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Hemp's Stigma Is Preventing It from Being a Key Part of a Green Economy

Global sustainability leaders won't recognize that hemp is a high-yielding versatile natural material, but a Saudi-American entrepreneur aims to change that.

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This week is Hemp History Week, a time to look back at where it all began, how far we've come since the Farm Bill passed, and contemplate what's next. 

Green Takeover

Hemp Week is an industry-wide initiative from June 19 to 23, supported by the Hemp Industries Association (HIA), made up of grassroots organizers, industry leaders, farmers, and advocates from all walks of life. The 1,000 plus global members of HIA work throughout the hemp supply chain, and several of them focus on research and education-focused initiatives. 

In honor of Hemp History Week, I sat down with Hebah Saddique, one of the stand-out members in the HIA. Hebah's work brings her to the epicenter of two critical global conversations: climate change and industrial hemp. 

When introduced to hemp several years ago, Hebah noticed its superior performance capabilities, tremendous environmental benefits, and economic feasibility. Still, she was disappointed to find that despite her best efforts, the argument for hemp as a catalyst for a green economy was falling on deaf ears. Global leaders heading up sustainability initiatives were letting the stigma of this plant cloud their vision for a greener tomorrow.

To chip away at this major issue, Hebah created the first-ever Carbon Literacy course to incorporate hemp. During this course, Hebah unearths several eye-opening facts, explaining how growing hemp plays a vital role in cleaning our soil, absorbing enormous amounts of carbon from our atmosphere, and reducing dependence on toxic chemicals.

Here, Hebah explains her journey and all of the pivotal moments and lessons learned leading up to the creation of Green Takeover, a company striving to increase global climate literacy, and above all else, inspire action.

What got you into the hemp industry? 

In 2014, I had seven years of startup leadership experience under my belt, building company infrastructures and directing finance and operations. I had successfully launched the first financial literacy program in Saudi Arabia, and I started a business to help visionaries with a dream bring it to life by offering business planning services. My second client was CBD moisturizer company that had just won a pitch competition and needed a business plan. This was the first I heard of CBD or hemp. I said, yes, of course, and then spent endless hours researching and peeling layer after layer of hemp's history. My client got the funding for her startup, which was less than one year old at that time, but my thirst for learning more about hemp and its seemingly never-ending benefits didn't stop there. I spent the next five years deepening my knowledge and teaching entrepreneurs what I learned and hosting events and workshops showing how others can adopt it in their work by aligning it with their business plans. I collaborated with my client on experiential events every year since, including Hemp History Week, and helped her activate her initiative Hemptober. 

Around this time, I was also working as Finance & Operations Director with a non-profit, unearthing global insights on how our world can forge a more sustainable future. Our team conducted original research on microplastic pollution in tap water worldwide and its presence in bottled water. When our research team at the University of Minnesota used a star-counting app to assess the amount of microplastics in bottled water, I was hit with the scale of the problem. We also produced another project on the impacts of rising sea levels - and how floods in Florida made tomatoes more expensive across the country. 

I continued to immerse myself in the world of climate change to understand the intricate web of cause-effect activities and decipher the intersections with our global economy. The closer I looked, I found that we, as global professionals, were tackling each problem in isolation rather than looking for integrative solutions across disciplines that address the root cause of the crisis.

Our team of world-renowned executives and professionals were shying away and ignoring hemp, a high-yielding versatile natural material, because of a 100-year-old bad reputation. 

This was the point where climate change, changed me. In 2019, I committed to dedicating my career and expertise to help solve this crisis. I leaped that same year to work full time for myself, and Green Takeover was born.

What was your most successful professional accomplishment before hemp?

My last full-time role was as Finance & Operations Director at a non-profit journalism organization unearthing global insights on how our world can forge a more sustainable future. We were developing a new methodology of reporting that fuses data science with investigative journalism. It's a 5 - 6 months non-linear process to produce each story that involves many intricate dependencies and constructive debate milestones around how we communicate data findings to ensure scientific integrity. What makes a "good story" from a journalistic lens often isn't aligned with data standards on reporting results and findings. 

We were funded with a contingency to produce 6 of these in-depth stories in 12 months and needed a comprehensive development plan to align and integrate the work of our data science and investigative journalism teams. The most important part of making this work was designing a development plan that identifies data and editorial integration points and dependencies then being proactive in directing the process. If we had approached each story through a linear approach, we would have been putting out fires all year and quickly burned through our budget in rework.

At the beginning of the year, I immersed myself in the individual steps of the various lengthy processes then designed an integrative development process with strict timelines, which we adhered to for the next 12 months.

We met our target of successfully publishing all six stories within 12 months while producing stories that adhered to both editorial and scientific community standards. The microplastic pollution piece alone reached 1.7 million viewers in 24 hours. And partnering with agenda-setting global media led to coverage in 27+ countries.

What obstacles and challenges have you experienced in operating within this industry?

The stigma linking hemp to marijuana deafens professional audiences working in sustainability from the enormous benefits this plant has to tackle the climate crisis and enhance, even accelerate, efforts towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It's blinding them from recognizing one of the most powerful, scalable, assets in our toolbox.

It's also been challenging to demonstrate to those not involved in "sustainability" why they should care and how it's relevant to their work to adopt a green mindset today for their own future success.

How have you overcome these obstacles?

Through finding common language and concepts as a starting point for conversation and education as well as prioritizing experiential immersive opportunities that engage audiences.

Partnering with others in the industry to produce experiential events allowed audiences to physically interact with hemp products and played a huge role in helping them shift their perspectives about the plant. It allowed them to see and feel and touch (and even smell) hemp fabrics, bioplastics, and building materials and significantly altered their perspectives. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we've had to find new ways to demonstrate it online. 

I've also added climate literacy as a core component to my business mission to help highlight the problems we need to address before showing them how and why hemp can help. Though, overall it's an ongoing challenge that I continue to work on every day. 

In what accomplishment do you take the most pride?

It was a huge honor for me to be the opening speaker at the Congressional Black Caucus's first Cannabis Symposium and share a panel afterward with pioneers in the field. I'm also proud of accrediting the first-ever Carbon Literacy Certification course that talks about hemp's role in solving the climate crisis and being the first US-designed course accredited by the award-winning Carbon Literacy Project in the UK.

On a personal note, as a Saudi-American, I'm proud to have created the first hemp Abaya ever made.

What was your greatest lesson learned?

We have a long way to go with hemp education and awareness. And before we even begin to talk about hemp's myriad performance and environmental benefits, we need to start with a fundamental layer of climate change 101. There's a lot of confusion around the differences between global warming, climate change, sustainability, plastic pollution, and so on. Add to that the most recent topic gaining attention—soil health, and it all seems overwhelming, distant, confusing, and too big to tackle. It also seems to place blame on "others" for creating this mess. Explaining hemp's benefits gets lost in the conversation.

My 9th-grade biology teacher once told me: "Understanding the question properly is half the solution." We need to simplify the problem we are trying to solve before we begin to introduce solutions. Whether it be hemp or even climate action, we need mass education across sectors, disciplines, and professions that help people understand the root of the problem in a way that makes it click. We need to spark many climate change "aha moments" so that innovative solutions come from within people instead of just asking them to follow specific actions.

What trait do you rely on most when making business decisions and why is this useful for you?  

Growing up in a household with a ​Dr.​ of Pharmacology and a Social Worker working in a mental health institution, our dinner conversations were stories from mom and dad's work. I listened to their cases from the day and heard constant debates between my parents about if certain characteristics are "genetic or learned" behaviors. I understood from a young age that there are many factors affecting humans, be it how the body functions physiology, behaviorally, or psychologically. I learned you must explore and analyze beyond the surface of what things seem to grasp what things are. After 15 years in the hearts and minds of businesses running finance and operations, and with the climate crisis looming, I applied that same analysis to the macroeconomy.

I also apply this mindset to my work daily. While my brain pulls from over a decade of on-the-job experiences that taught me what quality, teamwork, and impactful action look like, my gut pulls from my character, imagination, and profound appreciation for visual and written art. I believe activating both are essential for progress, though following my gut is what keeps me inspired and passionate about waking up every day, thrilled to be doing what I do. Even on days when I fail, it's what keeps me going.