Always be mindful of people, deals, and situations that sound too good to be true. In life, nobody owes you anything, and for the most part, people are looking out for their own best interest. Be sure to read your contracts carefully, and have a trusted advisor take a closer look at them before you sign.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roberta Wilson.
Roberta Wilson is the Co-Founder of Dr. Norm’s, a family-owned and operated, Los Angeles-based edibles manufacturer. Dr. Norm’s honors Wilson’s father who was a highly-respected medical doctor in the L.A. area for over 35 years. Prior to launching in 2017, Wilson was the Founder of Audrey’s Cookies, a well-known cookie company, in tribute to her beloved mother. The baked goods brand was sold in national stores including Whole Foods, Costco, and Sprouts. Wilson worked in corporate America for over two decades at MTV Networks where she was the Vice President of Affiliate Sales and Marketing.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
My father was the actual Dr. Norm! He was a brilliant medical doctor practicing in Los Angeles for over 30 years. He gave old school care to his patients and had impeccable bedside manner. My brother, Jeff Koz, and I honor his healthcare legacy through our brand, Dr. Norm’s. In addition, our mother Audrey was also a healthcare professional. She was a pharmacist by profession, but an amazing baker by passion! She baked her legendary chocolate chip cookies and brought them everywhere she went as a way to express her love. She believed that her cookies were better at curing ailments than anything she dispensed at the pharmacy. Unfortunately, she passed away years ago, but I really wanted to carry on her legacy of spreading love through cookies.
I worked in corporate America for over two decades at MTV Networks, and had never baked a day in my life, but I founded Audrey’s Cookies in her honor. The brand initially operated out of my house, and shortly thereafter, we found ourselves on the shelves at Whole Foods, Sprouts, Costco, and many other traditional grocery stores. When Prop 64 went on the ballot in 2015 to legalize recreational cannabis in California, I said to my brother, “we should do weed cookies!” I was completely kidding, but he thought it was the best idea he’d ever heard! We went on to learn about the incredible medicinal benefits of the plant, and within a few months, we made the decision to add cannabis to our cookies, and Dr. Norm’s was born! We shifted the brand’s name and put our dad’s picture on our packaging (versus our mom’s,) and away we went. We believed that we could make a real difference in the quality, taste, and effectiveness of edibles on the compliant market.
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?
There are a ton of interesting stories, but one that stands out is the story of launching our best selling product line! We began Dr. Norm’s by making infused cookies, which is what we learned to scale during our time running Audrey’s Cookies. After we successfully launched that line, we went the nostalgic route, and launched a brownie line. Right after we launched brownies, we were approached by one of our largest retailers, MedMen, who said they were getting pitched by several companies to carry rice krispy treats. During this conversation, they told me that they wanted Dr. Norm’s to make this line for them, and asked if we would be interested. It was our Shark Tank moment!
Despite having no idea how to make them, nor how to scale the manufacturing process to the extent this would require (without spending a fortune of money we didn’t have,) I said “yes, of course we can do that!” As soon as I hung up the phone, I spent the next month figuring out our process.
Not only did we develop some fantastic recipes, but we figured out how to scale the operation in time to get MedMen exactly what they wanted. It was truly a lesson in just saying yes when opportunity comes knocking, which is why I call it our Shark Tank Moment. We said yes, went way out of our comfort zone, and it resulted in the creation of our best selling product line.
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’m embarrassed to admit this, but during our first year of operation, when we were far from having rigorous operating procedures, we would bring non-medicated versions of our products around to dispensaries to show them how great they tasted. One time, we brought samples out to a group of shops, only to find out after a few hours, that they were in fact medicated! Thankfully, there were no major incidents, and the shops we brought samples to ended up loving them, but it was a huge lesson. We learned about having completely buttoned up processes and procedures. That incident led to the creation of our SOPs, so nothing similar would ever happen again.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
Jeff and I are among the oldest people in the industry. It has led to funny incidents on almost a daily basis. My kids are 31 and 28 years old, and you can imagine that when their friends find what we do for a living, it becomes a very fun topic of conversation!
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?
We are eternally grateful to our partners at Punch Edibles and Extracts. At the end of 2019, Dr. Norm’s was set to be acquired by a larger cannabis company, but the deal fell through when they did not receive the funding to complete it. We were left with no manufacturing location and no license of our own. We met the founders of Punch, Sam, Andrew and Michael who opened up their facility to us four years ago, and have been the most amazing partners we could have prayed for.
We manufacture our products at their facility (using their license,) and they handle our sales and distribution. It has been an incredible relationship that’s allowed us to realize our full potential as a brand.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are rapidly expanding our product lines around two different categories of products: baked goods, which we have been making since 2017, and a wellness line, which we have more recently been ramping up. We’re excited to take a scientific approach, utilizing multiple minor cannabinoids in specifically designed combinations and ratios, to aid patients suffering from a variety of health challenges.
Our first category of products in the wellness line was designed to assist with sleep. Dr. Norm’s SleepWell line currently includes three products, all of which are designed to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Each product incorporates the use of CBN (the cannabinoid best known to aid in sleep,) as well as THC, and they’ve been incredibly successful due to their effectiveness and rapid onset.
We just launched another initiative called LiveWell, which utilizes the wonderful cannabinoid CBG. When coupled with THC, CBG has a wide range of benefits including the reduction of inflammation and stress, and improvement with mental focus and gut health.
Additionally, we’re currently working on another project targeting a variety of specific health conditions using the power of combined cannabinoids in precise ratios. Our mission is to create innovative, science-based products that enhance people’s lives and help get them on the road to better health.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview.
Despite great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?
As with any other industry, on an individual level, the most important things we can do as women in the workplace are to work hard, continually demonstrate our capabilities, and never lose our eagerness to learn.
For companies and executives in positions of power, it’s your responsibility to provide clear opportunities for women in your organizations so they may flourish and grow. Also, it’s important to be mindful of microaggressions, like expecting the woman in the room to take notes, clean up the common areas, and remember to update the calendar. We’re all adults, and we’re responsible for contributing to a cohesive workspace where everyone pulls their own weight.
In society, when given a skill or leg up, it’s your responsibility to pay it forward by mentoring and coaching women along the way. Sharing knowledge, contacts, and experience can help a woman reach their full potential.
You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each.
1. Always be mindful of people, deals, and situations that sound too good to be true. In life, nobody owes you anything, and for the most part, people are looking out for their own best interest. Be sure to read your contracts carefully, and have a trusted advisor take a closer look at them before you sign.
2. Since this is an industry that spent a long time underground, there’s not much of a vetting process available for people online. Sure, you should always do your due diligence with a Google search, but also be sure to ask around your network to ensure that you’re avoiding potentially shady characters.
3. We are in uncertain financial times, and cannabis is being hit particularly hard. If you’re working with a new vendor, consider asking them to pay upfront, or at least half upfront, for goods or services, until you’ve developed a level of trust to help avoid chasing down unpaid tabs.
4. Gifting and sampling goes a long way. Some of our most devoted customers have come from in-store demos and events where they got to experience our products firsthand. There’s a reason people love Costco and Erewhon so much!
5. Always keep innovating. Once you capture a base of consumers, it’s easy to get comfortable. Oftentimes, in this industry, consumers provide their feedback, and that helps a lot when it comes to product refinement and development.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
1. I love that it genuinely provides people relief. We hear some amazing stories about pain management and health improvements, and we are thrilled to know that we make people’s lives better.
2. Because it’s a newer industry, people are more open and likely to try new things and aren’t yet stuck in their ways.
3. This industry comprises a very diverse group of people including those who have been in cannabis since the earliest days and are truly of the “culture,” alongside more recent executives that have been brought in from other industries to create better standards and practices. The ideal, in my opinion, is to have good representation from both of these areas.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
1. My biggest concern is that cannabis is still federally illegal. It’s an incredibly difficult obstacle that we’re only allowed to sell in the state that we manufacture in. Expanding to another state would require setting up a whole separate company, which is challenging both financially and logistically. It also creates huge obstacles around securing banking relationships, loans, and more. Federal legalization of cannabis would relieve some of these issues.
2. Local legislation is also a concern. In California, the DCC imposed very onerous regulations on licensed operators, which includes aggressive taxes. This has had the reverse effect than they intended. Instead of stamping out the black market, the regulations have made the black market grow in size since 2018. With nearly three quarters of all California cannabis sales occurring in the illicit market, imagine how much that hurts the companies and brands that are acting in good faith and in accordance with the already strict laws! It’d be nice if California loosened up the taxes for both compliant brands and consumers, to make both participating in and supporting the industry more accessible overall.
3. It would also be nice to see California allow for public consumption, like they have in states like New York. We’re watching the New York cannabis scene boom, not just in business, but also in culture. Landlords and tenants in California can be difficult when it comes to consuming inside homes and apartments, and making consumers feel safe consuming outside of the house might reignite the community spark that we’re missing right now.
What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?
I would get them to understand the benefits of cannabis and how much this plant helps people. I’d also get them to realize how beneficial the tax dollars generated from federal legalization could be — an instant game-changer for our country and government.
Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?
I would want cannabis to be treated in the exact opposite way as cigarettes. It took way too long for the federal government to catch up with the tobacco industry. The large tobacco companies lied to the public for years about the dangers of smoking. Eventually, heavy government regulation became the norm; however, cigarettes are dangerous, and countless people have died from cancer and heart disease associated with smoking.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, cannabis has significant health benefits. It has proven to be helpful in treating disease, promoting wellness, reducing stress, and assisting with mood disorders, just to name a few. Most importantly, there has never been a single death attributed to cannabis use. I find that to be an amazing statistic. Just like any drug, overuse can take a toll, and as the OG Dr. Norm used to say, “everything in moderation!”
We also shouldn’t forget about the joy and pleasure that recreational cannabis use brings to so many non-patients. Since cannabis is not physically addicting, like so many other drugs, it’s a great tool for winding down at the end of a long day.
Cannabis has also helped thousands of people break their dependence on narcotic pain medication. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from these drugs. The fact that cannabis has helped so many people terminate their dependence on opioids is enough to justify the federal legalization of cannabis. We, manufacturers, growers, processors, retailers and more, are actually helping people every day by providing an accessible tool for harm-reduction.
With that said, cigarettes and cannabis could not be more different, and should be treated differently, too.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” I’ve found this to be true in every aspect of life — both personally and professionally. So many people don’t ask for things they want because they believe the answer will be no. Ask yourself, what’s the worst that can happen? The answer being no? Oftentimes, just having the confidence and courage to ask for what you want leads to a productive journey that often ends in a yes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Federal legalization would help everyone in the industry, along with millions of people who use cannabis for medical and recreational purposes. Customer access, fair regulations, ease of distribution, tightening up best practices, the ability to compete nationwide, and getting rid of outdated tax laws like IRC Section 280E, would be a huge step forward in removing the stigma that’s been associated with cannabis for decades.
Since cannabis is proven to help people suffering with PTSD, it has also had a huge impact on our veterans. I believe that treating active military soldiers for PTSD using cannabis would be revolutionary. Just imagine the impact of what federal legalization could have on this issue alone. I encourage everyone to get involved, write to your government officials, and volunteer to make this possible for our future!
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Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!