Wisdom From The Women Leading The Cannabis Industry, With Sarah Ahrens of True Labs for Cannabis
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
You may be first in a lot of places, and that can be challenging. Since the cannabis industry is still so new, you may be the first cannabis entrepreneur someone encounters. For example, when I went to open a bank account, I think I was the first cannabis business for this bank. I went through so much more due diligence just to open a basic business bank account. Sort of like your first child — many more protective measures are taken with your first than with the kids that come along after.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Ahrens.
Sarah Ahrens is the CEO of True Labs for Cannabis, a New Jersey-based analytical laboratory focused on the needs of the state’s emerging adult-use and expanding medical cannabis industry. True Labs for Cannabis is a certified woman-owned business, the first cannabis laboratory designated as such on the East Coast, and one of only a handful in the U.S.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
I come from a business background, but I sometimes daydreamed about starting my career over as a research scientist. The summer before New Jersey voters approved the referendum that legalized adult-use cannabis, I saw an amazing opportunity to get in on a movement and industry from the ground floor, all while fulfilling my daydream. Opening a cannabis testing laboratory was a natural way to combine my canna-curious self and my deep passion for product quality and safety.
I’m a very transparent person and I appreciate that same quality in the products I bring home for my husband and two daughters. I’m carefully reading ingredient labels and buying organic. I want to help provide that same transparency to cannabis patients and consumers. It’s not a coincidence that the acronym for True Labs for Cannabis is TLC.
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?
When I started to fundraise for True Labs for Cannabis, I went into a pitch event with the same approach I used throughout my sales career: underpromise and over-deliver. While waiting for my turn, I heard another woman pitching her business. She talked about how she felt the need to underpromise and over-deliver, but attributed it to being female.
This shocked me. I spent my whole career assuming that this approach commonly used with sales people, but it was me unconsciously shrinking my standing and my power. I was living my own unconscious bias. That realization smacked me in the head and changed my whole approach to how I carried myself. I’m now more aware of the acute differences in leadership behavior and how that impacts the way I approach business.
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?
Things take time in the cannabis industry, and I certainly did not realize how much time when I started out. I thought, “sure, we can get a laboratory up and running in six months.” But in reality, it took way more time than I expected to find the perfect Chief Science Officer, secure the right real estate, and equip our lab to get ready for licensing. It’s certainly a lesson learned that things don’t go according to your agenda sometimes.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
I’m thankful to have an amazing network of support from my family and friends. Initially, I got a lot of questions, but when I started describing my mission and why I wanted to enter the cannabis space, they were really excited for me. More often than not, and I still get this today, folks jokingly ask to volunteer to “test” the cannabis.
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?
The first person I think of is my mom. She’s incredibly strong, motivated, confident, and one of the nicest people on the planet, and she molded me into the same (although I’m not as nice or patient as her!). She’s been my biggest cheerleader every step of the way.
I’m also grateful for my Chief Science Officer at True Labs, Dr. Carl Christianson. I met Carl through a very random networking connection, and within minutes of meeting him, it was clear that he was the perfect match to be my Chief Science Officer. He is the scientific brain behind our operations, and his experience is invaluable to setting up True Labs to be a success.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I recently took up the role of Chair of the Laboratory Testing Committee with the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association. Through this role, I can work on things that are much bigger than myself or True Labs and have a role in shaping the industry to be the best it can be.
On this committee, I’m working with several talented individuals to develop suggestions for testing standards based on best practices already in use across the country. New Jersey has an opportunity to get this right, and also has a unique opportunity to work with other states coming online to produce similar guidelines. Imagine, for example, New Jersey and New York coming together to set the precedent for the country. That power can dictate standards nationwide, especially in a world where federal regulations may not be as far away as people think.
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 this report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by individuals, companies, and/or society to support greater gender parity moving forward?
First and foremost, we have to be loud about putting a stop to unconscious bias for women leaders who want to start businesses and raise capital. Less than 3 percent of investor capital goes to women-owned businesses. It’s appalling and shocking, and it shouldn’t be the way.
A “locker room” mentality exists between male investors and male entrepreneurs, and that leaves women with solid business plans and growth strategies hanging out to dry. I had male investors ask me what my husband did for a living while I pitched for funding to grow my company. They would have never asked a man what his wife does for a living. That’s a demoralizing comment to hear and makes it unnecessarily difficult for women who want to succeed.
Enabling women to have equal access to capital will help increase the number of women-owned businesses in this industry. Capital is vital, and women need more opportunities to access it. Women investors focusing on funding women-owned businesses is a great way to do this. Mandating unconscious bias training for all investors is another way to help overcome unnecessary hurdles.
Second, states should have equal opportunity programs in place for women and minority-owned businesses. It’s important to pay attention to gender parity. New Jersey is doing a great job in this so far — in fact, the majority of cultivation licenses recently awarded went to women-owned businesses.
Finally, companies in the cannabis space should look to conduct business with women-owned enterprises. Support these talented entrepreneurs by using their services and buying their products!
You are a “Cannabis Insider.” If you had to advise someone about 5 nonintuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say?
- Government regulations can quickly shift in your favor — or not. Pay close attention, because a change in policy can immediately affect your plans. We are seeing this in New Jersey, with a February 2022 deadline to launch adult use sales that is not likely to be met. Whether you want to or not, you have to become an advocate and be vocal.
- This industry is busting stereotypes all the time. So many people who don’t fit the outdated depiction of a “stoner” are bringing their respective talents and skillsets to this market and adapting them to cannabis. It’s amazing.
- This industry is still a small family in many ways, and we’re all swimming in the same direction. Especially in a state like New Jersey that’s first gaining its footing, there’s a true camaraderie between the entrepreneurs who want to be a part of something new here.
- Time is your friend and enemy. Time is your most valuable asset, and there is never enough of it. But at the same time, things in cannabis don’t always happen on your timeline, and things may take much longer than you expect. “Hurry up and wait” is a common refrain that comes to mind here.
- You may be first in a lot of places, and that can be challenging. Since the cannabis industry is still so new, you may be the first cannabis entrepreneur someone encounters. For example, when I went to open a bank account, I think I was the first cannabis business for this bank. I went through so much more due diligence just to open a basic business bank account. Sort of like your first child — many more protective measures are taken with your first than with the kids that come along after.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
- We’re starting an industry. Who else can say that? There are a lot of unknowns, and sometimes it can be a daily roller coaster ride, but we’re all making progress together.
- We have an opportunity to create a best-in-class market that’s safe, yet not burdensome. We can help advocate for and define what the regulations are. We can put our stamp on something very historic.
- We have the opportunity to make something that’s had — and still has — so much stigma and illuminate its most positive traits. The stigma against this plant has done so much harm to so many people for so long. To make it something normal and good again is a monumental shift.
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?
The first is gender parity. We have an opportunity to build an industry from the ground-up that rights the wrongs that left women out of the picture in other sectors.
Second, there’s so much disparity between states when it comes to testing regulations and standards. There’s not enough of a unifying voice to help guide the industry from a nationwide consumer safety standpoint. States have gotten various points right, but nobody’s been perfect so far. Where can we reform, improve, and advocate for all states to adopt the same or similar standards?
The third issue is banking and access to financial services. I talked earlier about this — I’m far from the first female cannabis entrepreneur who’s struggled to access basic financial services. Legislation like the SAFE Banking Act, which has a storied history in Congress, can go a long way in signaling to banks that it’s OK to work with our industry. This will lift a massive burden off many cannabis entrepreneurs who struggle with this basic need.
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 think it’s an absolute must that the federal government should decriminalize cannabis. If done the right way, federal legalization could be a very good thing for the market in a lot of ways, including the creation of federal standards much like there are for food, beverages, and pharmaceuticals.
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 don’t think it’s appropriate to compare cigarettes and cannabis. Cigarettes are known to cause death and have no medicinal value. You can’t say the same for cannabis.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are two that come to mind. The first is “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Your mindset is so important! If you feel like something can’t happen, you won’t take the action to try to make it happen. And to make it in an industry as challenging as cannabis, you have to have a positive, forward-thinking mentality and a lot of grit and determination.
The second is, “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” Impostor syndrome is a real thing, especially for women in business. Many women, myself included, have moments when we second-guess if we’re doing the right thing. I think this quote allows us to fear, and makes it normalized, but it is in that awareness that we are empowered. It’s a reminder that we’re here, and we belong.
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. :-)
I think requiring a minimum percentage of cannabis-dedicated funds to be invested in women-owned business can go a long way in addressing the issue of gender parity. It would have a profound impact on the industry to give women the keys they need to fund their solid business plans. It can also set the example for other industries facing issues of gender parity.
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!