How To Achieve True Equity In Cannabis - Q&A With Liz Jackson-Simpson and Angela White

"To build wealth within the equity community, you've got to open the door and create opportunity that is intentional," says Liz Jackson-Simpson of Success Centers.
How To Achieve True Equity In Cannabis - Q&A With Liz Jackson-Simpson and Angela White
Image credit: Jennifer Skog/Success Centers
Angela White, left, and Liz Jackson-Simpson, right, of Success Centers.

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What is true equity, and why has it been mostly absent in the cannabis space?

Founded in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, Success Centers is one company actively finding solutions to this problem. It is a bridge that connects marginalized communities of entrepreneurs to the tools and leadership skills they need in order to start their own companies.

At the helm is Liz Jackson-Simpson, Chief Executive Officer. Since beginning her career at Success Centers as Executive Director in 2010, she has tripled its capacity, transforming it from a $450,000 organization into a $2.1 million organization, as well as doubled its staff. 

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Founded 35 years ago to provide education and employment opportunities to youth in San Francisco’s juvenile detention facilities, Success Centers today helps over 1,300 people from marginalized communities annually. Around 95 percent are low-income, and 87 percent are people of color.

The company's reach has grown 600 percent in the last 5 years, in part thanks to Angela White, Equity for Industry Program Manager at Success Centers. Her work at Success Centers exists to offer actionable tools to the most vulnerable communities impacted by the War On Drugs. White's team facilitates workshops that focus on ways to enter the space, teaching people how to utilize equity programs, where those programs exist, to their fullest extent. 

Green Entrepreneur spoke with Jackson-Simpson and White about the unique challenges people of color face entering the space, how the company's workshops are going virtual, and what the perfect equity law would look like if they could write it from scratch.

Liz Jackson-Simpson, left, and Angela White, right, of Success Centers. Photo by Jennifer Skog.Liz Jackson-Simpson, left, and Angela White, right, of Success Centers. Photo by Jennifer Skog.

Green Entrepreneur: I hope you're both well and safe. I have to ask first and foremosthow have operations changed at Success Centers amid the Coronavirus pandemic? How have you shifted for the time being?

Liz Jackson-Simpson: We have been thinking about moving a lot of what we do into a virtual space. Particularly Angela and I, during the rush hour it can take over two hours to commute from home to our office. So we’ve been struggling for the past year to figure out, how do we operate in a virtual space when our business and the work and the meat of our content, working with our constituents, is so forward-facing?

It’s also been very taxing, the amount of time we’ve been commuting every day. We’re seasoned people, our children are grown, and we think about our colleagues who have young children. And how it's important for all of us to maintain a quality of life. So we can be there and present for the folks that we serve. We have been working with our colleagues, members on our team who are experts in technology and work in a more virtual space, to find a solution.

As a result, we’ve been thinking about how our workshops or our instructional programs can be put on virtual systems, Learning Management Systems (LMS). Angela's Entrepreneurship In A Nutshell went live in a virtual space the very day that the [San Francisco] mayor ordered the shelter-in-place. They went immediately onto an LMS system, and haven’t missed a beat.

In addition to that, we have run a live Equity For Industry workshop, with tools on managing a cash-only business. That’s probably the broadest audience we were able to capture, via Facebook Live. That team has not missed a beat. And we’ve been sheltered in place since the 17th of March. Every Tuesday is their Entrepreneurship In A Nutshell workshop, Wednesday is the Equity for Industry workshop and job shops. On Wednesday is the team-up with the MBA students who are supporting them, again in a virtual space.

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So cute, there was a 76-year-old woman who at first was struggling with the technology, but after the first session, she had it down. So we knew if she figured it out, we are good.

It's made me think, now that we are not so sequestered to what we can do in our physical space, how to really take it on the road and reach a broad audience.

Are you seeing an uptick in subscribers to your Hot Jobs alert, or in phone calls, or how has that translated in your point of view to people reaching out for a new career at this time?

Angela White: People are reaching out, I’ve experienced having a lot of layoffs. Because at first, San Francisco decided to close dispensaries, and then a few days later, they said to reopen. I’ve seen a drop in the positions that are available right now. So I think that the effect of COVID for inhouse work, as far as budtenders, back house people working, working-class, has kind of slowed down as far as hiring. But I feel like the driving positions have picked up, as far as I can see, have been growing. 

Now, on the more experienced level, veterans of the industry, I have not seen a lot of upper management positions that are being posted right now. So I think that everyone is trying to restructure and figure out where they’re going to be after all of this is over. It’s been a little bit of a downtick as far as hiring numbers.

"If we want to be a better industry, a better country, we need to make some serious changes when it comes to people who have made major sacrifices."

- Angela White, Success Centers

I have faith in this industry that we will recover from this and blossom back into an even stronger one, especially where equity is concerned. In San Francisco, the folks that want to go into the business, one of the main areas where they’ve been having struggles is finding a location. I think that once this thing is over, there may be an opportunity for space opening up for equity businesses in some of these green zones and brown zones. Although it's sad people are losing businesses, the opportunities for equity may be better as far as finding locations.

Is Success Centers seeing a larger demand or need for people to fill certain roles in the cannabis space, as far as employment efforts in the last month? Has the demand morphed in the industry due to the crisis and "essential business" designation for your team at this time?

AW: Delivery is something that the equity community has been doing for years. We're veterans at it. We're not exactly new. I don't think that's going to be a problem, I do think it's leading into that. We don’t know what's going to happen with the stores closing, or if it will be a new normal with social distancing. The delivery of cannabis is going to probably be one of the stronger businesses in this market. 

LJS: I think we’re all for revising our business model, but I think there is a need for more high-level professionals in the space, that have particular business acumen. I haven’t seen it entrusted to equity. People largely see equity as some of the lower or middle rung positions, and not as top partners, as the thought leaders.

As Angela has said, equity people have been in the business for decades, forever, since the beginning of time, but their skills and talent on a managerial level have not been recognized. These companies would be wise to figure out how to diversify their leadership within their company and bring equity into that space. If they think they’re going to thrive in a real way. Not just as budtenders and delivery people, but as the real infrastructure of the company. 

Which states or which markets have done well, given reasonable offerings, for social equity? What would you change in these markets? Are they offering enough incentive, financial aid, entrance for people of color or marginalized groups? 

LJS: I am not speaking for Miss Angie, but I don’t think they’re doing enough for equity at all. There are so many demands in the industry. As she said, they are speaking about the need for real estate, the criteria for getting the business going, the tax, the expectation. All the expectations, all the way around, do not lend well for equity. People who have been persecuted, marginalized, often do not have the connections or the networks that a legitimate business may, in order to make their enterprise thrive.

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Although there are criteria, you need to be of color, you need to have arrests on your record, I think they need to come up with some other criteria for identifying equity. I don’t think enough is being done, municipalities support cannabis and don't have a problem taking cannabis tax revenue, but the money is not going back to the equity folks. Its an oxymoron. There are time limits on verifying equity, there are time limits on applying for licenses and all types of stuff.

AW: They’re starting to push for legislation to even put a moratorium, or to just close off the equity application process for newcomers. For me, for folks to have been criminalized for this, let’s be clear: some of these people who are equity applicants or part of the equity community are still locked up right now. There is an over-incarceration. We need to really demographically rewrite or reestablish some of that criteria because often, a lot of the folks who are getting into the equity program, you know, they’re not coming mostly from the black and brown community. 

Photo by Jennifer Skog/Success Centers

Success Centers' Liz Jackson-Simpson, left, and Angela White, right. (Image credit: Jennifer Skog)

AW: Although I think it’s a great idea, it needs to be revamped and reconsidered as far as some of the writings of it. The people who have been the hardest hit by this are not being brought in or represented in the numbers that I think should be there.

LJS: Nor do they have the network or the resources in order to be able to thrive in this environment. It costs a quarter of a million dollars to just start a storefront or any kind of element of the business. When you've been persecuted, you're living in a poor community, you don’t have that kind of money. Nor do you have access to those kinds of relationships with people who have equity.

If you’re bringing in people who are not from the hardest-hit community, of course, the investors will work with those people first because they look more like people they are accustomed to working with. The equity should focus on the ones who have been the hardest hit, who know the business from the illicit side, who are coming into the product side learning the new lingo, and building transferable skills. To me, these investors would be wise to work with equity. True equity.

A lot of that is why we created a model. To provide a platform for disparate groups to come together, to have an equity incubator, the know-how to connect through equity. There’s no space for that. They don’t get a chance to go through the application process. There is no platform by which they can present or pitch their ideas to cannabis investors, equity, or industry investors. We're trying, through our Entrepreneurship In A Nutshell curriculum, we are trying to help them put together their ideas, and present them to folks who are willing and interested or need to connect through equity.

Everybody has to be be prepared, and then somebody, that middle person, needs to help to form those relationships and identify partners in the whole deal. There is no platform for it. No one is doing it, except through the program that Success Centers offers.

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Do you receive feedback from the partners and investors who work with entrepreneurs from your program?

AW: After the program's over, I always get these statements from employers and equity industry presents, 'You have such brilliant people who are coming in, asking me questions.' But they’re not given the opportunity otherwise if we're not in the space that we are, the way that we are providing this opportunity for the leveling of the playing field.

It removes the stigma away from our community: that we’re not smart enough, that we’re not good enough. Once they see, they understand that these folks are smart enough, and probably better at certain leadership roles than them, because they’re not coming from a privileged space.

Angela White teaching a past workshop at Success Centers. Photo courtesy of Success Centers.

Angela White leading a past workshop at Success Centers. (Image credit: Success Centers)

If you could design the perfect social equity program for new cannabis-legal markets, what would you include? 

LJS: I think Angela speaks to this a lot, this is the most regulated industry ever. We do not have the same types of regulations, laws, ordinances, overseeing, construction, nothing—not even agriculture has the same kind of nuances and expectations and laws and ordinances that govern it like the cannabis industry.

So I’m hoping that some of those regulations can be relaxed for equity, that there are more opportunities for startups, loans, for the black and brown community to be able to enter. I’m hoping that it becomes a mandate where, no matter how big or small the companies are, that they have to maintain a certain percentage of equity throughout their core. Not just a few tokens. And create a pathway for career development longterm. Those are some of the things that will help people. To build real wealth within the equity community, you’ve got to open the door and you've got to create an opportunity that is intentional. 

AW: Staying true to cannabis culture, because I think we are stepping far away from that.

A hopeful, larger, ideological question for each of you: Where do you see the cannabis industry in a decade?

LJS: I am really hoping that we look and really see, who have been the trailblazers here. I was just doing a report on the jobs that are going to be lost, after this next wave of recession, and the industries and where there is significant growth potential. The areas that we are going to lose a lot of folks are in the retail space, food services space, production space. All of those things can be automated. In the cannabis industry, historically, those are the only jobs really offered to folks in the black and brown communities.

I am thinking about field trips, and even looking at the agricultural space. Who is the one putting up the irrigation system? Who understands how to set up these grows, and who is developing all the land? It's black and brown people. They know this business from seed to sale. It’s just the wealthy landowners, going back to historical slave times, that are able to benefit. Not the people who continue to do the work, continue to have the expertise and the know-how. Who gets the credit? The folks who have the monetary means to perpetuate the business, not the folks who are actively doing the work. 

These are the people who know every aspect of the business. They understand it and have been persecuted for it. I hope there is a recognition for that skill and that talent and that they will be rewarded for it. We want to be as optimistic as possible, but it's tough. History has shown these things do not necessarily work in our favor. We keep trying to demonstrate and accentuate where the innovation is coming from, where the ingenuity is coming from. We want to continue to herald that cause for the equity population.

AW: I see it thriving. But, if it goes the way it looks like right now, if it keeps on the same path, I think that equity will be excluded. Like we have in many other economies. And I often say that this may be the last frontier for a lot of us to get in on. And we deserve to be there. So, I’m hopeful that people will.

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One thing that COVID thing is going to bring out, is more of the wealth disparity and how it's affecting the black and brown communities. We're dying at alarming rates. People are saying, they did not know. How could you not know? When folks have been screaming about it, the conditions we’ve been living under, for years and years. If we want to be a better industry, a better country, we need to make some serious changes when it comes to the people who have made major sacrifices for this country and left behind and ignored. 

At Entrepreneur, we love to ask: if you had one distilled piece of advice for cannabis entrepreneurs in the space, what would be it?

LJS: I would encourage people, entrepreneurs, to follow their dreams. And not to do this for the money. It never works. Your heart has got to be into it. It not about money. If your heart is in it, you’re following your dreams, pursuing your dreams, the money will come. I would encourage folks to follow their dreams and continue to innovate.

AW: Where determination is, the way can be found. I don’t want people to give up, because we're used to getting no's. No, as Liz always says, means not right now. Not right now. In this space, you don’t have to just be a dispensary owner or a grower. There are so many different ancillary businesses. Or even being your own brand, even being an equity brand that gets in store shelves. You may have to sometimes start small, but that doesn’t exclude you.

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