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Women Leading The Cannabis Industry: “Be bold — this industry is not for the timid or meek” With Nidhi Lucky Handa of LEUNE

Be bold — this industry is not for the timid or meek, show up with your A game and be confident and assured in your convictions.

Be willing to be wrong…because at some point you definitely will be! There’s a lot of fumbling in this space and how you respond will most definitely create your successes or failures.

Lean into your intuition hard…if it seems shady or to good to be true, it probably is..

As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nidhi Lucky Handa, Founder and CEO of LEUNE

Nidhi Lucky Handa is the Founder and CEO of LEUNE, a California-based lifestyle brand forged on the principle of radicalizing the common narrative surrounding cannabis culture. Prior to founding LEUNE in 2018, Handa acquired years of experience in Luxury Brand Communications while residing in Boston and New York. Handa then parlayed her business acumen and brand marketing repertoire to Celebrity Talent Management in Los Angeles.

Hailed as a ‘Woman of Weed’ By High Times Magazine, Nidhi’s savvy, entrepreneurial spirit is now fully devoted to LEUNE. Honoring a Cannabis 3.0 consumer who knows that ‘getting high’ only begins to tell the story of what the plant truly represents, Handa is a formidable force that is propelling a multitude of topics like inclusivity, restorative justice, and cannabis etiquette forward within the space.

As a woman of color, Handa has dedicated her career to building a cannabis brand that will not only disrupt the dispensary shelf, but also raise the industry standards for workplace culture, representation, and social equity. LEUNE is a sponsor of Eaze’s Momentum business accelerator and also works closely with social justice reform organizations like The Last Prisoner Project. Through LEUNE, Handa is on a mission to revolutionize the cannabis industry from the inside out and establish new consumer ideals for the industry.

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

As a WOC entrepreneur and consumer, I couldn’t find cannabis brands that spoke to me and knew that I could not be alone in that thought. I saw an opportunity to create a brand that would appeal to a wider demographic than just men and super-stoners; that’s why I designed LEUNE’s cannabis products to be sleek, gender-neutral, and geared toward productive, high-functioning consumers who understand “getting high” is only one aspect of what the plant truly represents.

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 most impactful moment in my leadership journey happened during the civil rights movement in 2020. I will never forget the weekly team call we had after George Floyd’s death — it was truly one of the most humbling, somber, yet completely activated moments in both my personal and professional experience. My team at LEUNE is extremely value-aligned: conscious, loud and proud, social justice warriors….but also, sensitive, caring, thoughtful humans who just like me were sitting in grief and disbelief. ‘Work’ was on no one’s mind — certainly not mine. Rather than lead our team through our normal weekly catch-up, I started the call in personal vulnerability — I was honest and raw and opened a safe space for dialogue for our team that would become defining for our corporate culture. We shared our thoughts and fears; the call was one of humanity, of grief, of frustration — we stood present to the reality of what was happening in our world and what happened next was something I could have never planned for. Suddenly our mission as a team and as a company was fueled by our collective spirit — the pause we took to focus on the bigger issues in our world created a deeper meaning and passion that has grown stronger and stronger everyday.

I learned a lot about leadership that day. There is no guidebook for being a leader through a pandemic… and concurrently a civil rights movement, but what I’ve learned is that there is plenty of room for authenticity and vulnerability in true leadership.

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?

Oh boy — where to start. Not sure how ‘funny’ it felt in the moment, but certainly in hindsight I’ve laughed a lot over this one. When I launched LEUNE with the first 4 skus (2 infused pre-rolls and 2 all-in-one vapes), the sell through success was a LOT faster than I could’ve ever anticipated triggering demand to spike immediately. It was early December of 2018 and I had an imminent cutoff to order more packaging from China before Chinese New Year factory closures. I doubled down BIG and ordered a LOT of packaging. As fate would have it, not sooner than I signed the PO, the California cannabis regulators announced new packaging guidelines that would deem my packaging unusable in 3 months.

It was a very expensive lesson but I couldn’t be more grateful that it happened so early on. This industry is unlike any other in that it is evolving in real time. Risk in any decision making is extremely high and agility is paramount to success in this industry.

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

I was far more concerned about what other people thought of my vocation early on than I am now. Having said that, I just recently saw an old family friend who was, err, not very supportive of my choices. It was genuinely shocking to me as I had previously considered this to be a fairly woke, educated individual and was startled to hear his buy-in to the archaic stereotypes that have plagued this plant for so many years.

If I was looking to please everyone I know, this probably wouldn’t have been a path I would’ve chosen for myself. Part of being a trailblazer is understanding that you’re not going to resonate with everyone. The good news is, there are far more people who’ve been supportive and excited about my journey than not.

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?

There is. One of my investors who also happens to be one of my closest and dearest friends who also works in the industry. He’s been an absolute rock to me — sounding board, connector, friend, cheerleader — whatever the need of the day, he’s been there.

Building a startup is all about the intersection of crazy ideas and execution — proving a thesis that hasn’t been proven before. There’s a lot of leaps required and a lot of faith required. To say you have to be good at taking rejection is a massive understatement — you need to learn to embrace it and figure out how to use it as fuel. It’s exciting, maniacal and truly the most fulfilling adventure if you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by people who have the patience and kindness to support you along the way.

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

We have some new product launches lined up for this year and we’re planning to enhance our social justice initiatives which are of great importance to me. I’m committed to building a cannabis brand that will not only disrupt the dispensary shelf, but also raise the industry standards for workplace culture, representation, and social equity. LEUNE is a sponsor of Eaze’s Momentum business accelerator and also works closely with social justice reform organizations like The Last Prisoner Project. This is a non-profit organization dedicated to criminal justice reform and works to release and rebuild the lives of those who have suffered from cannabis criminalization. They operate with the belief that anyone profiting from or freely engaging in the legal cannabis industry has a moral imperative to work towards restorative justice. No one should remain incarcerated or continue to suffer the collateral consequences of prohibition and the War on Drugs which has and continues to disproportionately impact communities of color.

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?

  1. Individuals can and should challenge themselves to see their own bias. To really even begin to tackle this issue we must be honest and confront the problem head on and that starts with self. This included women too — I’ve had just as many interactions with women who have a hard time accepting me as a leader/CEO as men. Bias is real.
  2. Companies must hold themselves accountable by creating pledges and commitments to reaching equity. That means taking a close look at who is being hired, how much they’re getting compensated and what their titles are with a focus on creating and maintaining gender (and diversity) parity.
  3. Society a) + b) => c) in this scenario. If we’re looking inward and taking actions outward with the intention of creating parity, it will reflect automatically in our media, in our zeitgeists, in our conversations and thus in society.

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. Be bold — this industry is not for the timid or meek, show up with your A game and be confident and assured in your convictions.
  2. Be willing to be wrong…because at some point you definitely will be! There’s a lot of fumbling in this space and how you respond will most definitely create your successes or failures.
  3. Lean into your intuition hard…if it seems shady or to good to be true, it probably is.
  4. Know that there is no true analogous industry to cannabis — you will hear it compared to post prohibition alcohol or to organic produce on the raw material side but the truth is that everything about cannabis is completely unique: the way it’s grown, the way it’s being regulated, the way it is used by patients and consumers. This is all to say, there’s no fitting the square peg of cannabis into any of the circle molds you may be familiar with.
  5. You’re not crazy, but the industry might be. This one is perhaps the most important. Because of the stage we’re in as a new industry, there’s a lot of ‘tail wagging dog’ going on in every level of cannabis. If you come into the space and start feeling like you’re in upside-down land, you probably are.

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

  1. The potential — this one is obvious and the MOST exciting. We’re just starting to scratch the surface in weed particularly on the brand communication side.
  2. The culture — alongside my hard-working peers we’re building out something new that we can either be proud of or regret in the future. The eternal optimist in me sees this as a tremendous opportunity — let’s build something beautiful, inclusive and kind!
  3. The people — every single person I’ve met in this industry has been independently guided to this destination and those who stay have a very special kind of conviction and passion. It’s something truly special to be a part of.

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. Social Equity
  2. Social Equity
  3. Social Equity

Yes, I feel incredibly impassioned about this one that it takes up all three slots! We must hold ourselves accountable as an industry to stay aligned with the goal of righting the injustices of the past. Cannabis is a plant that has been weaponized by the US government for decades as a means of perpetuating racism and unjustly incarcerating people thus preventing them from upward mobilization.

This runs deep.

There are tens of thousands of people in this country still serving sentences for non-violent cannabis offences in states where cannabis is NOW LEGAL. Read that again and let it sync in.

We need to scream and shout and not stop until every one of those people is released from prison. We need to create social equity programs that support communities that have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. We need to make it not only a priority but a requisite for anyone profiting from legal cannabis to work toward these collective goals.

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’m excited to see the industry continue to grow towards federal legalization. This will allow more businesses to grow and stimulate the economy. As cannabis becomes normalized and less taboo, we’ll see brands utilize strategic and creative thinking for their marketing campaigns. We’ll see cannabis promoted everywhere the same way we see other consumer goods. It’s exciting to have this business at such a pivotal point in the industry.

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?

Very very different. Cannabis has been used as plant medicine for literally thousands of years. While regulators struggle to find the language and lines between medicinal and recreational consumption, the reality is, the plant has been used to heal for-literally-ever. To equate cannabis to cigarettes is not only factually inaccurate, but also belittling to the power of this incredible plant.

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

“It’s nice to be nice.”

Might sound trite, but it’s something I think about and lead with every day. Whether in business or in life, we all need reminding sometimes that we’re all just doing the best we can. Oh, and being kind is free, so might as well be generous with it!

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. :-)

Not very original, but it would involve finding an incentive that encourages people to truly ‘pay it forward.’ Anyone who volunteers their time to anything knows this to be true: to be of service is perhaps the most self-serving thing we can do in life yet so very often we are guided with a type of fear that encourages greed rather than collaboration or equity.

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

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