Photo credit: Jessica Jones, 5 Tribe Photography, Monica Orozco

Breaking into the weed industry: A guide from the BIPOC who have done it

Not everyone gets to cash in on the lucrative cannabis industry. Eighty-one percent of cannabis founders and owners who responded to a recent Marijuana Business Daily survey were white, while a mere 5.7% were Latinx and even less — 4.3% — were Black. Several states still charge costly application and licensing fees, the report says, and require business license applicants to have no criminal record, despite a history of Black and brown people being disproportionately targeted for drug-related offenses.

The findings reveal an ugly irony: The cannabis industry was built on the backs of Black and brown people, as advocates point out, yet institutional racism largely excludes them from it.

But that doesn’t mean budding Black and brown entrepreneurs can’t take back what’s theirs. The report notes that many states have tried to make the cannabis space more inclusive, and a number of entrepreneurs of color have launched successful cannabis businesses. Here are the stories of six of them, as well as their advice for other BIPOC who want to break into the weed world.

Daniella Davis, Owner and Executive Chef, Dine in with Daniella (Los Angeles)

Jessica Jones

As a recreational user, I was always drawn to the plant. I’ve been using marijuana as a treatment for my sickle cell anemia for years. I started Dine in with Daniella in 2012, when I was finishing up a stint as an executive chef. I was getting sick a lot and decided to go the private chef route, which allowed me more flexibility to accommodate my health needs, as well as more creative flexibility. I’ve been a private chef and caterer ever since. I introduced cannabis into my catering in 2017, after medical marijuana became legal in New York, where I’m from.

Finding sponsors and partners has really been the only struggle. Fortunately, there are so many Black and people of color-owned brands that we formed a community, which has been great for developing partnerships with like-minded brands.

My advice is simple: Just do it. Invest in yourself always. Believe in yourself. Take the risk. Network. I took about $4,000 I had saved to invest in doing all the paperwork and building my brand as I envisioned. I believed I had what it took be successful. I talked to anyone who had an ear to hear. People love food — food creates community. Going to different events, and connecting with other small business owners and people in my field was the first step. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other brands. I was surprised at how many have sponsored my events after I simply introduced myself and my brand. We’re here, we’re successful, and there’s space for all of us.

Alan Robinson, President, Herbal Aspect (Madison, Wisconsin)

Ilana Natasha Bra-va

These are exciting times. The economic opportunity cannabis promises alone would be enough to motivate a knowledgeable person to enter the space. But the truth is, the criminalization of the plant has been used against people who look like me since it started. I got into cannabis by way of advocacy with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and I’m currently the Executive Director of Wisconsin NORML. Cannabis prohibition has had such a negative impact on Black and brown communities that I felt it was the perfect starting point to get a semblance of justice and peace for Black people.

Late last year, I was presented with an opportunity to take over a store on State Street in Madison. The deal went south, but there was a swell of support on social media. Matthew Nelson, Alexander Gish, and I connected, and Herbal Aspect was reborn. We are a Black-owned cannabis product brand. We have premium, lab-tested cannabis products for both adult responsible use and as a supplement to a healthy lifestyle.

We struggled to find a retail location. One property owner wanted to control what products we inventoried, and another wanted a large portion of our profit share. With perseverance, we found a location that fit most of our needs. When I was in the Navy, a buddy told me in Boot Camp, “When you’re going through hell, put your head down and keep going.” It still applies.

Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. This plant can help our community and help us create generational wealth. You don’t have to be a “cannabis” person to enter this space. Literally everything that other businesses need to survive is needed in the cannabis space — content creation, marketing, finance, and more. All you have to do is bring your profession to cannabis. The water’s fine. Dive right in.

Carolina Vazquez Mitchell, Founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Ciencia Labs (Los Angeles)

Monica Orozco

I’ve always been interested in chemistry and molecules. After I dropped out of a chemistry Ph.D. program at the University of Southern California, I was looking for an opportunity to be creative and help people. I spent some time as a consultant for various food companies. Around 2017, I started getting approached by cannabis companies, and I was fascinated by their products. I took a job as the chief scientific officer for one of the country’s largest edibles manufacturers.

As someone who’s battled insomnia, I started developing a nonpharmaceutical formulation of cannabis-derived compounds and other sleep supplements for personal use, and it worked. After spending a couple of years in the cannabis industry, I turned it into a brand, which blossomed into Ciencia Labs, a house of cannabis brands. We have two brands available in California: dreamt, a science-backed sleep aid; and LUCHADOR, a fun, vibrant recreational brand that’s a tribute to my home country of Mexico. We have two more wellness brands coming this year.

I’m an immigrant woman of color who came to the U.S. when I was 24 and couldn’t speak any English. Believe me, I’ve faced a lot of challenges. I’ve overcome them by working harder than the next person. Perhaps it's the immigrant mentality or growing up poor in Mexico, but I’ve never expected anyone to give me anything. You need to show up for yourself every single day.

Work harder than everyone else. You are going to confront people who think you’re less than, not as smart, whatever prejudices they're harboring. If you want to be a budtender, be the very best budtender you can be. If you want to create products, do your research and create the very best products you can. Think about how you can stand out in order to get hired, and then go the extra mile to make sure your quality and contributions are beyond question. Cannabis businesses are becoming aware that they need to do a better job of supporting and creating opportunities for people of color, so now is a good time to enter the space.

Whitney Beatty, CEO, Apothecarry Brands (Los Angeles)

I didn’t use cannabis in high school or college because Nancy Reagan told me to say no to drugs, and I believed her. But in the middle of my career in the entertainment industry, I had an anxiety attack. When I was unable to find any medications I like to control it, my doctor suggested that I look into cannabis. It changed my life. But then I realized I did not see myself or people like me in any depictions of the industry, so I decided to change that.

I started Apothecarry — a sleek and sexy storage and humidity solution for cannabis connoisseurs — in 2015 as a solo founder. It took a lot of trial and error. My mother was scared to death for me. I feel like it’s a type of PTSD from watching your community ravaged by the war on drugs. Even after legalization, everyone’s still afraid. I can’t tell you how many people pulled me aside and told me that I was making a terrible decision.

The only thing I regret is not finding my voice sooner. Early on, people got away with saying some really degrading things about me, my business, my chances of success. If I could do it all over again, would tell them to fuck off a lot sooner than I did. I think sometimes it takes a minute to get your feet under you as an entrepreneur. When I found my confidence, I found my success.

You belong here. There are opportunities for you here. This is a high growth industry that still has low barriers to entry in some sectors. The key to a successful transition into the space is to bring your current skill set. If you’re a nurse, look at cannabis education. If you are an advertiser, join the marketing department. You don’t have to be a grower. In fact, if you can’t keep a house plant alive, that’s probably not the lane for you. But if you come into the space to do what you do best, there’s opportunities for great success.

Joel McClure, Owner and Director of Cultivation, Bridges Academy Farms (Willow Creek, California)

5 Tribe Photography

I first learned to grow cannabis indoors, but my real education began with my first outdoor crop. For the first time, I felt I developed a relationship with the plants, and the magic was evident after harvest. At first, smoking was purely recreational, but I discovered the full medicinal properties of cannabis after an on-the-job injury. Herb helped me heal and quickly return to work. From that point on, it became clear that this plant was essential to my physical and mental well-being. I wondered what I could do to help others in the same way.

While managing another farm, I hired more than 12 people of color for various positions. Because working for someone else wasn't in line with my goals, I began developing Bridges Academy Farms, a small-scale connoisseur cannabis farm and educational academy designed for people of color to learn how to grow cannabis legally and sustainably. In 2020, we received a grant from Humboldt County, and this year we are excited to welcome our first students.

If I could start my cannabis industry journey all over again, I would be more bold. I sometimes held back from certain opportunities because of fear and uncertainty. To others who find themselves in such a place, I say: Shoot your muhfuckin shot.

Being Black in a rural area only amplified the threats associated with cannabis. Code-switching and other social camouflage became a matter of survival. Eventually, persistent community engagement and friendships smoothed out the roughest edges of that dynamic.

There’s a “gatekeeper” energy at every threshold worth crossing. First, focus on why you want to do this. Second, recognize that you need not reinvent the wheel — follow the footsteps of those who were successful in their endeavors. Third, listen to your inner wisdom. As a people rooted by an inalienable relationship with Mother Earth, we have a special connection to her fruits. Let that wisdom flow and guide your decisions. Move in such a way to allow that relationship to grow you.

Alex Ramirez, Chef, Yaaas Chef (Los Angeles)

Marcelo Eng, Studio 110

I have always loved cannabis culture. After I graduated from culinary school, I started making edibles by request for friends, and it snowballed from there. I had a few dinner parties for friends and then a light went off. I thought, why can’t I make a career out of this?

Yaaas Chef started out as a food blog. It was around 2013, 2014 when it really began to take off, and I decided to make a go of turning it into a brand. Then I thought I should try planning events myself to generate more clientele and further establish my brand, as well as use my platform to provide more opportunities for other people of color like me who are starting from scratch. I am a chef who meal preps for clients, all of whom consume cannabis, so most of the items I prep for are cannabis-based in some form. I also host cannabis-friendly pop-up events.

You can see stark differences between how Anglo American and Latinx families treat monetary opportunities for their children. The parents of a lot of people who come from privilege see any money as good money. In traditional, religious Latinx families like mine, though, being an entrepreneur, let alone in something historically stigmatized like cannabis, is the wrong way to do it. My upbringing was centered around putting your head down and working for other people. Dreams were for people of privilege, not for us. I’m working hard to change that for myself and others.

The best advice I have is to go for it. Don’t wait. Find mentors and collaborators. Get excited about saving your money! Learn all you can about every step of the process. That knowledge will give you an edge. There are many who enter this industry to make a quick buck, and the flower has suffered as a result. There’s no love or quality in it anymore.

There is room for everyone in this industry, even though there are certain corporate interests that try to convince people otherwise. Get involved in the advocacy, too. The more we lessen the stigma, and the more POC we bring to the top of the game, the easier it will be for more people to make it. I would love to see talented people of color successful and thriving. We need less cannabis Genius Bars and more boutiques that reflect the diversity and boldness of the people who actually built this industry. Federal decriminalization is coming, and we need to be ready.