Room for innovation in the legal cannabis industry: A nascent industry provides the opportunity to make impactful decisions that will drive where cannabis is headed. With stigma decreasing and value growing, there’s no better time to work in cannabis.
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 Marc Ross. Marc is the Director of Community Outreach at Harvest Health & Recreation, a multi-state cannabis operator and vertically integrated cannabis company. Subject to completion of announced acquisitions, Harvest will have one of the largest footprints in the U.S., with rights to more than 210 facilities, of which approximately 130 are retail locations. With expansion, Harvest works to positively impact every single community that it touches. In his current role, and as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) professional and environmental attorney with over 25 years of experience in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, Marc is knowledgeable about effective community relations, and how the cannabis industry can help local economies grow.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Marc! Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In the spring of 2016, I was starting my career transition from law and nonprofit back to the private sector to work generally in the area of CSR. I was networking my butt off to meet with every CSR professional that I could find and in one week, had two meetings that changed the course of my career. In a meeting with the architect for Arrow Electronics’ CSR program, Joe Verrengia suggested that I look into bringing CSR to the cannabis industry. He laid out the plan — employee engagement, community engagement, strategic philanthropy, and sustainability — and told me he wasn’t going to do it, but I should. A week later, Denver Mayor Hancock’s then Chief Sustainability Officer Jerry Tinianow suggested the same thing. It was too synchronous to ignore. I called the one person I knew in the cannabis industry and took her to lunch to pick her brain. Sure enough, nobody was really working on what would be viewed as a formal, strategic CSR program in the cannabis industry. That was when I started to network my way into the cannabis industry. By the time Harvest found me in the spring of 2019, I had consulted for a number of cannabis and hemp companies all because these two gentlemen were kind enough to give me their time and that suggestion.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
To be clear, in my role at Harvest, I’m more of a “thought leader” than someone who is leading the company. That said, I guess the most interesting thing that has happened since I started leading the Community Outreach efforts for the company is discovering how entrenched the anti-cannabis forces still seem to be — even in states that have voted for legalization — and then the work that it takes to win hearts and minds. I’ll be speaking with a prospective charitable partner in North Dakota or Pennsylvania or Utah and there can be strong resistance to working with cannabis. I remember that I was in a meeting in rural Pennsylvania with a faith-based NGO and at the outset, the senior official sat there, arms crossed, seemingly completely uncomfortable with the meeting. Our team got to work presenting what we actually did (providing medicine and economic opportunity to local communities, as well as deploying financial and human resources (i.e. volunteers) into the community) and our values. After an hour of discussion, the arms were uncrossed and the other person from the organization indicated that she was going to get her medical card. The lessons that I took from that experience were: 1) the 80-year war on drugs has left a huge swath of America uninformed and ignorant as to the health benefits of modern cannabis; and 2) we need to do more work, investing time and money to literally meet people where they are if we want this industry to succeed in a thoughtful way that respects our history and the true healing powers of this ancient medicine.
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?
When conducting a series of meetings with a variety of stakeholders throughout North Dakota, I would occasionally slip and say “North Carolina.” It was kinda like the rock star that says, “Good evening Cleveland,” but is actually in Cincinnati. Lesson: Life on the road gets confusing. Know where you are at all times!
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
In 2019, Harvest is proud to announce a significant partnership with national social equity organization, The Last Prisoner Project, whose mission is to restore justice for those formerly convicted of cannabis crimes. Harvest will be leading LPP’s prison re-entry education program, providing for a Prisons to Prosperity job training program for those individuals convicted of cannabis crimes and who are currently in prison, in transition, and post release. This program will represent the most aggressive and comprehensive jobs training program in the U.S. for individuals formerly convicted of cannabis crimes.
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?
Bonnie Raitt. In 2005, when the organization that I founded (Rock the Earth) was just starting to gain traction, Bonnie agreed to sit down with me for a public interview on stage at the Bonnaroo Music Festival. At the time, Bonnaroo was the largest music festival in the United States and Bonnie agreeing to an interview with a me, a non-journalist, lawyer and nonprofit leader, was a bit of a surprise. It was the first high-profile interview I ever conducted, but it opened the door for me to have 13 years of interviews with dozens of artists, activists, and film makers, all live and on stage at Bonnaroo and other festivals. Over the years, I had the privilege of interviewing significant personalities such as Bob Weir, Michael Franti, John Bell (Widespread Panic), Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Jerry Greenfield (Ben & Jerry’s), Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips), Brett Dennen, Warren Haynes, Pat Green, the Head and the Heart, Julia Butterfly Hill, Daryl Hannah, and many others.
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?
Our dedication to serving every local community we touch, is not a marketing strategy, but rather at the core of Harvest’s mission. Authenticity is crucial to earning the trust and loyalty of consumers who have more options than ever. Therefore, we ensure everything we do aligns with our values under the pillars of health, education, and community:
Health: Harvesting Hope is a non-profit organization (501(c)(3)) established in 2014 to provide a better quality of life for young children suffering from pediatric epilepsy. To date, Dr. Troutt, Harvesting Hope’s Executive Director, has provided services to over 100 families and their children, including guidance on cannabis use for seizure control, educational seminars and discussions, and introductions to medical specialists.
Community: Our in-house medical professionals have also given prominent speaking presentations both locally and nationally to nonprofit organizations, government officials, community leaders, and medical and community health professionals on topics such as cannabis treatment of patients with various medical conditions, as well as cannabis therapy for the senior community and veterans.
Education: We deploy human and financial resources through our Harvesters Help Community Volunteer Program, national week of service, and grants program for local nonprofits and are a member of One Community, an LGBTQ business organization, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
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 most excite me about the Cannabis industry
1. Room for innovation in the legal cannabis industry: A nascent industry provides the opportunity to make impactful decisions that will drive where cannabis is headed. With stigma decreasing and value growing, there’s no better time to work in cannabis.
2. No one day is the same as the next: Each day is different — from strategizing ways to engage with local communities to meeting with our non-profit partners to regulatory compliance checks — the list goes on!
3. The passionate people I work with every day: Working within this industry, I’ve connected with the most passionate people who are dedicated to improving lives through the goodness of cannabis.
Three things that concern me about the Cannabis industry:
1. A shifting legal landscape: Rules change with every passing legislation across all markets in which we operate. To this end, Harvest is dedicated to working with governments to ensure proper regulatory practices.
2. Banking regulations: Earlier this year, the passage of SAFE Banking Act marked a significant step in the right direction, improving access to capital for all companies, large and small, and entrepreneurs from all backgrounds, ultimately increasing our industry’s diversity, inclusion and social equity.
3. Unpredictability of the industry: What keeps the industry so exciting, is certainly a double-edged sword, but I’m very optimistic about the direction in which we’re headed.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading in a Cannabis Business”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. People over profits
2. It’ll be fun, but it will also be hard work
3. Stay informed, there’s a lot of learning in to do in this space
4. Not every idea will be a successful one
5. Stay true to what you believe in
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Three things: 1) Live your values — if you’re only looking at the bottom line and not cultivating a culture within your organization, than you’re always going to be operating at a deficit; 2) ALL stakeholders matter — not just your customers, but your employees, the communities in which you operate, governmental entities, local nonprofits, your supply chain, etc. They all need to be anchored by your values and aligned with your mission; 3) “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” -Richard Branson.
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. :-)
I would infuse PURPOSE into every business. I don’t mean the purpose of making money. That goes without saying. ALL businesses have that purpose. I mean an authentic purpose that improves the local community, people’s lives, or the world/planet at large. Having a mission and vision for the world integrated into a business plan cannot be overstated. If every business had one, not only would workers be more satisfied, but consumers would be more evangelical, greater profits would result, and the world would be a better, healthier place.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!