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.
An inspirational story about believing in yourself set in one of the US’s wildest emerging industries, Unconventional shares insightful life lessons beyond business and cannabis.
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


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.


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


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


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.