially states that are within our region and eventually states across the US. Also, we will continue to do our best to meet the growing demand for healthier choices in general.
Aaron: Lastly, what are you personally interested in learning more about?
Bill: How we can continue to be as earth-conscious as we can be? How we can continue to look for ways to give back to our communities? How we can continue to operate as a view of made in the USA and to try to just support local regional and national products and vendors? Just how to be more aware and always look for opportunities for self-improvement.
Aaron: That concludes the interview, thank you Bill!
The drug war has harmed communities of color since its inception. For decades and decades, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) have been nearly six times more likely to be arrested for drug use than White Americans, despite similar rates of use.
Over the years that legalized cannabis has proliferated across the country, the same trends of market consolidation have emerged in every state that has legalized the plant. BIPOC communities already impacted by the drug war have less access to capital and therefore less access to the cannabis industry. Cannabis market consolidation has always led to white people taking a greater market share while BIPOC communities are left behind.
The legal cannabis industry currently lacks representation of BIPOC executives, business owners, and professionals. Ernest Toney, former global marketing and partnerships manager at Marijuana Business Daily, wants to change that. He founded the BIPOC Cannabis Business Network – a membership community that is working to make the cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for BIPOC professionals and business owners.
BIPOCANN is a place to meet cannabis industry leaders, a place to exchange goods, services and ideas that promote BIPOC economic growth in cannabis, an innovation hub for unique voices and perspectives, and it’s all BIPOC-owned and managed.
In this interview, we sit down with Ernest Toney to hear about BIPOCANN and ask him some questions about what the future of the cannabis industry could look like.
Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell me about your background- how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Ernest Toney: I grew up in Virginia and went to James Madison University where I studied kinesiology, and sports management in graduate school. That led me to pursue a career in sports administration, beginning as a sales and marketing director for a large YMCA in the southwest, followed by a stint as a sales consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks in Major League Baseball. Immediately prior to joining the cannabis industry, I worked at USA Ultimate – the national governing body for the niche sport of ultimate (frisbee) in the United States. During that time, I managed and scaled adult programs and events across the country. A big part of my job required collaborating with national stakeholders and creating and enforcing policies to grow the sport by making it more accessible to diverse demographics. We also worked hard to increase the commercial visibility of the sport through mainstream media, including ESPN, with gender equity being a major focus area. It was cool because looking back, I learned a lot of things during that five-year period that is directly applicable to the work I’m doing to support the cannabis industry.
But my interest in the cannabis industry became strong when I moved to Denver in 2011, a year before Amendment 64 passed. When Colorado became the first adult use cannabis market in the USA, it was an exciting time. I have always been curious about economics and how policies can impact people’s lives. I was interested in what was going to happen when the new market opened.
Early on, I followed the industry trends very closely. Living in downtown Denver, I saw firsthand the effects the cannabis industry was having on day-to-day life, like increased tourism, a housing market boom, a lot of new start-ups, dispensaries opening everywhere. It was just something I knew I wanted to learn more about.
Around 2016, I started making industry connections, but didn’t pursue opportunities until a few years later. Eventually, I was hired in 2018 by MJBizDaily to focus on new business initiatives. Some of my past successes with scaling programs, national and international event management, and community-building aligned with what they were looking for.
I started as the company’s first international marketing manager. In that role, I was responsible for driving marketing campaigns to increase the company’s global readership, event registrations, and business conference presence in foreign markets. After the first year, I transitioned to identify and manage marketing partnerships for the company – which included international and domestic media, event, and affiliate partnerships within and outside of cannabis.
I felt compelled to make a change amidst the social unrest this summer. I was doing my own protesting and volunteer advocacy in Denver, but started to see more broadly, in the cannabis industry, that cannabis executives and companies were bringing attention to the fact that the War On Drugs has been problematic for minorities and communities of color. There was greater talk about social equity programs and how they are not as effective as they should be. There was greater attention to the fact that over 40,000 people are still incarcerated for the plant that others are profiting from – and that the people behind bars are predominantly coming from communities of color. I was in a position that afforded me the opportunity to see what the composition of the global cannabis industry looked like, and I could see minority representation was lacking in business ownership, leadership positions, and more.
I thought – what is the best way for me to use my talents, insights, and knowledge to affect and change this narrative? Ultimately, I decided to start my own business. Not only was this an opportunity for me to “walk the walk,” being a black man starting a business in this industry where there is a lack of black ownership, but more importantly I was uniquely positioned to be able to educate and let people know about the opportunities to be a part of the booming industry. So, I did some brainstorming and came up with a company, which is called BIPOCANN and it stands for connecting BIPOC communities to the cannabis industry.
The work I have been doing for the last quarter includes directly recruiting people into the industry. If you are curious and want to learn more about the industry, then BIPOCANN can be the entry point. We figure out what your goals are and use the network and our resources to get you connected and figure out where you want to go. Likewise, if you are a service provider, like a graphic designer, accountant, marketer or business owner for example, that sees opportunities for your business to play a role and support it from an ancillary standpoint, BIPOCANN can be an entry point for you too.
The other component to it is working with existing businesses who are trying to make the industry more accessible. I work with existing companies and brands to create platforms that amplify voices and make BIPOC folks more visible, seen and heard within the cannabis industry. We are also helping businesses increase their profitability through diversification tactics and marketing tactics that contribute to their bottom line.
CIJ: Tell me about BIPOCANN- what is it, what are your goals with this project and how has it been received so far?
Ernest: The prohibition of cannabis has disproportionately impacted communities of color in the Americas. I alluded to this earlier, but there are more than 40,000 people behind bars in the U.S. for cannabis possession and use. There’s evidence suggesting that Black Americans are up to six times more likely to get arrested for cannabis use than White Americans despite use rates being the same. And when you look at the makeup of the professional industry, there is poor representation of business ownership by people of color. The Cannabis Impact Fund references that only 4.3% of dispensaries are Black or Latinx-owned. These problems intersect in a lot of ways.
BIPOCANN is a small business working to make the cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for BIPOC professionals and business owners. Now, I know that one company cannot change 100 years of cannabis prohibition and how policy works. But if you want to make this industry more accessible, inclusive, and profitable for those who do not have the access then there are a lot of levers to pull. Policy is one. But BIPOCANN is using more direct strategies. We actively recruit people to come in and be a part of this industry, through employment, entrepreneurship, consulting, and collaborations.
We have also created the BIPOC Cannabis Business Network, a community where members can exchange services, network, and collaborate. It’s all about creating more opportunities for BIPOC professionals and business owners, and it’s a safe space to share your experiences and to ideate. Similar to your Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference, where there was a dedicated space for BIPOC folks to be seen and heard and tell their story through your virtual panels, we use our resources and network to help advocates for equity and access be seen, heard, and find opportunities to thrive as a business owner or professional.
CIJ: How do you hope BIPOCANN will be embraced by the cannabis community?
Ernest: I think it has been received well in its first quarter of business. We have had opportunities to share our story across a lot of platforms, including multiple cannabis industry conferences, podcasts, and interviews with varied media outlets. We are in startup mode, so currently we are about building a brand, being seen, and helping people understand what we are trying to achieve. We are working towards that right now. We have had some success and folks are supporting our vision and goals.
I am hoping the cannabis industry will look at BIPOCANN as another important resource within the social equity, business development, and networking landscape. I don’t want to be seen as a competitor to the organizations and individuals who have been doing similar work in this space, for much longer, but as an ally. Some of our approaches to bring new people into the industry will include strategically aligning communities and markets where we have strong ties – such as state governments, national nonprofits, and global cannabis networks.
CIJ: Where do you see the cannabis industry making progress with respect to diversity and including people of color?
Ernest: When I look at the types of conversations and coverage the industry is having, even compared to last year, it seems like more conferences, media entities, brands, and individual leaders are tuned in and trying to figure out how they can contribute to making this industry better, more equitable and more accessible. I am seeing a lot of more attention, attempts to understand where the gaps are and what to do about it.
When I take a step back to think of all the virtual conferences that have made dedicated conference tracks or even entire programs – like the National Association of Cannabis Business’ Social Equity Conference, the Emerge Canna Conference, the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, and the Cannabis Industry Journal’s post-election social justice panel – or weekly segments from Black leaders like Dasheeda Dawson (She Blaze) and Tahir Johnson (The Cannabis Diversity Report) — those are good signs. They are creating opportunities for voices representing underserved communities in cannabis to share their perspectives and be advocates for change.
But there is still much to do and that includes greater education about the realities, histories, and challenges BIPOC and other minority communities are facing. Going back to the NACB, they recently drafted a social equity standard for state legislatures to use as a baseline for crafting policies and provisions for social equity programs. That and resources from organizations like the Minority Cannabis Business Association, Supernova Women, Cannaclusive, Minorities for Medical Marijuana, and the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, for example are some useful resources for the industry.
Wana Brands is also continuing to do good work, and it was exciting to see them become the first sponsor of the inaugural Black CannaConference by the Black CannaBusiness Magazine. That was a great example of an industry leader using their dollars, marketing resources, and company values to support an event specifically dedicated to creating, developing, and enhancing Black entrepreneurs and businesses in the cannabis industry.
“It is hard to know what even a year from now will look like.”On the policy front, we just saw on election day cannabis having a ton of success at the polls, passing in every single state where there was a ballot measure.
Arizona did a good job with having social equity provisions directly included in the language on their ballot measure. I think for the states that have yet to draft a social equity program, they can look at what has worked well in some other states and also look at what has not worked well, like loopholes that invite predatory behaviors.
I’m excited to see that Governor Ralph Northam and the Virginia Marijuana Legalization Working Group are already identifying the best ways to make a recreational market a beneficial and sustainable one, and tackling how to incorporate social equity, racial equity, and economic equity into a future legalization bill. I am looking forward to learning more after an upcoming meeting with a Working Group member. Eventually, I hope to contribute towards any social equity efforts that will benefit my home state and hometown (a high poverty community that has been at the crossroads of America’s major civil rights movements, with a correctional facility that houses an inmate population equivalent to nearly 10% of the town population).
CIJ: Where do you see the industry moving in the next five years?
Ernest: Ha-ha! It is hard to know what even a year from now will look like.
Just this week the United Nations rescheduled cannabis, which is a big deal! We also saw the U.S. House of Representatives pass the MORE Act. We are inching closer towards federal legalization in the US and I think it will happen within that five-year timeframe, and it will be contentious. There will be compromises on things some folks don’t want compromises on, there will be more big money influencing the outcomes of the industry, and there will be unforeseen or unintended consequences to whatever the federal legislation looks like. I recently moderated a panel of social equity license holders, who felt that federal legalization would harm the disproportionately impacted areas (by the War on Drugs) even more! Their preference was to see cannabis de-scheduled and remain under state control.
I think federal legalization will bring another wave of major mergers and acquisitions, similar to what the Canadian market experienced in 2019, benefiting big business over small business.“We need folks who are educated and informed about these matters to be at the policymaking level to have a fighting chance.”
CIJ: Do you think we can change that?
Ernest: There are so many things at play. The legislators need to have diverse perspectives and representation from the folks in the industry, especially people of color who can speak to the impact that a century of prohibition policies have had on their communities. Those voices and stories need to be heard, but that type of representation is grossly lacking on Capitol Hill…which is all the more reason we need leaders from the aforementioned communities to have a seat at the table when decisions are made.
I say that because a lot of time there are unforeseen consequences when policies are created, so decision makers at the federal level can learn from those of us already doing the work on the local level. I recently had a conversation with a former journalist and colleague who is currently in a cannabis regulatory role. We were talking about how policy and operations intersect with social equity. He made the points that “many markets implement license caps, which are intended to prevent oversaturation of cannabis business (the idea being that density of outlets impacts use rates, and particularly youth use rates); in theory, that’s a good policy – but it comes with very real consequences for social equity applicants (because those licenses often go to the wealthiest applicants). License caps also artificially inflate the cost of those licenses (for a transfer of ownership), which also harms social equity applicants. Lotteries are also generally the result of policy and usually have disastrous results for the social equity applicant.”
So yeah – the rare opportunity to define a new industry that doesn’t just do business as usual, that can right its historical wrongs, and that will reward the communities that have been most harmed by cannabis enforcement, is now. And we need folks who are educated and informed about these matters to be at the policymaking level to have a fighting chance. The optimist in me says “we can do it!” The pessimist in me reminds me that it is 2020 and people still believe the Earth is flat. I’ll keep pushing for change, but I also won’t be surprised if this perfect opportunity to get it right goes wrong.
CIJ: How can people get involved in BIPOCANN?
Ernest: The best way to get involved is to visit www.bipocann.com and support our efforts by becoming an individual member or business member. Not only does that give you the opportunity to connect directly with other members in our business network, but it gives you the chance to be the first to be notified about the latest projects, events, and opportunities we’re working on to change the industry, how we can. By joining, you also directly support BIPOCANN’s goals, contribute to the operating budget of a black-owned business in cannabis, and support the nonprofit partners who we allocate a percentage of monthly sales towards.
You can also get involved by subscribing to our monthly newsletter through the website or by following our social media accounts @bipocann. We are also available for speaking, media, or consulting projects that support social equity, diversity, and inclusion in cannabis. For those types of inquiries, please contact email@example.com.
Ladyjane Branding and Wolfe Research & Consulting are leading an ambitious study to explore and document the experiences of women working in the cannabis market. Women in Cannabis: A Living History officially kicks off on December 10th at the National Women of Cannabis Conference.
Jennifer Whetzel, founder of Ladyjane Branding, says this is an opportunity for women to tell their stories about their experience working in the cannabis industry. Women can participate in the study by going to womenincannabis.study and sign up to take the survey. You can also sign up to be a sponsor or partner of the study at that website. Sponsors will get access to content like press releases and the opportunity to incorporate the study’s findings in their messaging. We invite our readers to participate, sponsor, partner, share and encourage friends to take the survey.
With beta testing starting the week of November 18th, we caught up with Jennifer Whetzel to talk about why she decided to start this project, what they expect to learn from it and what the future may hold for professional women in the cannabis industry.
Cannabis Industry Journal: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came into the cannabis industry?
Jennifer Whetzel: My entrance into the cannabis industry was certainly a culmination of my personal experience and professional journey.
After moving to Maine, I became a medical user to ease symptoms of an immune and an auto-immune disorder. When I sought out treatment for PTSD, I found that a combination of cannabis, therapy, meditation and brain retraining was the most helpful and healthy solution.
This course of treatment for PTSD was life-changing as it allowed me to resolve symptoms from all of my medical issues, and I wanted to find a way to give back to the community that supported me. I had been working in marketing for over 25 years and realized I had quite the diverse professional background. My experience included retail merchandising and operations, public relations on a military base, research design and strategy for ad agencies, new product development and launch for animal health companies, and experiential marketing strategy and design. I’ve been lucky enough to work with small companies and Fortune 500’s which has led to finding solutions in unexpected places.
When pairing my knowledge and skills with the cannabis community, I realized I could make an impact by advising new entrepreneurs who needed help making their brands stand out. That’s how Ladyjane Branding was born.
CIJ: Can you give us an overview of the Women in Cannabis Study?
Jennifer: The Women in Cannabis study aims to understand how women are faring in the cannabis industry and whether we are doing enough to support women, their careers and their professional goals. It’s well documented that women in corporate America do not have the same opportunities for career advancement as men, holding fewer executive or board positions, having fewer opportunities for mentorship, sponsorship and career progression.
The study is comprehensive, with more than 80 quantitative questions along with qualitative telephone and video interviews of female-identifying professionals working in the cannabis industry – whether they are involved with cannabis, CBD or hemp. Through monthly infographics, video summaries, quarterly in-depth themed reports and a comprehensive year-end report, we will be telling the stories of women’s professional experiences in cannabis with the goal of transforming the industry into one where women can succeed and thrive.
Painting a picture of the women in cannabis, and understanding them as a group, we look at demographics to explore their diversity and reveal whether personality differences may affect their experiences, as well as experience with stigmas regarding cannabis use and working in the industry.
To understand professional trajectories and roadblocks on a path to success, we dive into work history, reasons for entering the cannabis space and the barriers they have faced on their journey. We explore opportunities for mentorship, support and leadership, the types of harassment, discrimination and disrespect they’ve experienced and how that may have impeded their careers.
We’d like to understand how (or whether) women find balance in their personal and professional lives, what sacrifices they’ve had to make for a career in cannabis, as well as best practices for women to foster success.
CIJ: Why did you decide to take on this endeavor and lead the work on this study?
Jennifer: While there are numerous studies looking at how women fare in corporate America, we found that there’s a lack of a recent and comprehensive deep dive into this topic specifically for cannabis. As an emerging industry, we have a unique opportunity to make valuable recommendations to potentially increase inclusivity for women in this early stage of industry culture before it becomes too entrenched. Our goal is to ensure we have the hard numbers to document a baseline now, then follow-up over time to understand how the industry changes.
By surveying and speaking to women in the industry, and understanding where strengths and weaknesses in the industry lie, we can make recommendations to improve the lived experience for women working in this industry.
The only way to make improvements to a system is to understand it.
CIJ: How do you think we can create a more inclusive industry?
Jennifer: I think it begins with an understanding of where we are starting – we don’t know what we don’t know. Being in the cannabis industry, we often hear the argument that anecdotes are not data. Just like we need the scientific data to prove efficacy for medicine, we need the data that shows the hard numbers about diversity and inclusion, the stigma and shame of cannabis use or working in this industry, about sexual harassment, disrespect and bullying.
This study is about generating information and creating knowledge on this issue so we can determine the education, policies, procedures and actionable recommendations that can help make the industry a welcoming space for everyone.
One of the best ways to create a more inclusive industry is through education.
CIJ: What hurdles do women face in the cannabis industry? How is that different from other, more established industries?
Jennifer: As we review research results from more established industries, it seems clear that women face similar hurdles in cannabis. Various studies have shown that working women are faced with unequal pay, fewer opportunities for mentorship or sponsorship, as well as discrimination and disrespect. The issues for female entrepreneurs are even greater as women are significantly less likely to receive venture capital funding, which certainly speaks to experience in the cannabis industry.
Because there’s little data specifically focused on the cannabis industry, we are just guessing. This study will provide us those answers.
CIJ: Looking ahead, how do you think women will fare in the evolution of the cannabis market?
Jennifer: I’d like to think that if we are all purposeful and intentional about creating an equitable, inclusive, and representational industry, that women will fare significantly better than they have in other industries typically dominated by men. If that can happen, everyone will feel welcome and respected, and it will no longer be surprising news when a woman is promoted to CEO or becomes a successful founder.
This collection of leaders in the European cannabis market is by no means completely neutral. Much less comprehensive. It is however, German and European centric, because these people, by definition and geography, are now sitting at the nexus of a global, and even within Europe, international industry. Europe for that reason, will be the place, and for some time, where the global cannabis industry comes to make deals across borders, meet the high levels of compliance required here that is setting global standards and push the medical revolution forward for (at least) the next five to ten years.
For that reason, the people listed below carry influence far beyond one country or even region, by definition. But they are also not the only people redefining an industry.
Most notably, of course by their exclusion, are women, although there are some exceptions to that and women are increasingly establishing their place at high executive levels although not yet founder or cofounder or, auf Deutsch, Geschäftsfüherin– (Managing Director) at any of the establishing global companies with European presence. That said, they are beginning to make their appearance in every place and career path within the industry.
Movers and Shakers
Dr. Pierre Debs, Ph.D. An American expat with a German Ph.D., and twenty five plus years’ experience in stem cell research, including endocannabinoid system function. Debs is also the often uncredited individual who opened the current medical market in Germany in particular, but with immediate impact throughout Europe. As the scrappy start up MedCann, Debs, his cofounders and a skeleton team based just south of Frankfurt, not only got into the game first, they beat other established companies to obtain the first import license for Canadian flower in the summer of 2016. Including and most notably Tilray. MedCann GmbH at that point became the only other company besides Bedrocan, the perennial Dutch provider for the last twenty years to be able to provide medicinal, GMP-certified flower to the German market. That market distinction of course, did not last long as other companies quickly jumped into the ring but as the medical brand of Canopy, Debs has continued to lead industry development across Europe. Today, as the Geschäftsführerof Spektrum Cannabis GmbH (as MedCann was renamed after its purchase by Canopy sometime in Q4 2016-Q1 2017) and as Canopy Growth Corp Managing Director Europe, Debs has not only established but currently oversees operations in multiple European countries as Canopy Cannabis expands its global medical brand. From, it should also be added, its swanky new digs in central Frankfurt.
Tjalling Erkelens, Bedrocan founder and CEO. Bedrocan is the legacy cannabis player here in a game that is rapidly changing as it expands. The first exporter of medical cannabis in the world, the family owned company currently produces five different cannabis strains bound for the medical market, and is expected to be the beneficiary of the newly expanded import quota into Germany from Holland for medical grade flower, as well as place well in the German cultivation bid.
Gerhard Müller. The unassuming Chair of the Audit Committee of Wayland Group, the cannabis company formerly known as Maricann. Müller is less often in the English-speaking press than Ben Ward, company CEO. However, Müller is a force to be reckoned with as Wayland begins to unfold its usually understated strategy in Germany and Europe from its Munich HQ base. Müller is the former head of Ernst and Young’s GSA Tech Practice, also adding household names like Birgit Homburger and Christopher Peterka to Wayland’s German Advisory Board. Also of note is GM for Wayland Germany Josef Späth now tasked with bringing his connections and previous experience as a top, internationally experienced clean tech architect and engineer to the build out of Wayland’s infrastructure. This includes previous work with NASA Jet Propulsion Lab alumni to develop new techniques for harvesting and processing of cannabis. German ingenuity and engineering at its best!
Patrick Hoffmann, CEO of Aurora Deutschland (formerly Pedianos). This firm too, was one of the early start-ups to get into the distribution and cultivation game and so far they have proven to be adept at navigating the complex path to winning cultivation rights. Aurora placed in the top ten finalists for the last German cultivation bid. As Pedianos, the firm won the first distribution and cultivation deal for Italy, sourced via Berlin. They have already proven to be highly skilled at finding market advantages in an exploding European market puzzle.
David Henn, CEO of Cannamedical Pharma. The millennial at the front of the cannabis import and distribution craze in Germany, founded his start up in November 2016. Henn then obtained one of the first issued licenses for trading and ex-im of medical cannabis just as the law changed in Germany officially to mandate insurance coverage of medical cannabis by prescription. Since then, the fiercely independent entrepreneur has turned down multiple acquisition offers from companies in Canada, Israel and Australia. The Cologne-based company supplies a growing network of German pharmacies and entered into off-take agreements with major companies in Europe, Canada and Australia. Bolstered by its cash flow in the existing distribution business, Cannamedical is continually expanding and has already established European subsidiaries that are in the progress of obtaining additional production and distribution licenses for the company.
Peter Homburg. Partner, Denton’s Law Firm. Peter has already had an established career as a high-powered partner and the head of the firm’s Life Sciences Division. Yet like many people of different paths and persuasions, he began to explore the world of the legal end of the business several years ago. These days, albeit based in Frankfurt, he has helped establish the firm’s reputation internationally as a leading law firm in the cannabis space.
Rob Reid. Reid wears several influential hats based out of his offices in London. As the director of publicly listed, SOL Investments Corp (formerly Scythian), he invests in the U.S.-based cannabis industry. He is also the co-founder of European Cannabis Holdings (ECH), which is investing in a portfolio of private medical cannabis companies on this side of the pond. He is also the co-founder of Prohibition Partners, the increasingly prolific market intelligence and consultancy firm, and Cannabis Europa, a conference and networking platform. Finally, he is involved in a number of cultivation JVs around the world.
Marla Luther. As co-director for Tilray Europe (along with Sean Carney) and based in Berlin, Marla has the most senior leadership title of any woman in the cultivation and distribution industry in Europe. She has also been in the position for the last several years.
Alex Rogers. As the founder of the International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC), Alex has established perhaps the first truly international cannabis conference brand catering to the professional end of the regulated industry but retaining the soul of the advocacy movement. The Berlin conference going into its third year in 2019, literally reset the standards if not stage for the next upgrade of the industry conference concept. Within a year of its first international conference in Berlin, Alex and his team had also established conferences in Canada and are establishing the B2B conference of Spannabis under their rubric in Barcelona as of next year.
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