Headset, Blackbird, and Vangst Among Companies in Talks to Help With Oakland’s Cannabis Equity Program
Consulting company Make Green Go is on the forefront of a push in Oakland, California, to create opportunities for disadvantaged entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry — and it’s partnering with several leaders in the space to get it done.
Headset, the industry’s buzziest cannabis analytics company; cannabis media and educational platform Green Flower Media; logistics provider Blackbird; and recruiting firm Vangst are in talks with Make Green Go as it readies for its third year as the technical assistance consultant to Oakland’s cannabis Equity Program, Cheddar has learned.
“We have many partners that help us provide services and additional resources that we can’t necessarily do alone,” La Wanda Knox, founder of Make Green Go, told Cheddar.
The city of Oakland launched its Equity Program in 2017 to promote equal employment and ownership opportunities in the burgeoning cannabis industry. The program seeks to offer free and low-cost training and services, and no-interest loans to “equity applicants.” Oakland residents who have cannabis convictions, live in areas with a heightened rate of cannabis-related arrests, or fall below a certain income level may qualify as equity.
The program also requires that half of cannabis permits and licenses issued by the city to go to equity applicants, and that “incubator” companies, which offer free space for equity businesses, are prioritized. The program has been hugely popular. The city received more than 810 applications from equity candidates as of March 13, 2019, but it has also fallen under scrutiny with critics citing minimal oversight of the program, as well as slow downs in license processing, Marijuana Business Daily reported. Since Oakland’s equity program launched, 25 of the 50 cannabis businesses fully approved by the city as of May were equity businesses, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Make Green Go, a black and woman-led consulting company, has served as the technical assistance consultant for Oakland’s equity program for the past two years. In that role, Make Green Go offers free workshops, consultations, and courses to help verified equity candidates navigate the complicated cannabis industry every step of the way, from applying for a dispensary permit to running a business.
Knox said that at the beginning, she and her associates were running all of the workshops themselves. She realized they needed help.
“We were providing all the content, doing all the consultations, presenting monthly workshops on different topics — we were everything at the beginning. Now it’s become, ‘Wait a minute, we can bring an expert from Trellis to talk seed-to-sale software,’” Knox said.“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we just need to connect people at the right time with what they need at the right time.”
Knox submitted Make Green Go’s application to the city last month, and was awarded a contract for the third year running. The program kicked off again on Monday. The new contract, Knox said, applies for two years.
Enter Blackbird, Green Flower, Headset, and Vangst
Blackbird, one of the biggest cannabis logistics provider in the Nevada area, has already begun assisting equity candidates in partnership with Make Green Go. Blackbird provides compliant business to business and business to consumer transportation and distribution technology and services for companies in the cannabis industry.
“Our bread and butter is the movement, rather than the growing and selling,” said Jamal Barghouti, equity outreach manager at Blackbird. “Most distributors will take on a handful of brands, but we work more like FedEx. You make the connection with your customer, and we pick it up and do everything else.”
Make Green Go refers its equity license applicants, who are looking for transportation and delivery solutions, to Blackbird’s Equity Outreach Program. Blackbird’s program aims to offer tailored software and services at a discount to entrepreneurs who qualify. For now, the program primarily offers wholesale transportation, wholesale distribution, and direct-to-consumer delivery services.
Vangst, which has been referred to as the “LinkedIn for weed jobs,” has not finalized its agreement with Make Green Go. But CEO Karson Humiston hinted at what the company’s participation might entail at a panel moderated by Eric Hippeau of venture capital fund Lerer Hippeau, a Vangst investor.
“We are specifically targeting these communities and helping them get the jobs,” Humiston said.
Knox said Vangst may offer its recruiting services to those equity applicants setting up businesses. Humiston said Vangst hopes to roll out a test run of the program in Oakland, and is also looking for inroads in other states. She specifically mentioned “talks with folks in New Jersey and New York.”
“We have the chance to build one of the most diverse, inclusive industries in the country. And it starts with prioritizing diversity and inclusion from day one,” Humiston said during the panel discussion. “We think it’s a great opportunity to build a highly inclusive industry that other industries would seek to mimic.”
Vangst declined to comment further on its participation.
At the center of the collaboration among Make Green Go, Blackbird, Headset, and Vangst is a nonprofit called the Allyance. Co-founded in 2019 by Knox and Make Green Go technical assistance consultant Richard Ng, the Allyance counts Make Green Go, Headset, and Vangst as members. The nonprofit also presented the second annual Cannabis Equity Summit & Expo in April, in which Blackbird, Headset, and Vangst all participated.
Manny Perez, vice president of marketing at Headset, called his company’s initial meeting with Allyance co-founder Ng “serendipitous.” The Allyance’s objectives, which include developing public-private partnerships to help the cannabis equity program, resonated with Headset’s team, and they got involved right away with several equity events, including the aforementioned Summit.
“[Equity applicants] only have one shot. We want to be there to maximize their chances for success,” Perez said.
Although no formal agreement with Make Green Go has been established, Perez envisions Headset’s participation in the program in a number of different ways. The company aims to help train equity program participants to use data and analytics, through workshops from Make Green Go, the Allyance, and the city of Oakland, as well as offer in those workshops relevant market trends and insights. Headset plans to give its Headset Retailer tool — which provides insight into sales trends, inventory levels, budtender performance, top products and vendors — for free to equity shops and dispensaries. Perez said he hopes the training, tools, and data Headset lends to the program will help equity entrepreneurs navigate the complex cannabis industry.
“There’s no money exchanged, but at the same time it’s providing technology, providing data intelligence, providing assistance any way we can, at no cost, and I think that’s more valuable than just writing a check,” Perez said.
Cannabis equity across the U.S.
As cannabis legalization sweeps the nation, discussions around record expungement and reparations for years of cannabis criminalization have permeated the national discourse and are starting to get the attention activists have been seeking for years. Minority and disenfranchised communities have been disproportionately affected by cannabis criminalization since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Black Americans, for example, are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white Americans, despite the groups using cannabis at about the same rate, according to data from the American Civil Liberties Union.
In Oakland, these numbers are even more bleak. In 2015, for example, African Americans comprised 30 percent of the population, compared with white Americans, who made up 31 percent. But 77 percent of those arrested for cannabis crimes that year were black, and by contrast, only 4 percent were white, according to an equity analysis report from the city. It was precisely those statistics that motivated Oakland to develop its equity program in the first place, according to Gregory Minor, who specializes in cannabis, special permits, and nuisance abatement for the city of Oakland.
But Oakland’s equity program has come under fire by critics who argue it hasn’t done nearly enough — quickly enough — to help disenfranchised entrepreneurs. Despite its problems, Oakland’s program is still considered a nationwide leader in initiatives designed to help those negatively impacted by the war on drugs, and an example other jurisdictions have sought to follow.
Illinois lawmakers passed what Gov. J.B. Pritzker referred to as the most “equity-centric” recreational cannabis legalization effort to date. Its recreational cannabis bill, passed through the state legislature, includes a $20 million loan program for qualified applicants, and sets aside a percentage of tax revenue for those communities most adversely impacted by the war on drugs. Pritzker has said he will sign the proposal.
Denver, Los Angeles, Massachusetts, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Washington D.C. are among the cities and states that have their own equity initiatives, although most of those efforts have similarly come under scrutiny for shortcomings. Los Angeles’ funding for equity programming, for example — a mere $3 million out of a $10 billion budget — has been criticized for being too small to meet demand, CannabisWire reported.
And hand-in-hand with equity programming is a related discussion around expungement of cannabis-related convictions. San Francisco and Sacramento both teamed up with tech nonprofit Code for America to help automatically expunge past marijuana-related convictions. And Illinois’ legalization effort includes expungement for low-level convictions, while also enabling those with more severe possession convictions to seek expungement on their own terms, the Rockford Register Star reported.
In New Jersey and New York, disagreements among advocates, industry stakeholders, and lawmakers on equity and expungement initiatives contributed to stalling recreational cannabis legalization. New Jersey lawmakers have since moved forward with piecemeal legislation that would expedite an overhaul of the expungement system. Despite slow progress on the East Coast, most advocates seem to agree that they’d rather have legalization done right, than done quickly.
As for those companies and organizations working to help equity applicants in Oakland, they’re grateful the inequities in cannabis — and their hard work to remedy them — is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
“It’s finally cutting through the noise of the excitement and the investment and the monumental opportunity around cannabis. And as the dust starts settling, these things that are more rooted, more — in my view — important that we get right, are getting the light they deserve,” Perez said.