Bridging Cultures and Industries - Q&A with Stillwater Brand's Nikki Kujawski
In this series, Ophelia Chong, co-founder of Asian Americans for Cannabis Education, mines critical advice from the most powerful Asian American entrepreneurs in the cannabis space today.
I chatted with Nikki Kujawski, Senior Brand Manager at Stillwater Brands, on the phone and as the hour went by, I was inspired by this young vibrant intelligent woman.
Kujawski, with the love of her adopted parents, has bridged not only two cultures but she also built a bridge between the food industry and the edible cannabis industry with her flair and grace.
In her own words, Kujawski speaks to her career evolution from the food industry to the cannabis industry, the challenges brand marketers in the space may face, and how cannabis consumption helps her find balance in the chaos of the world.
Tell me about how you got into cannabis, and what industry you came from?
Nikki Kujawski: What is wonderful about being able to bridge two worlds is that many times you can bring a new life into your new space from your old. I certainly saw that growing up with white parents as they embraced and enjoyed many of our cultural discoveries and continue to authentically use them in their lives well after my brother and I have moved away. Similarly, with my move from the food industry to the cannabis industry, I was able to use my heightened understanding of flavors, tastes, and industry knowledge to give feedback on product development and execute flavor focus groups. In general, I strive to bring those who differ closer with similarities and I am very fortunate that both cannabis and food are two very powerful vehicles for that.
Significantly from the guidance of my parents, I have always been taught to live with empathy and understanding, to attempt to see the world through others' viewpoints. Being a mixed-race family, there are judgments based on stereotypes and biases constantly that you must face from a young age. It can be tiring to always put understanding and educating first, especially when questions like "Yeah, well is he your real brother?" or "Why do you think your parents didn't want you?" can sound very hurtful. We were taught to educate others on the non-offensive way to ask the question for the next time they spoke with an adoptee and help others to have a better education on something that they may just not have known previously instead of returning the question with the anger or annoyance that you might have felt at the time.
How have your views on cannabis changed?
When I was younger, I was a rule follower. In high school, I once broke up with my boyfriend because he was smoking and I was scared of getting caught. Shortly after that, during college, I found cannabis. And I have become a better, more productive, and healthier person by embracing it and breaking through the stoner stereotypes. I am naturally a high-intensity person. I speak loudly and quickly, think too many thoughts at once, and it can be a challenge for me to relax and enjoy individual moments.
Moving to Colorado (from NYC!) helped me to relax a bit, but it also helped me to embrace cannabis and what it can do for me. By learning about different strains and my body's reaction to different types of consumables, I have been able to craft my consumption in a way that yields a hard-working, mentally healthier, happier, and calmer version of myself.
What was the impetus of that change?
In college, a time where being social is of the utmost importance, I quickly recognized that while I loved being social, I didn’t like how I felt when I consumed alcohol. Being that it was my first introduction to a mind-altering drug, I learned a lot from it. Mostly that I wasn’t a fan of it. I didn’t like feeling like I wasn’t in control, forgetting things from the night before, or how it made me speak even faster and louder if that were even possible. It was the same experience when I began playing with caffeine to help fuel my long nights and overflowing calendar of commitments. I was so sensitive to it, and I would feel negative effects, such as difficulty concentrating, if I didn’t closely monitor to make sure I wasn’t consuming too much. So I went in search of something better for me, and I landed on cannabis.
Just like any substance, it took trial and error, finding the right amounts, types, and situations—but ultimately, I have crafted a lifestyle enhanced by cannabis. It helps me personally navigate this hectic world a little easier.
How did you enter the cannabis industry?
I found the listing for Stillwater Brands on a job board a few weeks after quitting my job in NYC and moving to Denver with my partner. I was in complete disbelief as I read the job description that a company of this nature even existed: water-soluble, THC-infused organic tea? Two things that I loved so passionately mixed into one? Prior to leaving NY, I was working at Sea Food Media, a food-focused production company and kitchen studio in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I spent hours perfecting the image of a single food dish, produced countless food videos, and embraced my love and deep admiration for food as a vehicle for conversation, cultural exploration, and connection. I immediately applied for the job at Stillwater and ended up being one of the company’s earliest hires.
Did you do research into cannabis before entering?
A ton. I not only researched the company that I was looking into joining, but the industry as a whole, the projections of where it was going, and the biases that exist in it. I remember messaging one of my professional mentors and asking if I should be concerned about negative repercussions to my career if this opportunity were to not work out, as the food industry is known for being an old school industry. I was cautious and calculated, but ultimately my passion for the cannabis industry made the decision a no brainer.
How does your family feel about your cannabis businesses?
I am incredibly lucky that my family is extremely supportive of my career and my passion for cannabis. That is not to say that they did not have a long list of questions when I mentioned this career path, but I have amazing parents who always want the best for me. Being an adopted Korean American growing up with a Korean American brother and two caucasian parents, my family always focused on our cultural education—and food was a major focus there.
My parents are both incredible cooks and my father comes from a food science background. We were taught to taste, smell, explore, and not be limited to our cultural understanding of food as Americans, but to learn from and about others who were different.
My father makes great kimchi and bulgogi, and his exploration of Korean cooking was always inspiring to me, and a way for us to feel connected as we learned this new skill. I believe that because of our normal dialogues about race, culture, food, and community, it was an easier conversation for us to have as I entered the cannabis space. They are always willing to hear my rationale for decisions and respect them if they are in my best interests.
What is the most frequent question you are asked about cannabis?
“What is the difference between THC and CBD?” One of the roles that I have been honored to step into for my friends and family has been that of the cannabis expert. I think many folks in the industry have a similar story—once others hear about your profession, you become the person to call about anything cannabis-related. Friends frequently email me all of the lists that the FDA releases on CBD companies breaking federal regulations hoping that my company is not listed because they do not understand that THC and CBD companies operate under different regulations. My colleague was once called and put on speakerphone for all of her mother’s baby boomer friends so they could ask endless questions about cannabis and the industry in a safe space.
I see it as an honor because every single one of those conversations is helping me break the stigma about what a stoner is, who consumes cannabis, and what that means (or doesn’t) about you. I am excited and humbled every single time I get to walk someone through their first interaction with cannabis in hopes that I might be introducing them to something that can help them in some aspect of their life. And it doesn’t always have to be a medical reason; a solid reason is that they need a more consistent and reliable way to relax or celebrate. I strive to create a welcoming and honest environment for anyone with questions about cannabis—and sometimes that means answering with, “I just don’t know yet.” My friend Han and I are currently working on launching a podcast focused on breaking stereotypes around cannabis, food, cultural differences, and Asians—to do this on a larger platform.
What is your favorite way of ingesting cannabis?
Daily? Smoking. For me, cannabis is part of my routine. I enjoy the routine of rolling a joint, or my favorite method of consumption, a blunt. I enjoy sharing my cannabis with my partner, so we like to cap each day with a celebratory joint as we mentally shift from work mode to regular life. However, as I mentioned, I use cannabis very specifically and vary my strains, doses, consumption methods, etc. based on what I am doing at the time. My favorite edible, Ripple, is my go-to for concerts, hiking, or anything that would involve nature or large amounts of people. For me, having a product that I can consume with my regular food/beverage routine is crucial for creating a great experience for times when smoking isn’t an option or ideal.