As we survey the landscape in 2022, it’s clear the cannabis industry’s work has only begun when it comes to creating a vibrant, diverse ecosphere where all can thrive. Although many businesses are eager to discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion, actions sometimes fall short when it comes to doing the hard work that will drive change.
People of color in cannabis are doing the work, day in and day out, to build a better industry. They are increasing access to capital in underserved communities, advising governments on impactful social-equity initiatives, fighting stigma, building meaningful networks, and forging paths for others.
In no way is this list exhaustive, but it is a start, reflecting a cohort of industry leaders who captured our attention for the passion, innovation, and determination they bring to their work. They know from experience it takes concerted effort to create opportunities and remove barriers, and they’re delivering that effort not only in their own workplaces, but also in the larger community.
Both inspirational and aspirational, their resolve and advice provide powerful motivation for industry-wide efforts to create a more inclusive, equitable cannabis space in 2022 and beyond.
Take a look at Whitney Beatty’s social media, and you will be struck by her determined optimism as she paves the way for women of color in cannabis. Beatty recently launched Los Angeles’s Josephine & Billie’s cannabis speakeasy, the country’s first dispensary focused on women of color. Independently owned Josephine & Billie’s quickly attracted support from The Parent Company (TPCO), becoming its first social-equity investment. Beatty is also founder and CEO of Apothecarry Brands, which creates stylish luxury storage cases, and she actively works to destigmatize cannabis through her High Mommy Life Instagram channel.
“I think one thing that made a difference for me was landing TPCO as an investor in Josephine & Billie’s,” Beatty said. “Fundraising is incredibly difficult and credibility is key, so it means something to say Jay-Z is their chief visionary officer and they are leading my round. We still live in a world where there are fewer than 100 Black women CEOs who have raised over $1 million in venture capital, and the significance of joining that list has not been lost on me. Wins like this drive me to not let conventional wisdom limit my thinking. I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
As the cofounder and operational genius behind the trendsetting international cannabis lifestyle brand Cookies, Gilbert Milam Jr. (better known as rapper Berner) requires no introduction. Growing up working-class in the San Francisco Bay Area, Berner stayed true to his roots even as his fame exploded, committed to bringing people together and creating new paths into the industry. In 2021, he led Cookie’s collaboration with the Webber Wild cannabis impact fund to create Cookies U, a no-cost, three-month program teaching cannabis business fundamentals to marginalized people entering the industry.
“It feels good to be in a position to share this knowledge, passion, and love for the industry with people,” he said about the program. “I truly believe this is one area that has been missing for social equity in cannabis.”
Dasheeda Dawson came to the cannabis industry with nearly two decades of corporate experience in business development, brand marketing, and strategic development. She funneled that knowledge into The WeedHead & Company, providing education, empowerment, and ecommerce resources for new cannabis entrepreneurs and gaining recognition from The New York Times, Entrepreneur, and Essence for her work.
“My biggest competitive advantage as I’ve built my career in the cannabis industry has been the ability to leverage the collective entrepreneurial and advocacy strengths of my family, specifically my sisters Imani and Ice Dawson,” she said. “By working in coalition across business, policy, and community education, we have overcome many common hurdles.”
In May 2020, the City of Portland selected Dawson to oversee the city’s medical and adult-use cannabis regulatory program, making her only the third Black woman to hold a cannabis regulatory oversight leadership role. Dawson is also a founding member of the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition and cofounder and chief strategy officer at the Cannabis Health Equity Movement (CHEM)™ Allyance.
“The most critical outcome has been joining forces in 2020 with other cannabis families, most notably the Knox Doctors, to be a cofounder of the Cannabis Health Equity Movement (CHEM), a consortium of the best and brightest BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] innovators and operators across various sectors within the industry called to actively demonstrate how cannabis can be a core solution in achieving health equity for all,” Dawson said.
Giadha A. DeCarcer
Founder and executive chair, New Frontier Data
Giadha A. DeCarcer is no stranger to forging new paths in rapidly evolving industries. Her background spans banking, technology, data analytics, and intelligence collection and reporting, including experience leading business development, strategy execution, and management. Committed to giving back, DeCarcer created The InterCannAlliance (ICA) in 2018 to support thought leaders in emerging cannabis markets by sharing responsible, effective practices gleaned from mature markets. DeCarcer also mentors and coaches female entrepreneurs launching their first businesses.
“New Frontier Data committed to completely embracing diversity as a cornerstone of its business right out of the gates in 2014, but the support of our entire community gave our game-changing initiatives staying power,” she said. “From our customers around the world to our investors, from our talented teams to our many partners, the unwavering support of our commitment to diversity gave us exactly what we need to be successful—a long, wide, and more comprehensive view of the cannabis markets of today and tomorrow.”
Cofounder and COO, Simply Pure
When Scott Durrah and his wife, Wanda James, opened Denver’s Simply Pure dispensary in 2009, it was the first Black- and veteran-owned licensed cannabis dispensary in the United States. As chief operating officer, Durrah guides the groundbreaking cannabis retail company on its mission to inspire the evolution of the plant through education, safe products, cooking, and food. Durrah is driven by service, from his past experience as a U.S. Marine to his involvement in local activism supporting cannabis reform and social equity, including a recent run for Denver City Council. Durrah is also a professional chef, restaurateur, and contributor to The Cannabis Kitchen Cookbook: Feel-Good Food for Home Cooks.
Virgil Grant is a California industry pioneer. For more than two decades, he has advocated for state and local legislation to create and regulate the state’s legal medical and adult-use marketplaces. More recently, he consulted with New Jersey lawmakers as they formulated the state’s cannabis ordinances.
Grant has firsthand understanding of the complicated legality of cannabis and its interplay with historically racist drug policies—he himself served time in federal prison for operating licensed cannabis retail businesses that were compliant with local laws yet were targeted by federal agents. Out of this experience, Grant came back more determined than ever to fight for equal access to the industry for communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
In addition to the California Minority Alliance and the Southern California Coalition, Grant is also a founding member of the Greater Los Angeles Caregivers Alliance and owner of the California Cannabis West Coast brand.
Cofounder and CEO, SC Labs
Jeff Gray brings a scientifically driven, logical perspective to his work as cofounder and CEO at SC Labs, the exclusive lab-testing partner for The Emerald Cup and the California State Fair Cannabis Awards. His analytical approach also extends to bigger issues of equity and social justice in the cannabis industry, with Gray identifying the need for both government and industry to acknowledge hundreds of years of racial disparity resulting in unequal access to education and capital.
Doing their part to make a change, Gray and his SC Labs colleagues partnered with the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and the University of California, Santa Cruz to introduce minority science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students to the scientific and technological advances happening in the cannabis industry.
Cofounder and executive director, Cannabis Cultural Association
Cannabis stigma ranks high among the barriers Latinos face when entering the industry. Nelson Guerrero knows these challenges firsthand, having grown up hearing stories about how cannabis was used only by lazy people. In college, however, Guerrero began seeing how fellow athletes used cannabis for recovery, sparking his interest in the industry from a health perspective—an interest that eventually extended to educating his own family about the plant’s potential. In 2016, the experience led Guerrero to cofound the Cannabis Cultural Association, which educates people on the health benefits of cannabis and advocates for adult-use legalization.
Guerrero is also a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit alleging cannabis’s Schedule I classification under the Controlled Substances Act violates cannabis patients’ constitutionally protected right to engage in commerce, travel, and enjoy equal protection under the law. Other plaintiffs include retired NFL player Marvin Washington, Iraq War veteran Jose Belen, and pediatric cannabis patients Jagger Cote and Alexis Bortell.
Attorney, Cultiva Law
Fabiola Jimenez’s career as a cannabis attorney was inspired by her own childhood growing up in Eastern Washington’s agricultural Yakima Valley, where she witnessed how prohibition impacted the Hispanic community and derailed family members’ lives with cannabis possession charges. Out of that experience, Jimenez developed a passion for the law, but hers hasn’t been an easy path. In interviews, she speaks candidly about succeeding despite the stigma surrounding cannabis law and the challenges of being a Latina attorney. Her experiences fostered a deep commitment to helping other Hispanic women and girls succeed in achieving their dreams.
“One thing that made a positive difference for me was to not be afraid to ask questions and build a community of people who had my back,” she said. “There are many resources out there for people in this industry; however, they are not widely discussed. So always be bold—always be hustling, and the right people will come together.”
Founder and CEO, SF Roots
Morris Kelly has been part of the San Francisco cannabis scene since before there was a legal industry, eventually leveraging his knowledge as a talented grower and legacy operator to found boutique cultivator SF Roots, the city’s first verified equity brand. Kelly’s entrepreneurial story highlights the importance of social-equity programs that provide a path for people of color who have experienced direct harms from the war on drugs.
In and out of jail starting in his teens, Kelly built SF Roots through sheer grit and determination despite a felony drug conviction. With support from equity-driven organizations like the Original Equity Group, the SUCCESS Center, and the Office of Cannabis in San Francisco, he surmounted two hurdles that still hold back many other people of color: a criminal record and lack of access to capital. For years he wouldn’t talk about his past, but now he shares his story and mentors social-equity applicants, offering hope to others who have been denied access to the industry they helped build.
SF Roots is self-funded, and Kelly is determined to expand his brand—and his message—to other states while staying true to the craft.
Lack of capital often becomes a roadblock for entrepreneurs of color, grounding their efforts before they have an opportunity to launch. Former Denver Broncos wide receiver Tavarres King is determined to change the money game, bringing his experience from the football field to his role as CEO of Suite 420 Access, a minority-owned firm removing systemic barriers and providing equitable access to capital.
“My first love of football has directly guided me to my current career as an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry,” he said. “Playing in the NFL, with all of the daily challenges physically, mentally and emotionally, taught me a lifelong lesson that I can achieve anything if I put my mind to it.
“Football never felt like a job since I was loving every minute of the game and focused on being the best I could be both on and off the field,” he continued. “The same applies for working in the cannabis industry. I absolutely love this industry—the opportunities it brings, the health and wellness aspects, the business and financial strategies, and especially that it’s still an emerging industry with more room for growth. Being true to yourself and authentic in your choices will empower you as well as those around you.”
As an attorney and advocate for emerging and embattled industries, Amber has developed and implemented creative strategies for industry, associations, nonprofits, and other stakeholder groups. As the executive director for the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), she creates and drives policy to expand and stabilize emerging markets by engaging and supporting underrepresented business interests and communities. She previously served as the organization’s senior policy advisor, helping to develop and implement MCBA’s federal policy program. After a career advocating for small businesses and the natural products sector, her focus today is on economically empowering communities of color through policy, programming, and outreach initiatives to achieve equity for the communities most impacted by the war on drugs.
Poet; founder, Buy Weed From Women
Jasmine Mans is an accomplished poet and author whose work has been praised for its ability to convey a sense of mourning and a yearning for justice that are quintessential elements of the Black experience. She pulls no punches, and her work has been featured on HBO, BET, and billboard.com. Now, Mans brings her energy to the iconic Buy Weed From Women lifestyle brand she launched in 2018. The Buy Weed From Women brand packs a remarkably memorable, sharp message into four words, a mantra designed to unify the industry and elevate the voices of women in cannabis. Fans of the simple jackets, T-shirts, sweatshirts, and bags include Chelsea Handler and Gabrielle Union. All Buy Weed from Women products are screen-printed by hand in New Jersey by a female staff.
Roz McCarthy came to cannabis for healing following a car crash and found not only wellness but a calling to help others. Out of that experience, she founded Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM), for which she currently serves as CEO. She’s also CEO of Black Buddha Cannabis, a social-equity brand created to support novice consumers just beginning to incorporate cannabis into their wellness routines.
Her advice to other cannabis entrepreneurs is succinct and unvarnished. “I highly recommend businesses look outside of their inner circle and add cannabis-experienced entrepreneurs, consultants, and/or coaches to their team. However, before adding them, please look under the hood and make sure you vet candidates appropriately. Never assume people can add value to your team without asking for references and paying attention to the details.”
Vice president of business development, WISECO (parent company of Mary & Main)
Pairing a keen sense of brand strategy and digital marketing with a charismatic, positive outlook on the plant’s potential to transform communities of color, Nadir Pearson represents the future of cannabis. In 2017, he founded the Student Marijuana Alliance for Research & Transparency (SMART), a nationwide college-campus organization empowering the next generation of cannabis leaders, and has served as East Coast Project Lead for Cannaclusive.
“Mentorship would be the overtly business jargon I’d use to describe the bonds of meaningful friendships and many I now call family,” he said. “Paying it forward to the next generation is how I plan to honor those who opened doors for me.”
Carolina Vazquez Mitchell
Founder, Ciencia Labs
Carolina Vazquez Mitchell is trailblazing the next generation of targeted products at the cutting edge of cannabis science innovation. In previous roles in consumer packaged goods companies and as chief scientific officer at Kushy Punch, Vazquez Mitchell used her background in chemistry and pharmacology to develop safe, consistent products driven by science, not marketing hype. After leaving Kushy Punch, Vazquez Mitchell founded Ciencia Labs, a California-based manufacturer of science-backed cannabis products and brands, including LUCHADOR, a tribute to her Mexican heritage, and dreamt, the first of several planned products built around specific use verticals.
“I think my immigrant work ethic has been incredibly helpful to my career in the cannabis industry,” she said. “You face many obstacles as a young woman of color, particularly in the male-dominated sciences and manufacturing, but I have found hard work and fierce determination helped me overcome doubters and compete with much bigger companies despite having a fraction of their budget.”
Amber E. Senter
Cofounder and chairman of the board, Supernova Women; cofounder, EquityWorks! Incubator
U.S. Coast Guard veteran Amber E. Senter is a changemaker in the San Francisco Bay Area’s cannabis industry, helping shape the region’s social-equity initiatives. Senter is the cofounder of and one of the guiding forces behind Supernova Women, a nonprofit working to empower women of color in cannabis to become self-sufficient shareholders through advocacy, workforce development, network-building, and assistance with equity-focused loan programs. She provided input about the City of Oakland’s cannabis social-equity program, the first in the nation, and has worked with state officials on social-equity efforts.
Senter is also cofounder of EquityWorks! Incubator, which supports social-equity operators in the cannabis marketplace, and she has founded several cannabis companies including Shady Pines Box Club cannabis delivery service and MAKR House, which provides supply-chain-management services from seed to sale.
“A few things that have made a positive impact on my career have been support from my colleagues, support from my team, and support through mentorship,” she said. “Having a solid community to rely on, whether it be for advice, networking, or simply to vent, has made all the difference for me.”
Dai Truong has his finger on the pulse of the financial side of the industry thanks to deep business knowledge built on his experience with Arlington Capital Investors, Left Coast Ventures, MedMen, and Anheuser-Busch InBev. Truong’s “Highly Objective” newsletter is essential reading for industry insiders seeking news about the latest deals and regulatory actions impacting cannabis. “Highly Objective” is guided by three principles: share, learn, and connect.
“Curating Highly Objective over the past three years has been very rewarding, especially as it has become the go-to resource for many in the industry,” he said. “I’ve been able to provide value to industry insiders, make introductions, and build community with events. The feedback I’ve received from readers has been some of the most rewarding to me in my cannabis career.”
Director of corporate social responsibility, Curaleaf
Raheem Uqdah is a storyteller, creator, and communications pro who brings insight and talent to Curaleaf’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program. Prior to moving into cannabis, he worked in the nonprofit sector, driven by a passion for community organizing and skill at packaging social good as an experience and a brand in an impactful way. Uqdah’s nonprofit experience informs his current work leading Curaleaf’s “Rooted in Good” corporate social responsibility efforts, including the brand’s 420×25 initiative, with the goal of doing business with 420 cannabis companies and organizations from underrepresented communities by 2025.
“Having an opportunity to prove myself in this industry is a huge part of why I am here today,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to find leaders who saw my potential, made space for me to grow into who I wanted to be, and nurtured my growth through opportunity and mentorship. Cannabis provides an opportunity for us to recognize people from non-traditional backgrounds and bring their perspectives to the table.”
Executive director, National Hispanic Cannabis Council (NHCC)
As a seasoned consumer marketing professional, Antonio Valdez recognizes the power of connecting with the community as a first step toward creating change. Prior to joining the cannabis industry, Valdez was instrumental in the launch of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals. He brings that knowledge to his role as executive director for the National Hispanic Cannabis Council (NHCC), where he leads efforts to support and empower Hispanic community participation in the cannabis industry and break down taboos and stigma surrounding cannabis.
Valdez is quick to point out how businesses can remove obstacles faced by people of color by educating and fostering a broader base of support. “We often see a disconnect between particularly active, vocal supporters of the industry and everyone else,” he said. “We need a broader base of support to create sustainable change and create an integrated ecosystem helping each other succeed in the legal cannabis economy.”
Cofounder, Webber Health and Wellness
Lavetta Willis embodies a powerful combination of creativity and entrepreneurship, with a sharp eye on trends and business opportunities, a dynamic work ethic, and a drive to succeed. In the 1990s, she launched Dada’s cutting-edge footwear line, which was endorsed by multiple NBA players and appeared on court during All-Star games. Now, she’s brought her talent to Webber Health and Wellness, joining five-time NBA All-Star Chris Webber and TerrAscend Executive Chairman Jason Wild to create the $100-million Webber Wild Fund, a private equity investment vehicle targeting cannabis businesses owned by people of color.