From Prison to Prosperity: CEO Gets A Second Chance in the Cannabusiness
In 2012, Erin Hackney went to federal prison for a year for a crime he says he didn't commit. It was a stunning blow for a rising star. The Milwaukee native was the youngest VP and first African-American sales rep for the bank Marshall & Ilsley, the first African-American sales director for the staffing agency Manpower, and founder of his own staffing agency. Now he was “a black man with a felony,” Hackney says. “My degrees at Marquette meant nothing, my fifteen years selling and being stellar meant nothing.”
But the experience turned his life around. Hackney is now Founder/CEO of Mezz Brands, a cannabis lifestyle company. Here’s the story of his remarkable second chance, and how he channeled the spirit of his company namesake -- a little know jazz musician named Milton Mezzrow.
Tell us the story of why you went to prison.
You may remember seeing those “We buy gold" commercials? I saw that and thought, I wouldn't mail my gold in, but I would walk into a store and sell it to him and take the money right then and there. So, I got with a guy and we started these little stores, which were really nothing but a desk and a sign that said, “We buy gold.” People started walking in selling us their gold like hand over fist. Craziest thing I’ve ever experienced. It got so popular that I started opening up everywhere. One of my stores in Atlanta purchased some merchandise from an individual who had stolen it from Delta (Airlines). By the time the prosecutor worked him over, I was the ringleader. But I didn't even know the guy. I decided to go to court instead of taking a plea deal because I felt like I was innocent. I did not get charged for stealing the items because I didn't steal them. After an 11-day trial, the jury said I should have recognized him. I got twelve months in a federal prison camp.
That must have been pretty scary.
It was better and going to a real prison. I went to a pretty posh Club Fed type of situation. It was a college campus. You could walk off if you wanted to. I met a lot of cool people like me who were successful but just got on the wrong side of the federal government.
Was it hard to get a job or start a business when you got out?
I tried to buy a staffing agency, but they ran my record and even though I'm qualified they said they couldn’t sell to a felon. I didn't know what to do at that point. This was in September 2013. I knew that cannabis was going to be legal in Colorado in January of 2014. I thought maybe I'll get into the cannabis business. Eventually, a partner of mine and I set out to create a brand called Mezz.
Why the name Mezz?
Back in the 1930s, there was a Jewish guy from Chicago named Milton Mezzrow. He was a clarinet player. Around that time, the Harlem Renaissance was starting up so he decided to move to Harlem so he could be a part of this new jazz scene. He found himself in the black neighborhoods of Harlem going into these speakeasies and being the only white guy in the whole place.
Everybody knew him, everybody loved him. He was always in the back with the cool cats. Once you got into that scene, you found out that this guy Milton Mezzrow was supplying the weed to all the jazz musicians, so much so that between the 30s and 40s if you were smoking good weed in America the term was "mezz." He was known for having the best weed.
Mezz went to prison and they put him on the white side. He was like, “Are you crazy? Put me on a black side.” So eventually they put him on the black side. He was a hero because a lot of the other people in jail were selling weed at the time similar to today. Being in the federal prison system myself, I know a good majority of people in prison are there over weak cases.
When Mezz got out of prison, he moved to Paris to be very vocal about the United States policy on cannabis. He was one of the first cannabis advocates in the world.
He stood for everything we are standing for -- bringing the cultures together through music and educating them on how to use the plant like Mezz. He rolled these very small, tightly joints perfect for personal consumption. Back then they didn't try to roll big blunts and get as stoned as they could. They smoked to the point where it enhanced whatever mood they were trying to get to. That is our messaging today. That whole story just resonated with me so we set out to build a brand around it.
How did you market Mezz?
We started pushing out apparel and we created this vape case to give away. We went to every major event possible starting with Art Basel in December 2016. Then in 2016, we went to all the events Super Bowl, All-Star weekend, South by Southwest, everything you could think of.
We started out selling in Colorado and one of the events we did in Colorado was what was it with Dave Chappelle. Dave Chappelle showed up. And so for all these people, they got to experience Dave Chappelle for free and we didn’t pay him a dime to do it. So that was kind of cool. We instantly became popular. In November 2017, we hired Jonas Tempel (a former executive at Beats by Dre).
You’re very focused on branding. Why is that?
We all have the same oil, we're all using the same packaging. It's kind of like the beverage world: Everybody had the same can. So what separates Coke and Pepsi from Tab and RC Cola? RC Cola and Tab were big when I was growing up, now they don't even exist. And the reason they probably don't exist is that they didn't have a marketing budget like Coca-Cola did. When you read about cannabis brands today, no one is competing on potency. Because everybody can get the same potency. Now they're competing for eyeballs.
Do you think African American entrepreneurs are well represented in the cannabis industry?
There are a ton of African-Americans in the space, but there aren't enough and that’s because it's federally illegal still, and most blacks don't want to take the chance of being anywhere near anything that's federally illegal. We'd rather play it safe and stay out of the business. We still smoke it, but we're afraid to jump out there and get into the space until the Federal Government says it's legal. And by that time there won't be any room for us to play, or we're going to be paying 10x to get into the business.
There are so many ways you can be in this business without touching the flower. You can own a dispensary. You can own testing facilities. There's packaging, branding, accounting. My nephew goes to Duke. I told him to start learning cannabis law because it'll be a huge segment.
We have to play in this space otherwise we will be consumers just like we are and in the alcohol industry. This industry is so new that there's plenty of opportunities for us to participate on a level footing because we do have the money to participate.