Authority Magazine
Published in

Authority Magazine

Elissa Hagopian Hambrecht of Napa Valley Fumé: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis or CBD Business

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

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 Elissa Hagopian Hambrecht.

Elissa Hagopian Hambrecht currently serves as the Managing Member and Head of Compliance for Napa Valley Fumé, LLC, a vertically integrated startup in the legal cannabis space. Elissa served as the founding Chief Operating Officer at fumé, and now turns to part-time work, focused on fundraising, business development and licensing for the company.

Elissa is a self-proclaimed start-up junkie and has over twenty-five years of experience launching and operating both proprietary businesses and partnerships. Her first entrepreneurial venture began in 1994 when she opened a Mexican restaurant in Barcelona, Spain. After returning to the Bay Area in 1998 she opened two more restaurants in San Francisco (Vinga and Che).

In 2001 she co-founded Chispa, an Event Production, Marketing and Management consultancy group. While working as the Executive Producer or Conference Manager she produced events ranging from CEO level executive summits to full scale industry trade shows. In addition to restaurants and event management Elissa has deep experience in the wine industry, having served as co-CEO of Belvedere Winery and was VP at the online Direct to Consumer play, Prior to fumé she was co-Founder of NewCo, a disruptive business conference model, in partnership with John Battelle. Company culture and providing a safe and enriching workplace has always been a passion and priority for Elissa throughout her entire career. In 2021 fumé received an industry award for Best Company to Work For, and here is the article that highlights this award. Elissa graduated from UC Berkeley in 1989, lives in the village at Sugar Bowl with her husband and they have three children. She served on the board of the Sugar Bowl Ski Team and Academy Foundation and is a passionate skier.

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?

My first job out of college was in the corporate/Special Events planning world. In my interview I was asked: “what would you describe as a failure?”. I went on to describe how I failed Spanish not once but twice in college, only to finally pass, but that I still didn’t speak Spanish. My boss, who was my first mentor and later a business partner made sure that I took Spanish classes and took the time to travel to Spain, because she was on a mission to get me to move to Barcelona in time to get a job during the 1992 Olympics. She went as far as discouraging me from taking a promotion from our company in Hawaii! In the end I did move to Barcelona and had an almost yearlong job with NBC. It was in that role that I started cooking Mexican food for the Americans who didn’t get why they got “an egg thing” when they ordered a tortilla, and why nothing was spicy (!!). I attracted the attention of my boss at NBC who said, “write a business plan for opening up your Mexican restaurant here and I’ll invest”. That was my very first start up! After that experience I never looked back, and never worked in a straight salaried position again.

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?

The story that others find the most interesting was related to the start up in Barcelona. We were negotiating for the lease of our desired location with the heirs of the guy who had died in the bar. These sisters had fancy lawyers with offices on the Passeig de Gracia, and after we negotiated the deal with them, the lawyers explained to us that there would also be a “Dinero B” payment: in cash. As gringas, we had no idea how you physically made this payment, so we asked. “Well, before the meeting you’ll meet me in front of the building”. Sure enough, the slick suited lawyer was there, in his dark glasses. “Do you have the money? If so, just put it in my briefcase”. We had an enormous panic attack after he said “Gracias” and took off… what if we were just ripped off!? But 30 minutes later we were all assembled with the sisters and the lawyers upstairs to sign all the documents. While surreal, this was how business was done in 1994 in Spain, pre-European Union.

As it turned out, our American investor was the snake in Barcelona, and long story short, he ended up locking me and my operational partner out and ignoring our 45% equity stake, because he could in Spain with 55%.

I learned the following important lessons:

  1. You need to take risks in order to get shit done, especially when you are in a foreign country. Be open to ideas that might seem crazy or outside your comfort zone.
  2. The real risks might be from the people you think you trust, who are on your team!
  3. Always ALWAYS have your own counsel/legal advice!

You don’t learn that stuff in Business School, that is for sure!

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?

Well, not to dwell on my first start up, and it certainly was not funny to lose 45% equity stake in a restaurant that was spinning off cash and packed every night! The lesson was important though: when signing deals, term sheets or anything related to the project, make sure you have your own legal opinion, even if you think you can’t afford the time to slow down and do so, or the lawyers themselves. Find a friend, get crafty, get your own advice!

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’ve been focused on Napa Valley Fumé since August, 2017. What is exciting about cannabis startups, is that it is a startup in a startup industry! I have an amazing partner in Eric Sklar and with his experience related to policy and government affairs, we spend time in a very grass-roots/advocacy capacity. There is a lot that needs to be fixed from a regulatory standpoint here in CA, and of course Federal Legalization still must happen! It is exciting that we’ve made so much progress, and there is a lot of work that still needs to be done to open this industry, which provides many jobs. We also strongly believe in the social justice impact the cannabis industry stands to make, hopefully reversing all the wrongs of the war on drugs.

None of us can 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?

I’ve mentioned my first “real” boss, and later partner, Louise Glasgow. She is really the reason why I strayed from a “traditional” career path and on to being a serial startup gal. I’ve learned something from each partner or colleague at every start up I’ve had the pleasure of working on.

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?

It is tough in cannabis, given all the restrictions related to marketing placed on this industry. My partner and our President Ian Hackett was our CMO. All the marketing plans and brand development work is his focus.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?

3 things that most excite:

  1. We are only just beginning to see the very exciting roll-out of new products and experiences that this plant will bring to market! I believe it will revolutionize dieting, for example.
  2. The impact that the legal industry has made in the county where we have licenses is profound. We operate in Lake County, CA, which is the 4th poorest county in the country! Bringing well-paying jobs is just the beginning. The leaders in this industry are excited to work with local high schools, brining mentorship and training programs to the area. The positive energy and “give back” mentality of most leaders is awesome.
  3. Building a new industry is just plain old exciting. I’m sure Al Gore felt this way when he invented the internet… haha! Jokes aside, I think the legal cannabis industry is on par with Henry Ford’s invention and also has parallels with the technology industry’s birth.

3 Things Most Concerning:

  1. There is a “green rush”, and big business is pushing the cottage industry out. It is very sad to see the small growers and legacy players are in a very precarious situation right now, if they are already not dead and unwinding/un-wound. Here in CA Prop 64 really tried to give the legacy players a chance to start and get big enough before big business rushed in, but that plan isn’t working.
  2. There are certain legacy players and others who strongly believe this is a zero-sum game, and to succeed they must step on you and ensure that you fail. I HATE these types! I believe as the tide rises; all boats can float higher!
  3. There is a downside to science and labs re-creating what is found in a plant, in pursuit of new products and R&D. The plant in her natural form, outdoors and in her full 14’ glory is a site to be seen and enjoyed! I hope it doesn’t all become a pharma-play.

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. If you don’t understand and, in your gut, feel that your security plan makes sense, re-do it! Security can feel scary, and you have real lives on the line! Almost a year into our operations we had a perpetrator hold up one of our employees at gun point. The hired security guard ran off, without his phone, so we did not even get a 911 call out of him! In the end, our staff person had ice in his veins and stayed calm, and our security set up meant that the perp could not see any product, and only saw all the cameras recording his face. He left with no product and there were no injuries.
  2. Related: really make sure your vendors/partners share your values, engage in your operations and treat their employees as you want your staff treated. We fired that security company the next morning and stepped up to a more expensive but rock-solid partner.
  3. This goes for all startups: Make sure you NEVER run out of cash! The cannabis industry is a roller coaster ride because it is so immature. You need loyal investors who will go the distance and plenty of working capital. We’ve had close calls and I can’t wait until we are 100% self-sufficient (should be later this year!). All along the way you cannot give up hope and you must stay focused on fundraising.
  4. “Nimble & Quick” is a requirement, and that is an understatement! There are so many opportunities in this start up industry, and you want to strike the right balance of “staying in your lane” vs “take advantage of opportunities as they arise”. Our mission and point of our spear has always been building a best-in-class portfolio of cannabis brands, products and experiences. But along the way, we had the opportunity to open and run delivery operations for Eaze. Seems like a pivot and/or a distraction, but in the end, it gave us access to the world’s biggest retail channels once we launched our 1st brand.
  5. Make sure your partners are aligned and can create your values, up front, before you begin. And always invest and keep focusing on company culture. As this is my 11th start up, it was not my first rodeo. So, I knew that I needed to start out with a solid Employee Handbook, that covered the legal requirements, but more importantly, set the tone for open communication, transparency and communicating our values. Prior to starting, me and the two co-founders created our values in a meeting that lasted no more than 2 hours. This is when I knew we had the important and up-front alignment, on which to build a great company.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Company values and your Mission Statement cannot be after thoughts. You won’t have a company worth anything if you don’t start with these things. And your employees won’t know how and where to row if you don’t lead with these messages.

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. :-)

Well, the social justice movement as it is part of the newly legal start up industry in cannabis is in need of support on many fronts. We as a company are partners with Last Prisoner Project, for one example. So, I am not taking any claim for inspiring this movement, but we ALL need to get on board here. We need to get everyone still incarcerated for non-violent drug related charges out of jail and their sentences expunged. Ideally, this should go hand in hand with Federal legalization, so that this is not limited to a state-by-state movement.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

My personal LinkedIN profile:

Company LinkedIN:

Company Instagram/LAKE GRADE brand:

Company Instagram/fumé brand:

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.