Unconventional: A Memoir of Entrepreneurism, Politics, and Pot

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Pioneer cannabis CEO gets down and dirty in the political and regulatory trenches of California’s greenest industry.
First 10 Pages


A $5,000 stack of one-hundred-dollar bills has a volume of approximately sixteen cubic inches. This means that $100,000 can fit comfortably in an average shoebox. In turn, the cargo compartment of my SUV can hold two such shoeboxes next to the spare tire. It is ludicrous that I should have cause to know the above data points, but they are part of the reality that goes with running an all-cash cannabis business that cannot access the banking system due to its conflict with federal law. When driving the two hundred miles from Redding back to my home in Santa Rosa at the end of the workweek, or simply driving from one of the stores across town, in my shiny black SUV, obeying all traffic laws while SiriusXM Chill plays softly through the Harman/Kardon speakers, I am just another vehicle on the road. Except for my personal protection K9, Zeus, riding in the back seat. And those two shoeboxes. That I was comfortable with the “uncomfortability” of carrying $200,000, give or take, in the cargo compartment of my vehicle on any given day of the week is not in any way, shape, or form normal. While this may certainly have been an unconventional way to diversify my assets, it was also insane, preposterous, and completely unsafe. Ironically, my entering the cannabis industry was never about the money. Most people will not believe me when I say that I didn’t get into this industry to become rich. That is the stereotype, but those who know me well understand that I have never been motivated by money. So, if not for the money, then why did I do it? Why did I exchange my well-paying corporate job for the risk of starting such a highly controversial small business in a staunchly conservative part of Northern California? Why did I make the decision to open a cannabis store seven years before full legalization, during a time in which the industry was truly another Wild West? To see if I could. And while that is definitely part of the answer, it is also a gross oversimplification. The unconventional spirit that has been at my core for as long as I can remember was in the driver’s seat again, and I knew it would be one hell of a ride. Even the fact that I wanted to run my own business defied convention, given that my degree is in English, not business. I’m a word nerd, not a number cruncher, for f’s sake. In fact, “unconventional” is quite possibly the single best word that describes not only who I am but also the way in which I have pursued my vision, built my businesses, and ultimately how I have sculpted my life, before, during, and beyond cannabis. Starting with the launch of my first store in 2009, even knowing that I was starting down a path that was sure to be fraught with challenges, I never could have imagined the fantastic journey that was to follow. This is the story of that journey; a journey of the incidents that molded me, the laws that guided me, the people who helped and inspired me. It is also the story of the principles that I learned, honed, and refined over the course of my journey as an unlikely entrepreneur in an industry that was taking shape on the fly. But, above all else, this is a story about never—even in the face of overwhelming, oftentimes seemingly insurmountable odds—giving up on yourself or your vision. Come with me and experience this incredible cannabis adventure—one that, like any journey, began with a road . . .


The Robert Frost poem is timeless for good reason: its simple beauty has touched and inspired millions, myself included. It’d be great to say that I read Frost’s words at a young age and was so moved that I subsequently decided to always take the path less traveled. But that would be to credit me with foresight I didn’t have. In retrospect, however, that road less traveled has presented itself to me time and again, and it has been the one that I have chosen often, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. The times I have consciously chosen that road have often been the result of envisioning what ninety-year-old me would want present-day me to do. I also saw the concept of the well-traveled road as a safety net. I mean, if I got down the less traveled one and walked into a shit tornado, I could always backtrack, right? But it is often a risk, that road less traveled—a big one— and one not many people can understand taking. I remember telling my dad (who had been christened “Dean” but dubbed “Jocko,” a childhood nickname that he carried his whole life) about my decision to open a medical cannabis store, a decision that meant, of course, that I had to leave my corporate job at Pacific Gas & Electric Company. We were talking over the phone, and I could visualize him scratching his head, literally and figuratively, when he asked me why I would leave such a secure position with an excellent company to go out and start my own business—and a “pot shop,” of all things. He was incredulous. I told him this was something I had to do; I had to try. He should have remembered that I always thrive on a challenge. I also told him that if I failed, there would be time enough for me to go back to the well-traveled road and find another job. There would always be another job if I needed one, whereas there might not ever be another opportunity like the one before me; I meant to seize it. While my motivation was idealistic and my family circle had always encouraged the concept of following one’s dream, I was pushing the envelope this time. Perhaps this is why I never gave up, even during the most difficult, harrowing hours of my journey. But I know it’s also because I am quite stubborn and have always been fiercely competitive, always driven to succeed and to win. This was one of the times I consciously took the road less traveled, and it indeed made all the difference.

INSOMNIA The clock on my nightstand glowed cheerily in the darkness, proudly displaying the time as 3:00 a.m. Giving it a dirty look, I rolled over, plumped up my pillow for what felt like the hundredth time, and tried not to think about how tired I was going to be the next day. Where was this insomnia coming from? Morpheus had always been a dear and intimate friend, but out of nowhere he’d ditched me, abandoning me to the mercies of that damn clock. After struggling through a couple of weeks of that insomnia bullshit, I decided enough was enough, but it wasn’t cannabis I reached for. While it seems ironic now, I didn’t initially think about cannabis as a remedy for insomnia, and with good reason: I was not a pot smoker. I’m still not. “How in the world did you get into this industry?” is the one question I know, without fail, I’m going to be asked anytime I speak or present on cannabis. This is the unabridged version of my answer that I have given countless times. I am not of “cannabis heritage” (a term used within the industry, particularly with regard to growers), meaning I didn’t grow up around it; I didn’t have parents who used or grew cannabis. I never even smoked it in high school. My dad was emphatic about a couple of things. He told me not to use drugs and not to get pregnant while living under his roof. Good news—I succeeded on both counts! I have managed to dodge the pregnancy bullet my entire life, and my first experience with cannabis didn’t come until I smoked a joint in my college dorm room as a freshman. So cliché. I remember thinking as I watched my new college friend pull a plastic baggie from her jacket and very ceremoniously lay it on the table that I was doing something really bad. The subsequent thought after my girlfriend and I had smoked that joint was to wonder what the hell the big deal was. The high wasn’t that appealing, and I had never been a smoker of anything. I didn’t feel the need to repeat the experience anytime soon. I was and have continued to be completely ambivalent about the effect of cannabis recreationally. I find it “meh.” If I want a head change, I prefer a beer or whiskey. Even during my eleven years saturated in the industry, surrounded by endless product samples, I never became a recreational cannabis user. In fact, my lack of recreational interest and subsequently low tolerance were legendary amongst my staff and a constant source of amusement for them. Several of my more-veteran team members loved to tell newbies the story about the time I inadvertently consumed cannabis-infused edibles in the middle of a workday. It was company policy that the chef for the in-house edibles line, 530 Edibles, always make non-infused prototypes of any new products she wanted to bring online so that I could give my final stamp of approval before they hit the shelf. One afternoon, the chef made a scrumptious pumpkin concoction— fabulous treats—of which I enthusiastically approved. The following day, having skipped lunch, I found my mouth starting to water when I spied a small plastic container of the delicacies in the kitchen refrigerator. The container wasn’t marked “infused,” so I assumed they weren’t. We all know the saying about assumption being the mother of all fuckups. When the chef came back into the kitchen and saw that I was well into polishing off the contents of that container, the look on her face told me all I needed to know. To this day, I don’t think my staff has ever seen me pack up my laptop, throw the dogs in the car, and get the hell out of there as fast as I did that afternoon. I managed to get safely home and on my couch before the effects hit and the drooling started. I have no problem being the butt of my own joke, and this one made for a popular story in the years to come. And the chef never again forgot to label a container as “infused.” But I digress. After that one joint at college, it would be years before I would again try cannabis. Throughout my early adulthood, I had only fleeting relationships—one-night stands—with the drug. If it was at a party and offered, I might partake, but I never sought it out, never purchased it for myself. It wasn’t until I was into my thirties that cannabis factored into my life in any significant way. I think I voted for Proposition 215, California’s medical cannabis ballot initiative, in 1996, but I can’t be sure. I’m not even sure that I voted that year, I’m now embarrassed to say. However, in 2008, for whatever reason, my brain started to come awake at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., disrupting the beautiful sleep I had enjoyed every night of my life up until that point. I tried a couple of over-the-counter sleep aids, but I didn’t like the way they made me feel the next day. I went to the doctor and tried prescription sleep aids with the same result. Then a friend asked me if I had tried cannabis. I said I had but that I didn’t really like smoking it, and I didn’t care for the high all that much. They explained that cannabis edibles worked great to combat insomnia, and, given that I would’ve tried anything at this point, I experimented with some. I was amazed at how soundly I slept and, more important, how refreshed I felt in the morning. I woke clearheaded and energized for the day. Quite literally overnight, I became a believer and went out and got my medical cannabis recommendation. With the doctor’s medical cannabis note hot in my hands, I started looking for cannabis stores in which to shop. While in San Francisco for a weekend, I sought out a couple of the available storefronts. A few weekends later, I was in Sacramento and checked out several more. There was even one open in Redding, my locale at that time, so I stopped in. What I found was that in every single case, the stores were all similar and, most important, they all focused on the “420 lifestyle” (a lifestyle encompassing regular cannabis use), something with which I did not identify and to which I couldn’t relate. In 2008, I was working as a community relations rep for Pacific Gas &Electric, and, as a thirtysomething business professional, I was looking for a medical-cannabis shopping experience with which I could identify and feel at ease. But it didn’t seem to exist. I saw the potential to create a store that was different, that did not have the “stoner” customer at its center but instead embraced all customers. I envisioned a store and an environment inclusive to everyone, regardless of their cannabis background and experience; a store in which everyone, be they a lifelong consumer or a business professional using cannabis for occasional insomnia, could feel comfortable. The common denominator in any job I’d had since entering the workforce at fifteen and a half years old was customer service; it was in my blood, and it was the obvious and natural decision for me to make the customer the focus of my prospective operation as opposed to the product. Specifically, I wanted more engagement with the customer, especially with regard to their level of experience with cannabis. Being a newcomer myself to its medical usage, I didn’t want to assume that every customer who walked into the store knew exactly what they wanted or even that they were comfortable being there. This meant getting to know the customer, asking open-ended questions, and having them rank their prior cannabis usage on a scale from one to ten. Customer service meant making each person who walked into the store feel special. It meant listening to them. It was on this premise that I based the foundation for 530 Collective (the term “collective” always felt awkward to me, but that was the term the state wanted used), but I had to fight for it. “John,” my husband at the time, was still working his job while I was managing the entire 530 Collective operation. However, he had 50 percent interest in the endeavor, and he didn’t like my idea. He said it would never work because it was too different from what everyone else was doing. The importance of making the business stand out was my point precisely, and, fueled even further by his challenge, I was adamant about my concept. Several arguments ensued, but we reached a compromise. Since John was the cannabis connoisseur, he would have carte blanche when it came to the products we carried and the plants. Because my forte was sales and customer service, I handled absolutely everything else operationally, from policies and procedures to internal forms and bookkeeping, from logo and interior design to customer experience and staff training, right down to every single component of outreach. The ambience that I envisioned for 530 was also critically different from what I had experienced as a client. As a business owner, you have the incredible opportunity to set the stage for the entire customer experience from the second they walk
through your door by the ambience—the vibe—that you create.
All of the stores I had visited in 2008 and 2009 felt a lot like
head shops. They were seedy, their dimly lit lobbies often decorated
with black lights and glowing wall decor, their dispensing
rooms offering a clandestine, living-room drug-deal vibe.
I remember walking into a dispensing room and being
helped by a kid wearing baggy jeans, his shaggy hair mostly
covered by a low-slung hat, under the brim of which I could
just make out his glassy eyes. His less-than-professional garb
contrasted so sharply with the business-casual attire I happened
to be wearing that day that I felt completely out of place.
He greeted me with a chin-nod and a “Whassup.” I
chin-nodded back in response and looked behind him to the
shelves holding the big jars of cannabis flower. Each jar, labeled
with the strain it contained, was accompanied by what looked
like a hand-drawn graphic novel illustration—quite well done,
actually—many of which, inexplicably, featured incredibly
well-endowed women. Now, for the record, I’m no prude and
I have nothing against boobs, having two of them myself.
They’re lovely, and I quite like them. But there’s a time and a
place, and smack on the front of medicinal-product packaging
in a business purporting to be legitimate was neither.
Two jars in particular caught my attention, but for a different
reason: I was drawn by the strain names represented on
their front. “Cat Piss,” read one, accompanied by a Halloweencat-
type graphic. Was that name supposed to make me want it?
The other jar was labeled “Fire Crotch.” Fire Crotch??? You’ve
got to be fucking kidding me. I fortunately cannot remember
what graphic accompanied that one. I left that store, knowing I
could build out an establishment more welcoming than a “Fire
Crotch” vibe, and I knew I could give better customer service
than a “Whassup.”
In making the customer the focal point, the driving force
of the business then becomes the customer experience. The
product itself is obviously necessary, but in my model, it took
a back seat to creating an experience that focused on professionalism,
ambience, and knowledge first with the commodity
itself second.
In the end, 530 Collective emerged onto the market as
something new and different, just as I had wanted. This was
my formula from the very beginning. It was an unconventional
formula to which I held and continued to fine-tune over the
years. It is this simple formula—a nuanced yet intentional shift
from the head-shop vibe the industry embraced in 2009 to the
clean, professional, upscale establishment I envisioned—to
which I attribute both the early as well as the sustained success
of my stores.