These Black Women Are Taking Their Cut Of The Billion-Dollar Cannabis Industry
Whitney Beatty and Ebony Andersen from Josephine & Billie | Photo courtesy of subjects
The societal stigma that was once attached to cannabis is slowly going up in smoke: 36 states have legalized the herb for medicinal purposes, plus 18 states and the District of Columbia have approved it for recreational use. Additionally, a few senators are working to have cannabis completely removed from the federal list of controlled substances. With more states legalizing marijuana, an emerging industry related to its sale and use in the United States is expected to gross over $45 billion by 2025, according to Marijuana Business Daily. Meet four entrepreneurs who are among a small number of black women opening cannabis dispensaries and battling a host of regulatory challenges to claim their right in a booming industry.
Overcome the obstacles
Whitney Beatty, 43, founder and CEO of Josephine & Billie’s, a cannabis retail outlet in South Los Angeles, wasn’t always a cannabis user, that is, until that she starts using it to treat anxiety and investigates how it was considered medicinal for over 3,000 years while being stigmatized as a drug for the past seven decades. With the passage of the California Cannabis Equity Act of 2018 and the establishment of the Los Angeles Social Equity Program to give eligible entrepreneurs a head start in starting a legal cannabis business, Beatty has seen a opportunity. She wanted to create a safe space for black women to access cannabis and learn about both its medicinal and recreational uses. She had already made the transition to a successful career as a TV development executive when she partnered with Ebony Andersen in a full-fledged cannabis business.
Andersen had helped Social Equity Program applicants navigate the city’s very complicated requirements before agreeing to join Beatty on his journey to start a boutique. “I happen to have a useful skill set, because as a city planner, I was the one who helped write regulations and policies,” says Andersen, 39, a partner and COO of the firm. (its name pays homage to Josephine Baker and Billy Holiday). Andersen’s background in city planning for Ventura County and her experience working with cities to develop cannabis programs and policies helped both women through the arduous application process.
Financing their business would be another hurdle. “The process of getting a permit is like jumping through hoops, but the hoops are on fire and there are nails and knives coming out,” says Beatty. “There are hundreds of ways you can’t get there.” Fortunately, their first major investor, Jay-Z’s parent company, provided them with most of their seed funding, and other investors followed suit. They opened their outlet at the end of October, transforming a former dry-cleaner’s space on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Sharing the Wealth of Information
Kika Keith, 50, grew up in a home where marijuana was considered sacred. “My father, a scholar and philosopher, was a Rastafarian, so I grew up with an awareness of cannabis,” says Keith. “I have always seen grass in my house. There was a high level of respect for the plant and its healing properties. His mother called him sacred.
Keith, CEO and founder of Gorilla Rx, the first black woman-owned dispensary in Los Angeles, opened to the public in August 2021 and already has more than 2,000 products for sale on the shelves, from infused pre-rolls to extracts. But even before starting his business, Keith selflessly took on the cause of helping others start their own businesses, so that there would be at least 40% black-owned businesses in the cannabis industry. from Los Angeles. “It was literally a struggle,” she says. “From the moment the City of Los Angeles opened its licensing process, it pushed back the social equity program that was supposed to start at the same time as a general license.” Of the nearly 200 grandfathered dispensaries, only six were African American.
In response, Keith co-founded the Social Equity Owners and Workers Association. “We had to create grassroots lobbyists and learn the political process,” she says. The organization eventually sued the city and won; An additional 100 licenses have been made available to people of color.
It took three long years for Gorilla Rx to become a reality; but during those years, the building where the dispensary now stands housed a community organization that helped applicants complete the necessary paperwork and educated them on issues such as predatory investors. “The key is, how can we open our doors?” Keith explains. “And how can we make sure we thrive once we’re laid off?”
If you have it, fund it
Hope Wiseman, CEO and co-founder of Mary & Main, was 23 when she won the competitive application process to legally sell medical cannabis in Maryland. His Prince George’s County dispensary is one of 95 listed in the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission’s online directory. Of these clinics, less than 43% are reportedly owned by people of color. Yet the state’s Medical Marijuana Commission has come a long way since its inception, when it came under scrutiny for granting 15 grower licenses, almost none of those businesses that are not minority-owned.
After Wiseman, the youngest black woman in the nation to own a dispensary, earned an economics degree from Spelman College, she thought about pursuing a career in investment banking. But when the cannabis industry became a legal and viable option, Wiseman decided it was now or maybe never.
“Maryland was one of the first East Coast states to legalize medical cannabis,” she notes. “It created a really robust application process.” Knowing that her status as a fresh graduate with no experience in health care or running a business could be considered a liability, she assembled a team that she believed would be able to gain the approval of the ‘State. It included two people who had deep ties to the community as well as health care backgrounds: her mother, Octavia Wiseman, Ph.D., entrepreneur and dentist; and Larry Bryant, Ph.D., a resident oral surgeon at a local hospital.
The business has been in business since 2018, with the three founders raising the initial $1 million they needed to start the business from savings. They’re already in the black, earning around $4.5 million in 2021. “I’m glad we funded ourselves, because we don’t owe anyone anything,” Wiseman says. “We’ve been able to build a business that can pay us decent wages, and we can run it however we want.”
Lee Anna A. Jackson (@LeeAnnaAJackso1) is a New York-based research writer and editor.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.