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Wisdom From The Women Leading The Cannabis Industry, With Sheri Tarr of ’68 Partners

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Trust your gut. The cannabis industry is indeed fun and exciting, but it is serious business. Do your homework when it comes to choosing your leadership team and partners, investors, consultants, lawyers, and stakeholders in your business. If a deal or someone doesn’t feel right s/he/it probably isn’t. Move on. Find your tribe of trusted professionals and partners that align with your values. They’re out there, especially in this eclectic cannabis industry.

As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheri Tarr.

Sheri Tarr is the Founder and Chief Advisor of ’68 Partners LLC, a global strategic consulting firm dedicated to helping cannabis brands and license applicants build sustainable businesses that have a transformative impact on consumers, patients, and the global economy. A recovering lawyer and former big pharma marketing executive, Sheri has over three decades of real world experience operating in highly regulated environments. After launching FDA regulated products for Fortune 500 pharmaceutical companies world-wide, Sheri flipped the script and became an attorney who spent a distinguished career in the courtroom holding these companies accountable for injuries caused by deceptive marketing and defective manufacturing practices. More inspired by innovation than litigation, Sheri founded her consulting firm to help life sciences entrepreneurs, and cannabis brands and license applicants do it right first rather than litigate later. ’68 Partners specializes in straight-talk and practical solutions for complex business challenges, navigating regulations, compliance best practices from lab to label™, brand strategy and business planning, license application writing and support, and commercialization that brings safe products to market.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?

In retrospect, all of my experiences, both personal and professional, ultimately brought me to the cannabis industry. After many years of seeing first-hand how the sausage was made, and then as a trial lawyer cleaning up ugly and avoidable messes left by pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers, I have always gravitated towards opportunities to help put products on the market that actually improve quality of life. From all of my experiences, I find that I am more interested in commercializing products derived from a plant, then manufactured in a plant. If I were to pin point the moment I was officially introduced to New York’s cannabis industry, I would say it happened at a networking event when a lawyer (you know who you are!) approached me after hearing about my pharma and compliance experience, and said, “I have one word for you — — ‘cannabis’…” I joined him at a cannabis event later that week, did my research, reached out to people in the know, and the rest as they say, is history.

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?

It’s rather difficult to identify just one interesting story, or one lesson learned. Rather, from the compilation of successes and downright failures I’ve had since I went out on my own over a decade ago, an important lesson among many is owning my unique value proposition, of knowing my worth, and not allowing the fear of not getting a deal cause me to short sell the value of my time and experience. The struggle of solo- or entrepreneurship is real, whether you have thirteen or thirty years of experience to bring to the table.

That said, if you have enough guts to go out on your own, then you must know that you have a special offering that’s worth what you determine it’s worth (assuming, of course, you’ve done the work to validate market need and demand, the SWOT analysis, and so forth). That said, be humble, and know there is no substitute for doing the hard work. Stay in a state of continuous improvement and client service, and always overdeliver. Finally, be smart and nimble enough to change your approach if it isn’t working for you, your strategic partners, or your clients.

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 I pivoted to cannabis after many years of working in the corporate and courtroom settings, and consulting with lawyers, academia, scientists, and well, you get the picture, I quickly realized I didn’t need to wear my business suits with the matching jacket and pants like Garanimals. Instead, I could actually mix it up by wearing jeans with a suit blazer. I realize this isn’t necessarily a side-splitting funny mistake for your readers — unless of course for those who actually remember the era of Garanimals! This said, old habits die hard, and I take my clients’ work very seriously. So you will almost always find me wearing a blazer — though it might be leather or my now-famous “cannacape”.

Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?

Actually no one was surprised to hear that I expanded my life sciences-focused consultancy to cannabis. Anyone who has worked with me sees the cannabis industry as I did, which is a natural progression and extension of my work to increase consumer access to safe and effective alternatives to otherwise inadequately treated physical and mental conditions. If anything, people I met in the industry really encouraged me to stay in the room (there were a couple I nearly ran out of) because of the value I could add from my experience as a former pharma marketing executive-turned litigator, and regulatory compliance professional.

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?

I don’t look like where I came from.

To a large extent, my teachers raised me. In fact, a few profoundly impacted me. Circa third grade, our teacher, Miss M., posed the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Boys could choose doctor, lawyer, businessman. Girls could choose nurse, teacher, mother. While certainly honorable and important roles for women, the latter options didn’t resonate with me at that time. So I hand-wrote in, “Goalie for the Boston Bruins.” My teacher was neither amused nor impressed. She sternly said, “Girls can’t play hockey; choose another.” So I hand-wrote in, “Wide receiver for the [at the time] Boston Patriots.” That answer landed me in a chair in the corner of the classroom, facing my classmates, presumably to be humiliated and ponder my bad behavior. I suppose you could say this story is a bit foretelling.

Reflecting on this now, I find myself grateful to all of my teachers — including Miss M. — and especially my fourth grade teacher, Miss. S., who drove the coolest red Cougar. Miss S. apparently noticed something about me. She gave me more books to read when I ran out, introduced me to National Geographic so I could learn about places afar, and made me feel like she was actually happy to have me in her class.

For the record, I wasn’t humiliated in that chair. In fact, I rather liked being up front. Hockey is still my first love, and two out of three [of the boys’ options] isn’t bad, right?

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

I do what I do because it helps people. Every client I work with represents a new and exciting opportunity to find regulatory paths to bring life-improving products to market, or help a team secure a cannabis license that allows them to leverage their skills, and participate in an industry with exponential opportunity. My time and energy is directed towards solving complex business problems with practical solutions that ultimately build sustainable cannabis brands and businesses. This serves consumers, patients, and society at large. I find joy in this work.

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 a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?

I may have a different perspective on this as a woman who has primarily lived a Macgyvered life. Plus, I grew up professionally in two male-dominated industries at a time when the few women ahead of me weren’t especially helpful unfortunately. Sure, we can do much better — and it seems now we are. To your question, we can all do more to improve gender parity and level the playing field for everyone who wants to contribute to constructing a responsible industry. That said, in my view, no one owes you anything. Not an opportunity. Not a promotion. Not a dime. We all have the gift of agency. I recommend using it to carve your own path, to hone your skills, to develop your grit.

So for individuals, rather than burning valuable time and energy trying to pry open closed minds or worse, waiting for the chance to sit at someone else’s table, you asked, so here are three things I recommend (literally or figuratively) to move the parity needle:

#1 — Go to Home Depot

#2 — Buy some wood and a saw

#3 — Build your own damn table!

Then surround yourself with people who support you, who polish your iron, who are aligned with your values and challenge you to rise higher. And in the spirit of one of my heroes, Congressman John Lewis — don’t be bitter, be better. When you have a chance to be kind and help someone coming up the ladder behind you, extend a hand, make a simple introduction, take the call. You may change someone’s life — maybe even your own.

For company leaders, ask yourselves, are you giving both men and women the opportunities to succeed? Equal pay for equal work? And the tools to help each employee unleash their full potential? If not, make those changes now or risk losing talented employees.

For society writ large, we can all help to level the playing field for everyone by leaning into our power of choice. Where we spend our dollars, for example. Consider buying only from businesses that are committed to supporting equal opportunity for everyone who wants to work hard and play in the big cannabis sandbox.

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.

Here are a few things I experienced first-hand or observed in this space:

The cannabis industry is under construction. We are all essentially building it together. We have the opportunity to build a responsible, safe, and sustainable industry by leveraging the great talent and knowledge that abounds in this space. There is enough business and knowledge to go around. As I often say when I speak to prospective license applicants and fellow service providers, “It takes a village to raise a license™”. In this spirit, consultants, self-proclaimed “experts”, and legitimate experts and lawyers alike, be transparent about what you can and cannot do, stay in your lane, and reach out to other experts who complement your offering. I have several strategic partners with whom I collaborate, and this approach works really well for everyone, most especially clients.

Not one person knows everything, but we all know something. Working together and leveraging our respective skills and experience, we can build a responsible, accessible, and sustainable industry that is eventually as mainstreamed as any other.

Get right with compliance. I cannot overstate the importance of having a cross-operational compliance plan. It’s never too early or too late to implement compliance best practices. I get it — navigating the shifting and uncertain regulatory landscape while maintaining compliant operations, can be mind-numbing and overwhelming. The alternative is much worse, and more importantly, avoidable. I suggest reframing how we think about compliance — from being a heavy burden or after-thought, to being a competitive advantage and the vehicle to long term commercial success. From over thirty years of witnessing first-hand the good, the really bad, and the totally avoidable, I can say confidently that compliance is foundational to a sustainable business. A strong compliance program with help you withstand storms, errors, bumps, and set-backs, all the while propel your business forward.

Trust your gut. The cannabis industry is indeed fun and exciting, but it is serious business. Do your homework when it comes to choosing your leadership team and partners, investors, consultants, lawyers, and stakeholders in your business. If a deal or someone doesn’t feel right s/he/it probably isn’t. Move on. Find your tribe of trusted professionals and partners that align with your values. They’re out there, especially in this eclectic cannabis industry.

In cannabis, almost nothing is business as usual. Dorothy said it best — we’re not in Kansas anymore (no offense to Kansas). The regulatory hurdles are unprecedented, and navigating the complex matrix of local, state and federal laws is like a regulatory twister game on steroids. Commercializing edibles, for example, or banking are prime examples. There are so many moving parts and uncertainties. This is why it makes good business sense to hire experienced professionals to guide you, to help you make sound and informed business decisions, and bring clarity in the regulatory fog.

It takes a village to raise a cannabis license™.

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

The opportunity to bring plant-based medicines to market, and help to create a variety of safe, effective alternatives for patients and consumers excites me. We have only scratched the surface of what’s possible with cannabis.

The “eclecticity” of the cannabis industry also really excites me. I think I just invented a word! No matter your age, gender, race, schooling, skills, story, or experiences, this industry attracts all commers. I’ve heard some of the most interesting, compelling, heart-wrenching and inspiring stories about how or why people came to be in the cannabis space. And there’s a place for anyone willing to work hard, do the right things, and contribute to the growth of the cannabis community.

Similarly, in many ways the cannabis industry represents a second or third life for many people — to reinvent personally and professionally, to improve physical, mental and financial health and well-being, to contribute to the construction of an industry and be valued. This is all very inspiring.

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?

Without people, there are no profits. I have some concern that the cannabis industry is headed in the same direction as big fill in the blank industry that loses sight of its original intended purpose. Don’t get me wrong, capitalism and profits are great, but not in the absence of doing good. The reality is cannabis is big business now, not a cottage industry. Let’s be mindful of how we’re all playing in the sandbox.

Second, still to some extent, cannabis is the wild west when it comes to product safety, marketing, and compliance. I get it — the industry moved faster than regulations were developed, and operators and regulators alike are frustrated. For cannabis operators, brands, license-holders and applicants, navigating the complex and confusing matrix of local, state, and federal regulations, all the while maintaining compliant operations, is as daunting as it is mind-numbing. Yet in the highly regulated environment of cannabis, compliance is critical to sustainable brand equity and long term success of any cannabis business.

In my view, we know where the regulatory puck is headed, and there is enough evidence to show that the FDA will not likely substantially change existing regulations to accommodate cannabis. The challenge is the FDA and other regulatory authorities and even some expensive professionals, tell businesses they must comply with endless regulations — but not necessarily how to comply. This is why having a trusted regulatory professional on your team who excels at navigating regulations, seeing business blind-spots and black-ice, and finding creative solutions to these complex problems is a game-changer.

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?

Federal legalization of cannabis is a complex, multi-faceted issue that’s difficult to unpack. There are valid concerns and positions on all sides. A lot of important and hard work still needs to be done to make federal legalization work. On the whole, I support federal legalization, but it will require more time and attention from the dedicated experts in this industry to ensure that it’s implemented properly and fairly, while avoiding the trampling of states’ rights and ensuring a safe, accessible marketplace.

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?

Could I reframe your question with my answer? Cigarettes and cannabis have in common only the letter “c”. As a former pharmaceutical mass tort litigator and fierce advocate for safe products, I had the opportunity to be involved in the big tobacco litigation. I learned more than I have the stomach or time to share in this interview. Suffice to say, cigarettes should be heavily regulated, taxed and marginalized, among other things. In stark contrast, cannabis products are made from a plant, not manufactured in a plant™, and have potential health and societal benefits, the surface of which we have only begun to scratch. From decades of front-line experience with FDA regulated products and otherwise heavily regulated industries, I do believe that it’s in the best interest of consumers, patients, and industry sustainability to regulate the marketing and manufacturing of cannabis and cannabis-derived products.

In my view, “compliance is the segue to sustainable brand equity™”. Likewise, responsible marketing and manufacturing of cannabis will change more minds and mainstream more products than hyperbole or misinformation. The extent of regulatory oversight is a multi-faceted, complex issue that you know I’m always glad to discuss given more space and time. For purposes of this interview, I propose we all contribute to destigmatizing and mainstreaming cannabis by implementing best compliance practices, being thoughtful and responsible with our messaging and words, and continuing to invest in research while providing science- and fact-based education about the plant and its untapped potential.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my life lesson quotes which came to me later in my life is “Goals are great so long as they don’t blind you to opportunities.” At one point, I had the chance to do work for a junior senator who went on to become the POTUS, but at the time I was myopically focused on a different career goal. Sometimes I look back on that moment and wonder what might have been. I’ve always been tuned in, but I’m paying more attention now to the unexpected person or opportunity that may show up.

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. :-)

Words matter. Kind words can be powerful antidotes. Don’t miss an opportunity to be generous with a kind word and stingy with criticism.

Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!

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