Inspiring Inclusion: Elevating BIPOC in Cannabis

Updated: 5 days ago

Working with Kween, one of the AHLOT Cannabis Curation Committee members, we reached out to a number of BIPOC cannabis professionals to spotlight their stories, experiences and lessons learned while working in this industry.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with AHLOT, we’re a highly unique and diverse group of individuals who are brought together by a love for the cannabis industry. However, while this industry was built off the backs of activists, the legal market has failed to provide a safe and inclusive space for all who would like to participate. To facilitate diversity and growth in the industry and inspire more BIPOC individuals to make their marks, we sat down with a number of BIPOC industry professionals to spotlight their origins story, share their lived experiences and lessons learned in their cannabis careers. We invite you to read through with us.

Heidi Fortes

Founder of Accoutrements 🇨🇦 🇹🇿

1 . How did you first get involved in the cannabis industry?


I just dove right in. My first ever 'show' was actually a Christmas farmers market in Toronto's Bloor/West Village. The organizers were great and really supportive of me being there but, little did I know that it was a kids Christmas market, Santa and all! The amazing thing was that since Accoutrements is so subtle no one knew it was a cannabis brand, and when they inquired the reaction was consistent every time, pleasantly surprised! After that, I had a booth at the Lift show in Vancouver that January and then I was rolling.


2. Have you faced any obstacles within the legal cannabis industry as a BIPOC individual and if so, how have you overcome them?


This is an interesting question because from my perspective I feel like I have, but it's nothing different than what I face as a BIPOC in any other industry. My day job is in tech. I'm a senior sales leader and I run a consulting firm that provides outsourced sales management and sales training to high-growth tech companies. After reflecting on my experience pitching a few notable LP's in 2018 and coming out unsuccessful I have two takeaways. One, I think at the time LP's didn't really have a strong enough business case to invest in brands as the industry was so new and branding really wasn't going to provide a big enough growth in profit to justify the risk. Two, I also think that being a BIPOC in an industry dominated by white men, that I wasn't completely given the benefit of the doubt that I think some of my male counterparts received. In terms of how I've overcome this I don't think I have yet. Accoutrements is my passion and I will bring my full vision to life for the company one day. I'm hoping to look to try and raise a round again next year so hopefully by then I'll have a better answer!


3. What do you hope to change in the industry?


A big change I'd like to see is access to capital for companies like mine that are building brands. This may be an unpopular opinion but in 10 years cannabis will truly be a commodity, I would argue that it already is right now. So, I think that branding and creating communities that consumers can latch onto will be where the industry has to go in order for producers to distinguish themselves from their competitors.


4. Any words of encouragement/tips for BIPOC entrepreneurs looking to get into the legal cannabis space?


Keep at it. Like any 'new' industry the first few years are like the wild west. It's chaotic, it moves fast and often concepts like equity and inclusiveness aren't really the priority. But, if you stay consistent and show up there's a higher probability that you'll actually affect change.


Instagram: @accoutrements.to


Keenan Pascal 🇩🇲🇨🇦

Founder and CEO of Token Naturals


1. How did you first get involved in the cannabis industry?


During my time at Sauder School of Business at UBC, I was in an Entrepreneurship course. One of the student-led projects in the course involved the creation of a line of cannabis beverages. After the class, I ended up teaming up with one of the group members to take it from concept to reality, which was the starting point from which Token evolved. Token Naturals has just about completed construction on the first phase of our manufacturing facility in Edmonton, Alberta. We intend to sell cannabis products for consumers and to offer manufacturing and product development services to businesses, and expect to be licensed for that before the year is out.


2. Have you faced any obstacles within the legal cannabis industry as a BIPOC individual and if so, how have you overcome them?


The biggest obstacle is a lack of representative mentorship and network connections. Without as much or as convenient of access to traditional investment, resources and guidance as perhaps other founders had, we had to find more innovative ways to connect with a more diverse network. There is a huge upfront capital requirement to get into cannabis processing, and due to systemic barriers there are not many large investment opportunities that are readily available within the BIPOC communities. I think being outgoing in terms of connecting and networking was key, as was mentally overcoming the idea that I might be the only person of colour in the room.


3. What do you hope to change in the industry?


I want to take down some of those systemic barriers that I had to climb over by offering more key decision-maker roles to BIPOC applicants. Hopefully this sets a good example and offers more opportunity across the board.


4. Any words of encouragement/tips for BIPOC entrepreneurs looking to get into the legal cannabis space?


We are still on the forefront of this new industry, and have the opportunity now to showcase what a fully representative industry can look like in 20 or 30 years. There’s a lot of upside to controlling your own destiny.


Reena Rampersad 🇹🇹

Volunteer Coordinator for Cannabis Amnesty


1. How did you first get involved in the cannabis industry?


Prior to legalization many of my efforts were directed towards rallying for legalization and the awareness of the social justice issues behind the guise of prohibition. Post legalization my efforts have been focused around helping to create restorative justice practices and efforts in rectifying some of the negative effects experienced as a result of prohibition.



2. Have you faced any obstacles within the legal cannabis industry as a BIPOC individual and if so, how have you overcome them?


Initially, yes. There was once a time where I wanted to be a part of the legal system and worked very hard to make a place for myself including setting up networks and seeking other resources. No matter how much I tried to connect, it seemed that the new and rapidly expanding industry had a preference for a certain look. It became apparent that this new industry, much like any other in existence came with the same biases that created prohibition in the first place. By raising awareness to this matter, albeit on deaf ears for many years, doors began to open up for me. Since then I’ve received many wonderful offers and opportunities but have chosen to remain heavier on the side of advocacy for the time being.


3. What do you hope to change in the industry?


I would like to see true equity including more BIPOC representation at the executive levels and in decision making capacities. It would be nice to see that those benefiting from an industry built out of social injustice are committed to reinvesting in the communities that were affected.


4. Any words of encouragement/tips for BIPOC entrepreneurs looking to get into the legal cannabis space?


Just do it. There are more opportunities than there ever have been. Show up. Reach out to other BIPOC professionals and attend events and network. If you have an idea…just start something. So much of the industry is in the development stage there's lots of room for growth in many directions. It doesn’t matter your profession, likely you have the tools to engage in the industry already…the industry needs managers, planners, skilled trades pros, technical people, general labour and so much more.


Instagram:

@highsocietysupperclub

@thelimincoconut


Emily Leung 🇨🇦

Founder of OHAI


1. How did you first get involved in the cannabis industry?


While pitching around the idea of Ohai, I was introduced to a CEO of an extraction company in California and joined their team as a marketing director. This was my official first job in the industry and it’s played a pivotal role in my cannabis career as I’ve been able to apply a lot of this experience and market insights into what I’m doing now.



2. Have you faced any obstacles within the legal cannabis industry as a BIPOC individual and if so, how have you overcome them?


As a Canadian-born Chinese cisgender woman, I have absolutely experienced obstacles in the industry. I’ve had meetings that start off with subtle judgements and sneers to my racial and cultural background, with a dash of sexism and even fetishism. In those instances, I’ve been asked questions like what my parents think of what I’m doing before we even open the business agenda. It is patronizing and unnecessary as I’m not asking anyone for permission to be here and I’m only here to talk business.


3. What do you hope to change in the industry?


Through my role as an advisor and consultant, I hope to influence my clients to understand the difference between inclusivity and diversity and to help them understand that change must start from within an organization, from top to bottom. This prerogative is quintessential to the Ohai ethos and I make sure I walk that talk. My goal is to set the stage for the next generation of BIPOC mxn and womxn by creating a business and community that is authentically accepting without exception.


4. Any words of encouragement/tips for BIPOC entrepreneurs looking to get into the legal cannabis space?


The obstacles for BIPOC entrepreneurs will always be lurking in the shadows, but the key is to remain optimistic. Acknowledge these shadows, but don’t ever allow it to lead the way or let it dictate the direction of your dreams. There will be days and people who will bring us down, but maintaining positivity is the power we need to continue moving forward collectively.


Instagram: @ohailife

Twitter: @ohailife

LinkedIn:@emileu


Natalie Sophia 🇨🇦🇬🇧

Owner/Operator of Nattilly Attired


1. How did you first get involved in the cannabis industry?


I was working in a Medical Clinic as the Manager. A colleague I worked with had the idea to make Cannabis Fudge and asked me to assist, hence me becoming the VP & face of the company. I started as the VP of Mrs. Fudgemaker which is a micro-dose Fudge company in which we assisted seniors. From there I decided it was a good idea to take my skincare company, Natailly Attired, to the next level by adding terpenes, CBD & THC to provide additional relief for patients. I have signed a few NDA's to get my products sold around the world.


2. Have you faced any obstacles within the legal cannabis industry as a BIPOC individual and if so, how have you overcome them?


I personally feel that I have not so far. I will say that I did work for one establishment where I was bullied, called names & they always seemed to have an issue with me. I am pretty sure it was not due to my skin colour but jealousy as I was top sales and 90% of the clients only wanted to deal with me personally. I feel this really irritated the others I worked with. It finally came to a head and I left the company, only to see it implode 6 months later. As for overcoming, it boiled down to an attitude adjustment. I could waste all my energy being angry or take that energy and be productive and it is paying off faster than I thought it would.


3. What do you hope to change in the industry?


What needs to change is that the Government sticks to what they know best and leave Cannabis industry to the people that know what they are doing, the ones that are constantly educating themselves. Taking BIPOC seriously and giving us the tools we need to succeed including equal pay.


4. Any words of encouragement/tips for BIPOC entrepreneurs looking to get into the legal cannabis space?


Get in now! Constantly educate yourself and most of all network, network, network. I am not going to say this industry is perfect, follow your gut and always be humble and kind as you never know who you will meet to take you to the next level.


Instagram

@nattillyattiredbodypolish

@mrs.fugemaker

@wellnesscooks


Dharmesh Morjaria 🇨🇦🇮🇳

Head of Finance and Operations at AHLOT


1. How did you first get involved in the cannabis industry?


I left the tech/software industry after spending countless years at medium sized organizations. I had a burning desire to dive back into a startup one last time before I considered being responsible about my career prospects. After spending about a year researching the space, various licensed producers, and connecting with insiders I found AHLOT and immediately fell in love with their vision, their team, and that if I landed the role, that collectively we could build something great. It was motivating for me to get in on the ground floor and rise to the challenges that faced us. I joined 1 month before legalization began and for the past two years have felt fulfilled about building up from our small beginnings.


2. Have you faced any obstacles within the legal cannabis industry as a BIPOC individual and if so, how have you overcome them?


I have neither personally nor consciously experienced any obstacles as a person of colour within the industry. I am fortunate enough to currently work in a diverse and inclusive environment, and I have had the same experience over the past 2 decades at previous companies in other industries. I have observed the plethora of caucasians within this industry and have observed the lack of diversity across all roles within organizations throughout the industry. This is something that needs to be addressed.


3. What do you hope to change in the industry?


I still face stereotypical judgements about cannabis use by non-users and I would love to de-stigmatize this. I would also like to see a greater representation of BIPOC entrepreneurs and individuals across all areas of organizations as we all have different perspectives and valuable contributions to make. Lastly I would love to see a reduction of taxation and compliance costs to improve the affordability of products.


4. Any words of encouragement/tips for BIPOC entrepreneurs looking to get into the legal cannabis space?


Dig deep inside yourself for inspiration, conviction, and perseverance to overcome the numerous obstacles ahead. Learn from failures, remain positive, and help others. Together we can elevate the BIPOC community within this industry.


Fro Lady 🇨🇦🇯🇲🇨🇺

Influencer/Owner of Frolyfe


1. How did you first get involved in the cannabis industry?


Before it (recreational cannabis) became legal, I was looking to become an influencer to advocate for POC who’ve been stigmatized, and even incarcerated, as a result of cannabis use or sale. Minority groups shouldn’t be singled out and non-minorities allowed to profit. Currently I’m branding a lifestyle for cannabis users who want to connect with themselves through mind, body and spirit. It will be for individuals who want to use cannabis as a way to calm and heal oneself. We’re relaunching in October with loads of changes and some great product kits!


2. Have you faced any obstacles within the legal cannabis industry as a BIPOC individual and if so, how have you overcome them?


I face obstacles daily. I can’t figure out how to get a leg up but folks around me seem to be doing pretty well. I think financial literacy is a big part of that and no one is going to tell you about it. I also feel like we are all we got in this industry, we need to try and give each other that boost to push through “known” companies and present a worthy product. I do believe that financial literacy is the solution to this. It’s not really about having money but knowing how to use it in a business way.


3. What do you hope to change in the industry?


I hope to change the face of cannabis as a black woman. I hope to legally own a black owned dispensary and fitness clothing line that will encourage us as women to be our best self. I hope to change how people look at POC in this industry and see us more as formidable competitors. I hope to educate people in finance and business, and to get across that even in “fun” businesses, there needs to be a level of commitment and responsibility.


4. Any words of encouragement/tips for BIPOC entrepreneurs looking to get into the legal cannabis space?


As Dori says, just keep swimming. Nothing worth anything good comes easy and everyone’s path is different, but failures, lessons learned and self reflection is important. Think about what’s working right now versus what hasn’t been and adjust. Lastly, marketing matters! Educate yourself on how to advertise and market your product/services and be careful where you spend your money on ads. Learn about Facebook ads BEFORE you buy (Made that $400 mistake). Education is key and knowledge is power. Sounds cheesy, but the Dragon from Dragons Den will say that the things people find boring are the ones that make money.


Instagram: @heyfrolady


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