Women Leading The Cannabis Industry: “The industry is still like the Wild Wild West”, With Phene Wardlaw of UNITY Wellness Co.
The industry is still like the Wild Wild West. Even when regulation seems definitive — it isn’t. There is so much room for interpretation that every person, lawyer, or company that you talk to will have a different take on where things are now and where things need to be. Take a look at what The Health Department in Los Angeles is (wrongly) doing. They are telling some stores that their inspection rating will be deducted for carrying CBD products, yet Los Angeles was the breeding ground that Unity and many others used to launch and scale their cannabis businesses just months previous. The quick, flailing changes have to be met in stride to be successful in this industry.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Phene Wardlaw.
Phene Wardlaw is a founding partner of UNITY Wellness Co., the leading CBD beverage brand on today’s market. Before this, she led the eCommerce department for a clothing company and helped sales efforts at a tech-enabled CPG marketplace.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
Thank you so much for including me! Coming from a very conservative family, cannabis was always a taboo subject. But after struggling with anxiety for a number of years, multiple people suggested that I try CBD, and I finally obliged. I absolutely fell in love and knew I needed to be a part of the movement. Unity’s mission is to bring CBD to the masses, in a friendly approachable way. Whether we like it or not, there is still a stereotype around cannabis use, but when you put it in a pretty bottle and make it taste great, it’s not intimidating. It’s simple, I sell a product that I use daily.
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?
A: Not so much a story, but more of an epiphany. By creating Unity, I quickly learned that most people are stressed or anxious and by implanting myself in the industry, it’s made it more PC to talk about. Through this, I have had the opportunity to discuss stressors with family and friends on a more personal level than ever before. I have met so many women in the industry that have faced similar challenges. Unity has created a platform for me to connect with my peers on an authentic and deeper level. I have created more meaningful relationships with those around me due to this newly found transparency and the commonly-shared desire to connect.
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?
A: When starting Unity, we would get solicited for a lot of ingredient samples, and because of the newness of the CBD industry at that time some of the suppliers would send unmarked samples without much detail. One hard-working afternoon, we were sampling CBD suppliers…and a THC sample got jumbled up in the mix. Needless to say, we didn’t get much done that day but sure had a lot of laughs. Lesson learned, proper and consistent labeling on the packaging is essential!
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
A: My parents! You should have seen their faces. Growing up, they always told my sister and me that weed is a gateway drug and to steer clear of it. I left my stable job at a real estate investment firm to help launch Unity, and they thought that I was insane! But after trying Unity, they realized that it didn’t get them high (they were convinced it would) but it actually helped them. My dad even said it improved his golf game! Now they are the biggest hype parents out there.
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?
A: My father is an incredibly supportive person and I will forever be grateful for him. He has taught me so much about standing up for myself and only accepting the best. As an immigrant to the United States, he is the epitome of the American dream. He has started multiple businesses and that entrepreneurship has definitely rubbed off on me. Regardless of what endeavor I take on, he has always had my back. In the early stages of Unity, despite not understanding the cannabis industry, his business-minded expertise was incredibly crucial to my being a part of the Unity team. Not to mention, his fulfillment center (garage) was crucial as an initial shipping hub.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
A: Unity is always growing and I am so lucky to be leading a company that strives to make a lasting impression and difference. As of October 2020, 5 percent of the Unity profits go to charities that stand up for equality and bring unity to the world. With so much unrest in our world, we all need to work together to leave it better than we found it. We don’t pretend to fix the world, but giving back profits to charities that do so, is a good start. Not to mention, we are always ideating new product lines and extensions. You can expect to see some soon. ;)
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite the 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?
A: Women, get out there and start your own businesses. Take it from me, it’s a windy road that has its ups and downs, but by being your own boss, you can help set a benchmark for the industry — and other women. Lead by example. As a society, we have to focus on hiring the best talent and not overlooking anyone because of sex, ethnicity, orientation, etc. In honestly opening up the pool to both men and women, in time it will balance the scales. One amazing aspect of the Cannabis industry is that it’s growing and changing every day. My advice for women looking to get into the industry is to stay up to date on the latest trends and legislation. As it grows and becomes more established, there is even more room for women to get involved. You need to be knowledgeable, hold your own, and prove that you deserve to be there. There are jobs in this industry that didn’t even exist three years ago. Get out there and actively seek positions. As with any industry, there is always room for improvement. Be that improvement!
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 industry is still like the Wild Wild West. Even when regulation seems definitive — it isn’t. There is so much room for interpretation that every person, lawyer, or company that you talk to will have a different take on where things are now and where things need to be. Take a look at what The Health Department in Los Angeles is (wrongly) doing. They are telling some stores that their inspection rating will be deducted for carrying CBD products, yet Los Angeles was the breeding ground that Unity and many others used to launch and scale their cannabis businesses just months previous. The quick, flailing changes have to be met in stride to be successful in this industry.
- There are more cannabis lovers out there than you realize and they are willing to try new products. We have been pleasantly surprised by how many people are eager to try our products on the daily. Some have tried other CBD consumables, some have just heard of the positive benefits and want to see for themselves. Since growing up with the anti-cannabis commercials I always assumed there would be a negative stigma in starting this, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of fans the industry has.
- There is still a slight stigma attached to the industry and the products in it. We work hard to bring high-quality, consistent, and beautiful products to market. People are often surprised that our products all taste great, work well, and look beautiful.
- To my last point, It still amazes me that there is so much inconsistency in 1 mg of CBD or THC on the effect side. A lot of our CBD competitor’s products simply do not work for consumers. This causes a divide. As business owners and product developers we have to hold each other to a higher standard to be sure that the industry can thrive and survive.
- Get high on your own supply! To sell a product well, it helps to be a diehard fan.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
- As previously mentioned, the cannabis industry is ever-changing. Many of those in the industry are learning right alongside you. There is a lot of uncharted territory still to be discovered. My day-to-day is never the same and I LOVE that!
- Positive impact. The cannabis industry helps people! Anxiety and stress are at an alltime high and the cannabis industry offers a positive way to deal with that. It’s a natural remedy for stress and an alternative to alcohol. I love hearing stories of how cannabis use has helped others.
- Being on the forefront of bringing CBD to the masses, I get to see new studies and research on the daily. I am always excited to see a new piece come out that validates all the long days and weekends spent working on Unity. Sharing this ingredient and making it more “PC” to consume has been pure bliss for me. Every new study and cross-examination validates our work.
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?
- Regulation — Currently, when it comes to CBD, there is no requirement for companies to state their CBD dosage, source, or THC content. Therefore, they are not held accountable. A lot of companies claim a higher amount of CBD than they have — and get away with it. Others use low-quality CBD that doesn’t work which causes consumers to doubt the industry as a whole. The responsibility falls heavily on the consumer to vet companies and work with those that they trust. For the enthusiasts, this is easy. For those just getting into the space, it can be overwhelming.
- Legislation — There is a lot of gray area, particularly when it comes to CBD ingestibles, but with a new cannabis-friendly president, things are looking good.
- Dosage — Since there is not a singular source to look to for dosage guidance, companies and consumers are left to guess at ideal serving size and dosage.
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 that cannabis should be federally legalized for many reasons. From a financial perspective, there is a lot of revenue to be made from the industry. We could tax cannabis at the federal level and use that revenue to help with rehabilitation, prison reform, and other issues that the war on drugs has caused. Using the money to focus on mental health would help in a plethora of ways that would pay dividends for years to come.
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?
The cannabis industry would heavily benefit from competent regulation and the taxation could be positive if handled correctly. That said, I don’t think cannabis should be marginalized. The reason cigarettes are frowned upon is because they are horrible for you. Cannabis could not be more different.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Never stop learning. When I was fresh out of college and unsure of what I wanted to do, I took time to work abroad. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I learned so much more about myself than inside of a classroom. It’s okay to not know what you want to do. I realized that while my schooling came to an end, I would learn more outside of the classroom. As a business owner, that doesn’t change.
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. :-)
Unity. Be the best version of yourself and share that with others so that we can strive for a better community. We are all in this together — divisiveness and divide are never the answer. I think if more people came together to understand others, there would be more in common than they realize. Unite!
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!
Thanks for having me! Always happy to discuss cannabis with you or anyone that’s interested.