By Roy Bingham
I had the good fortune of graduating from Harvard Business School, working at McKinsey & Co. and enjoying the company of a lot of exceptionally qualified and smart colleagues. Cannabis, of course, is a young industry, and given the stereotypes we grew up with regarding cannabis enthusiasts, I was not sure what to expect in terms of the types of professionals in the cannabis industry.
It turns out this industry is packed with extraordinarily talented people. During my two years working to build a cannabis company, I have found that successful cannabis entrepreneurs and business people possess a quartet of key traits: smarts, passion, experience and professionalism.
I have worked with and encountered more bright people during my two years in cannabis than I did during the 20 years I spent toiling in corporate America. This industry attracts extremely intelligent people, and it occurred to me that their embrace of cannabis might speak to their intellect: cannabis helps calm down those delightfully effervescent brains. In addition, the industry attracts the best kind of smart people — those who are Renaissance people, like Thomas Jefferson. They explore a wide range of topics—art, music, culture, medicine, horticulture, food, agriculture and more—and often leverage these interests while making business decisions, from marketing campaigns to R&D to business development. This kind of multi-dimensional thinking not only makes for more interesting people; it also leads to refreshing and even disruptive solutions to business problems.
It is unlikely that many people who become tax attorneys, for example, can point toward passion for their career choice. But passion describes the drive behind most people I meet in the cannabis industry. They get involved with this industry because they feel strongly about cannabis, or about freedom of choice and liberty, or about making the world a better, more sensible place. This passion fuels them through the long (crazy-long) hours of work, loads of travel and the hassles and tedious tasks that come with routine parades of regulatory changes.
In addition, people in the cannabis industry remain unusually close to their customers because their companies, even the larger ones, are not corporate leviathans. Even CEOs still hang out in dispensaries and chat with customers. These conversations lead to insights that further stoke passions and raise enthusiasm in an industry that, due largely to regulatory burdens, presents exceptionally difficult challenges. If not for passion, I think many people pursuing careers and businesses in this industry would long ago have given up.
With the exception of the fantastic young people for whom cannabis is their first industry (lucky them), most people working in the industry started in other fields before pivoting to cannabis brands, stores, grows and ancillary businesses. And the rate and volume of experienced people entering cannabis is accelerating. Now, it is common to meet people who worked in senior level roles of large retail and consumer goods companies, drawing from their multifaceted experiences and shepherding powerful insights of problem-solving, cost management, efficiencies enhancement, and so much more into this dynamic industry. They have toiled for large corporations, which means they are accustomed to long hours, and during their time in other industries built extensive support networks that helped them succeed. For a variety of reasons, they tossed aside the professional comfort, the resources and the security of traditional corporate jobs for work in the fast-paced, fluid environments that describe most cannabis businesses — rock-solid security and deep resources are not hallmarks of cannabis.
These seasoned corporate veterans often leap into cannabis for less pay (although with much better upside) and they are determined to ensure that their new industry does not turn into a replica of the staid industries they abandoned. With this relatively fresh slate of cannabis, they understand they have an opportunity to make a difference—to leverage the best practices that they absorbed about running businesses in other industries, while shedding the regrettable aspects of their previous careers and industries. They want to help create a glorious, enviable industry, and have the experience to help make it happen.
The legacy stereotypes surrounding cannabis enthusiasts of being lethargic, discombobulated, and flaky are unfortunate. Because as we know, the stereotypes do not mirror the kinds of people we see building cannabis businesses. These stereotypes have, however, been helpful in one fashion: they have compelled those of us in the industry to raise our game, to be even more conscientious, thorough, principled, timely, open and fair. I encountered much more intellectual and business laziness, borne out of senses of entitlement, in traditional corporate industries than in cannabis. Here, nobody feels entitled to anything! We understand the forces arrayed against us, including the (thankfully fading) perception that if we work in cannabis, we must be caricatures of “stoner” culture. And so we work extra hard, with deeds (not just empty words), to demonstrate to the rest of the country that we are serious people here to build America’s next great industry and to make the world a better place.
People who work in most industries embrace at least some of the traits I have described. But all of the traits? Smarts, passion, experience and professionalism? In my experience, at least, only one industry contains such a wealth of people who exhibit all of these traits. I know we all look forward to attracting more and more of these Renaissance people into our blossoming industry.