Create a culture of inclusion.It is so important that this industry create pathways to serve communities that have historically been left out of participating in the building of a brand new legal industry. We have an opportunity to co-create with them an industry that institutionalizes integrity and equity over greed and exclusion.”
As part of my series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business” I had the pleasure of interviewing Christine De La Rosa, CEO of The People’s Dispensary, who is a transplanted Texan living and thriving in Oakland, CA. She is a social entrepreneur who has spent most of her adult life building businesses that creatively engage and employ the local communities that surround them. Two restaurants, two event production companies, an art gallery, a retail shop and a salon were part of her trajectory that led to co-owning successful cannabis businesses in both California and Oregon. She is a well-respected advocate and activist for the chronically ill, people of color, women, formerly incarcerated and the LGBTQ community. Christine is passionate about the industry that saved her life. Diagnosed with lupus in 2009 after a pulmonary embolism almost killed her, she spent five years unable to work or perform rudimentary functions due to her illness and the synthetic medications perscribed by her doctors. In 2015, she found cannabis as an alternative to treat her lupus. No longer bound to 11 pills a day or monthly infusions, she was inspired by her experience to open Benefit Health Collective in 2016, along with her three co-founders. Together they have grown a profitable multi-state dispensary and a national social equity model and enterprise now known as The People’s Dispensary. Christine believes that the cannabis industry has a mandate to serve not only its customers and patients but also the communities that have been most affected by the war on drugs.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After a pulmonary embolism almost took my life in 2009, I spent the next six years in and out of hospitals, with the last three years requiring 11 synthetic pills daily (which included 5 different opioids) plus a monthly, chemo-like infusion at the hospital to treat my varied lupus-related ailments. Even with all that medicine, I remained sick and mostly unable to leave my house. In 2016, I went to a cannabis conference in Denver, CO that changed my life. It was the first time I was given an education on the benefits of CBD and THC specifically on how it relates to illness. Cannabis allowed me to manage my pain and inflammation in a more holistic way. It was my personal experience, leaving pharmaceuticals behind, that convinced me that others could and should benefit from this medicine. In 2015, I co-founded The People’s Dispensary because I wanted to help my community heal. Back then I had no idea that it would lead to championing equity in the burgeoning industry. However, I am grateful to be a community voice amid the corporate cacophony.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
An elderly man came into our store when we first opened in Oakland. He had severe arthritis in his hands so much so that the fingers could barely move and looked like gnarly limbs on a tree. He had come in to purchase marijuana flower because he said it helped him sleep. I asked him if he had ever tried a THC topical lotion for his hands. He said he hadn’t. I gave him a free jar of topical and asked him to try it. About a week later he walked into the store and he was giving me jazz hands with his fingers wiggling. He told me that his hands hadn’t felt this good in years. It was at that very moment that I realized that every person that came into the dispensary had a bigger story than wanting to get high. And I want to know that story so our budtenders and all our employees at every level are able to curate a meaningful experience for each of our customers.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I love cake. One day a new vendor showed up. I don’t normally deal with vendors or try the samples but our Director of Procurement and I were having a meeting when they showed up. They had with them a new edible that was a cake pop. They seemed super small so when they offered me one of the samples, I didn’t think about asking how much THC was in the cake pop. It took about 45 minutes but when it hit, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had a full day of meetings but the most I could do was call my partner to take me home and tuck me in. My biggest lesson that day is do not try the samples during a work day.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Yes! I am working with a wonderful group of people to create the push for equity at the state and federal level. It’s called the #EquityDayOne initiative. We put together the initiative for New York and New Jersey who are creating new laws for adult use cannabis but are now shifting towards a federal campaign as we get closer to federal decriminalization. #EquityDayOne is about making sure that people of color, women and formerly incarcerated are able to participate on day one of legal cannabis. It appears that big corporate feels very entitled to own a majority if not all of this new and emerging industry. However, the legalized cannabis industry must, at its foundation, be equitable and accessible to those people and communities that were devasted by the war on drugs. As an operating cannabis company, majority minority owned, we uniquely understand the barriers to entry that can be written into legislation and regulation to make it harder for people of color, women and the formerly incarcerated to be successful. I am excited to be thought partners with people thinking about how to work through these issues and create an equitable industry for everyone.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Our company has four co-founders. The longest friendship is 29 years, the shortest friendship is about 12. We have been working together for over a decade, owned several businesses together and continue to really believe in each other and in us as a collective group of like-minded people. When we decided to create The People’s Dispensary, we had no idea the amount of effort it would take to build this business. There have been many times when I could not see my way forward and for each of those times one if not all of them have held me and us up. Each of us has a unique talent and strength that contributes to our success. We have that secret sauce that works.
This industry is young dynamic and creative. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?
We don’t really do traditional marketing. Most of our marketing has been done by word of mouth. We are just starting to enter the phase of our company where we are considering hiring a marketing firm in the near future. I like clever and innovative marketing but what is more important to us is finding a firm that is culturally competent. I can’t tell you how many firms have pitched us who are almost zero percent diverse. With a company like ours, which is 100% LGBTQ owned and 75% women of color owned, that doesn’t work. Finding culturally competent marketing firms has been hard to find which I believe in this emerging cannabis industry will be key.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
Three things that excite me are:
1. Its ability to create health and wealth for many different types of communities.
2. The thousands if not millions of jobs it will create.
3. The number of people cannabis will help move away from opioids for pain management.
Three things that most concern me are:
1. That accessibility and affordability to cannabis as a medicine will be lost because the appetite by governments to gain tax revenue from adult use is all encompassing.
2. That black and brown people will be regulated out of the industry because of flawed laws.
3. That big Pharma and major corporations will squeeze out small business.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Surround yourself with the best people. And vet them thoroughly. I have had my fair share of encounters with yahoos who don’t know much about the business but really like to pretend they do. They will waste your time and your money if you don’t cut them loose quickly. Having the best people around you will keep your creative juices flowing.
2. Be ready to pivot. The industry is constantly changing so you and your company need to be nimble and move accordingly.
3. Build community. Community has been instrumental in our success. Cannabis culture has a strong history of helping communities find alternative medicine. We as an industry must fight the urge to make this a transactional industry.
4. Create partnerships with values aligned people. TPD would not be here today if we had not prioritized our partnerships and created an extended family of vendors, businesses and individuals.
5. Create a culture of inclusion. It is so important that this industry create pathways to serve communities that have historically been left out of participating in the building of a brand new legal industry. We have an opportunity to co-create with them an industry that institutionalizes integrity and equity over greed and exclusion.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Listen to your employees, they are literally your best asset. Empower them to help you shape how the company interacts with the customer. Employees are your best coaches and your most fervent ambassadors.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Our company is creating community reinvestment funds in each of the cities where we have a dispensary. Our goal is to donate 10% of our net profit from the dispensary back into the community where the dispensary is located in. How these funds will be used will be determined by the community. It is our belief that we cannot profit from cannabis without making sure that we are sharing those profits with community.
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Thank you so much for joining us!