Women Leading The Cannabis Industry: “Never be stagnant”, With Chelsea Mulligan of The Open Dør
A lot of people in the industry make the mistake of thinking that their product will sell itself. As we are seeing now, there is a mass rush of competition and the market is becoming oversaturated. Ensuring that you have a strong brand, a loyal customer base, and defined story will create a base for your business and only help it grow. Never be stagnant in this industry.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chelsea Mulligan, Co-Founder and COO of The Open Dør.
Chelsea Mulligan is the Co-Founder and COO of national cannabis retail franchise The Open Dør. Since 2013, she has forged an extensive industry resume at the executive level, specializing in operational compliance and quality management for cannabis businesses. Chelsea has brought over 30 dispensaries to market throughout the U.S. and composed multiple winning license applications. Chelsea’s intuitive understanding of the cannabis business environment, complex regulatory framework, and emerging retail trends led her to co-establish The Open Dør in 2020, with headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona. Chelsea heads operations and strategy, implementing best-of-industry processes, compliance, and standards to create the ultimate dispensary retail model. Prior to The Open Dør, Chelsea was instrumental in evolving cannabis policy on an international, federal, and state level.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
Before transitioning into the cannabis industry, I oversaw mergers and acquisitions for a national fitness center. Prior to that I managed the operations for a group of chiropractic offices. So, health and wellness has always been a passion of mine. When cannabis became legal in Arizona, I had the opportunity to enter the industry. At first it was like the wild, wild, West, and that’s how I knew I would be perfect for the industry. My operational management and employee relations background was the structure that the industry was needing. Compliance and regulations naturally became an integral part of my new role in the industry and from there I grew into the “dispensary whisperer” of Arizona.
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 cannabis industry is a male dominated industry, so it is interesting that The Open Dør is both female owned and operated. We began this company with a base of women executives. It wasn’t necessarily on purpose, but it just naturally happened. It is unfortunate that this is an interesting story as I believe women are great leaders and shouldn’t be questioned on that based on their sex, but we are still having to defend our quality as leaders even when creating a company.
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 first started out in the industry, a new edibles brand brought unmedicated samples to the office for us to try new flavors. Soon after the staff tried, some were feeling effects even though they were supposed to be unmedicated samples. Come to find out, the silicone molds that they had used to create the samples had been used for medicated cannabis products previously so the silicone had been affected. I quickly talked to the staff at the company and showed them why having standard operating procedures in place is a must for them.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
I won’t say that everyone was happy for me when they heard that I had entered the industry. As time went on more and more people that I know have become accepting of it because I have been able to share all of the positive benefits that the industry can bring to the community and to patients who truly need the medicine.
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’m incredibly grateful for how supportive my husband and family have been through this whirlwind career. I also have had many friends in the industry who have helped me along the way. As I said previously, navigating the industry was complex, so having colleagues and even competitors that were open to talking about solutions for the industry was vital.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I just launched The Open Dør, a turnkey franchise dispensary model for cannabis industry enthusiasts who are new license owners, those submitting for their licenses, or current dispensary owners.
My co-founder, Kathryn Blackwell, and I knew that dispensary license holders were continuously having difficulty succeeding compliantly in the industry. With Kathryn’s background on franchising, and my background in operations, compliance, and overall cannabis, we knew this idea would be the perfect partnership.
The Open Dør will help dispensary license holders with every aspect of opening and maintaining their business. Everything from architecture and design, compliance in their legalized state, employee education, and more.
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?
Really what this comes down to is a culture issue. There has to be less focus on the imputation that women are always being emotional. In a business, this attitude isn’t always coming from the executive level, I’ve seen it even from individuals throughout a company. When employees have this type of attitude with their superior it can detriment a woman’s ability to lead and grow in their position.
Something that I’ve seen over the years is the way that a woman versus a male is compared when they are both being direct in the same manner. A woman may be labeled as condescending while a male is just powerful and respected. I had an employee with this leadership approach and she appreciated that I empowered her in her leadership skills. Building up other women around you can help grow them into a strong leader.
As a society, I am hoping that we begin to lean more toward being open minded on this subject. It really begins with how children are taught gender roles. By stopping preconceived notions, we will empower our children to become equally strong leaders.
As a woman lead operation we have had nothing but positive feedback from investors and vendor partners.
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.
- The cannabis industry is not necessarily an intuitive industry because it has broadly defined regulations and is always changing.
- One of the top things that I stand on my soapbox about in the cannabis industry is employee relations. I really believe that we should always support and empower our employees because that will trickle into better moral, better sales, and happier customers.
- Believing in yourself is another top thing about this industry. There are so many changes, and the industry can sometimes be overwhelming, so knowing that you are an expert in the industry sometimes does not come naturally.
- Something that is sometimes missed in this fast paced industry is learning foundational and new business skills that would be used in any other industry. Because regulations are still being defined and there are few case studies to read up on, applying mainstream business practicalities is one of the best ways to grow a cannabis business.
- A lot of people in the industry make the mistake of thinking that their product will sell itself. As we are seeing now, there is a mass rush of competition and the market is becoming oversaturated. Ensuring that you have a strong brand, a loyal customer base, and defined story will create a base for your business and only help it grow. Never be stagnant in this industry.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
The growth is one of the most exciting things about being in the cannabis industry. I have been able to see the industry start from nothing, to one of the most sought after growing industries in the nation. I get to learn something new everyday, and exercise my mind daily. It makes work fun.
The mix of types of people that have come into the industry has made it exciting for me. It’s not the same genre of people, I’ve met so many people from different industries coming together in this new industry. I’m from four different areas of the country, and I have friends all over, which means I know I have business friends all over.
I really enjoy learning about new markets and what they are doing in the industry. One of my favorite things that I was involved in was being able to shape policy on an international level.
Another thing that excites me is that we are helping people on a daily basis. Whether they are therapeutically medicating themselves or using recreationally. With so many new states legalizing cannabis for adult-use, I am happy for those people that have been waiting for this moment because they did not feel comfortable going into the system, and now can use cannabis for their ailments.
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?
Just as any industry, employee welfare is an important topic for me. Making sure that employees are trained, educated, paid well, and given an opportunity to grow in their role is huge for this competitive market.
Something that concerns me is the 280-E tax code. Most businesses (outside of the industry) can write off the costs of goods and employees. Structuring a solid cannabis business is hard without the ability to use this tax code. As a cannabis owner, you can have your bank account shut down, real estate loans denied, etc. so it’s really an unsteady and concerning role to be in even though it is a legalized industry.
The lack of consistency throughout the states that are legalized concerns me from a federal standpoint. Having more consistent regulations will help the roll-out of cannabis becoming federally legalized. For example, regulations are subjective, from one inspector to another. I was helping with compliance for a multi-state operating vape brand, and was told by state testing that it was fine and would pass. When we officially sent the product in for state testing, another inspector said it would not pass. Having consistent regulations would help to solve a lot of these issues.
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 this is an important issue for the industry because there are currently so many security risks throughout.
The first thing that I would like to address is the 280-E tax code. I was able to sit in front of senators as a mother and explain to them how unsafe working in a cash only industry can be.. I had to drive around $80,000 to 9 different banks because legally, I could not put in more than $10,000 a week into one account. This was extremely unsafe as a mother to have to have this much cash on hand. The industry is getting closer to more card systems, but it is still a cash heavy industry. It’s concerning because business owners can’t pay their bills efficiently because their bank account could get shut down at any time. These are hard working, honest people in a legalized industry but are treated differently because we are not there yet on a federal level.
The other thing i would bring to their attention is when you have non-legalized states that sit next to legalized states, there is a high amount of trafficking happening. By federally legalizing, we can get rid of some of the deficit and lower trafficking of illegal substances.
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?
We do not want similar status or to be socially marginalized like cigarettes are. Cannabis is already excluded as an industry. We have half the status of cigarettes I would say, but we don’t have the tax federally yet.The difference between cigarettes and cannabis is that there are more and more studies coming out that cannabis is medicinally beneficial. My goal is that they are definitely not similar in ten years. I’m hoping by that time that cannabis is just as accepted as wine or even orange juice is.
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 best friends in high school wrote this quote in my year book and it always comes to me when I’m having a stressful or frustrating day: “No matter how dark the night, morning comes.”
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 would like to see change in how we are all treating our employees. Having employees that are stressed about bills, can’t afford health insurance, don’t have money to fix their car, etc. can lead to stress inside your business. How we treat the people that run our business on a daily basis is so important. The culture that we create helps define the type of business that we are. By helping our employees we help to stop the vicious circle that our employees live in. In turn having healthier and happier employees changes the way that they interact with our customers and also the life that they lead.
I’m only one person, but I always want to talk about this subject because hopefully it will influence others. If it causes one change at one company it is a win for me!
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!