Episode 27: WERKIN with Christine De La Rosa on growing a more equitable cannabis industry

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Christine De La Rosa, entrepreneur and social justice activist, never saw herself as someone who would use cannabis. While managing the symptoms of chronic disease, many friends recommended she consider a medical cannabis prescription, legal in her home state of California in the United States. “I don't have time to be high,” she would respond, even as the side effects of the eleven medications she was on seemed to outweigh the pain management they provided.

Eventually, De La Rosa gave it a try, and her medical cannabis prescription seemed to address the symptoms her other prescriptions could not. As a longtime small business-owner and community activist in Oakland, De La Rosa was curious about the booming cannabis industry (California voters legalized recreational marijuana use in 2016, 20 years after the state became the first to legalize medical marijuana).

On this week’s episode of the WERKIN with podcast, Hayley talks with Christine, founder of The People’s Dispensary about being an unconventional small business owner, social activism as a business plan and what her mentors taught her about growing an equitable industry. Read excerpts from the interview below.

Hayley: So I'm here today with Christine De La Rosa, CEO and founder of the People's Dispensary. I love their story. Christine, tell me all about the People's Dispensary. What is it?

Christine: The People's Dispensary is exactly what it says, it's a cannabis dispensary. We're located in California, and in Oregon with a view to expand across states to the East Coast. We sell all different types of cannabis, flower cannabis, tinctures, drops, edibles. Any way you can configure cannabis. We sell it. That's what we do. 

What I love about your model is it really puts profits back into the community. Could you give us a little bit more detail around uniqueness of your business model? 

We created this business as four friends,  four founders, all LGBTQ. Seventy five percent women, seventy five percent people of color. We built this dispensary from nothing, we didn't take any loans, we didn't have any venture capital, it was just us, pulling our coins together. We knew there was a lot of money in cannabis, but none of us had experience with the industry. We had other businesses though, we work as a group [of business owners]. We're called the Super Friends in Oakland because we've had a couple of restaurants, retail shops, art galleries and a salon. We're always opening businesses.

When we realized there was so much money in the cannabis industry, we wondered, "How are we not helping all levels of people [working in and consuming cannabis] to be lifted by all the money this industry creates?" We realized that we had opportunity to create an equitable framework for cannabis.

“How do we create a business that is equitable on all levels, not just for owners, but for workers and customers, and so we came up with and equitable framework?”

In the United States, to invest in the stock market as an individual, you have to be an accredited investor, which means you have to have made $200,000, two consecutive years prior to your investment, or have a million dollars in liquid cash. This is how many black and brown people, queer people, gay people couldn't invest in my company, my mother couldn't invest my company. We don't have that kind of money, and that's how we don't get to create generational wealth.

We could create generational wealth for people of color, we decided to sell our shares for a dollar, in the hopes that we would build a strong and profitable company, and when we have an IPO, people who put in $1,000 can make e a $50,000 return on a thousand dollar investment. This is how you create generational wealth in communities that don't normally don’t create that kind of wealth.

If I came to work for you tomorrow, what would be the first thing I'd notice about the way you do things at the People's Dispensary and your other ventures?

The very first thing that you would notice is the sense of community, a feeling that you belong. One of the things that made our Oakland dispensary so popular, we're tiny, like the size of a one-car garage, and surrounding us, are eight huge dispensaries. Why do we have 4,000 dispensary members that come for us when they can go to any of these larger dispensaries? It's because when you come in, you see diversity, you see yourself. You see queer people, trans people, black people, brown people, white people, all different kinds of people behind our counters. 

The second thing you see is we are able to talk about cannabis in a very intelligent way. All of our budtenders, the people that sell the cannabis, get trained and understand what they're selling. When they're talking to people, it's not a transactional business for us. 

We really talk to our clientele, and that is one of the reasons we've become so popular. We have a customer service that a lot of the other places don't have. And we know our people. We have 4,000 dispensary members, but I could name many of them. I remember them, our budtenders are the same way. It is just an inclusive space. That this is where businesses should be going.

Mentorship is something we really care here about at WERKIN. Can you tell me a little bit about what role mentorship has played in your own career?

I've had really great mentors, to be honest with you. All throughout my life, whether it was in college or the first job I had, or the first businesses I opened. Mentorship has helped me to turn my vision into something.

I have a vision, but you may have a vision, and not know how to funnel that vision to a point where you actually create something. Mentors are really good at seeing that you have a vision, or an idea, and help you execute that idea. Mentorship has really helped me do that. My mentors have said "let's put that in a framework.”

It's been really helpful, and sometimes incredibly painful. Sometimes, I don't like the framework, and mentors say "burn it down and create a new framework." And that's basically what I've done with this business, along with my other co-founders. We've burned down this idea that industry can only be one way, greedy, right?

What’s really exciting about cannabis for me is that cannabis comes from people of color. It comes from black and brown communities. It's been grown in black and brown communities all the way back to our ancestry in Mexico, in Africa, in China, where cannabis has been utilized as medicine for centuries. 

For the first time, we are part of it. We're at the beginning part of it. We've always been the workers, but never the people that have set the standard. In the cannabis industry, for the very first time, we have an ability to set an industry standard based in equity. We're at the beginning. We're not in the middle, we're not at the end.

Mentorship for me, has been: How do I do that without knowing the pathway to do that? Mentorship really helped me to get that done. 

Wow. So your mentors really helped you point the light in the right direction, and then you're just going for it, essentially.

One of my favorite lines is from [my mentor,] Marcus [Glover, Cofounder of Southbox Ventures], whom I met on a trip to the Cayman Islands to speak about impact investing. I had never been around that much money, that many billionaires. It was really crazy to me. All of these events where you could eat and drink for free. I was thinking about Oakland, where we have a huge homeless population, it is so hard for them to get five dollars for coffee, and I'm sitting here with billionaires who are not having to pay for all the wine and liquor, and fish and shrimp they're eating. Marcus is sitting next to me and he saw my face as I was thinking, “this is insane.” And he leaned over very nonchalantly and he said, "you have to be on the death star, to blow up the death star."

For more on how impact investing can be like boarding the Death Star, listen Hayley’s full interview with Christine De La Rosa above or on SoundCloud or iTunes.

Are you a part of the LGBTQ+ community in New York or London and looking for a mentor or mentee? Sign up for our WorldPride Global Mentoring Programme here!