Next month Brendon Robinson and Stanley Okoro of 420 NJ Events are launching the pilot of their new educational program, the Minority Cannabis Academy. With this program, they offer New Jersey residents a point of access to the state's rapidly expanding Cannabis Market!
About Brendon Robinson, Stanley Okoro, and 420 NJ Events
Brendon Robinson and Stanley Okoro are childhood friends turned business partners. Their lifelong friendship formed around two things: “Cannabis and Loyalty,” according to their website. They decided to channel those aspects into a business partnership after transitioning out of corporate banking, securities, and logistics industries. Their company, 420 NJ Events, is a digital media and event platform whose mission is to raise awareness of the benefits of cannabis. They create opportunities for New Jersey residents to learn how to navigate the rapidly progressing cannabis market. They specifically focus on advocating for groups disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs, laying a foundation for a diverse sector in the future of the state's cannabis market. In the past, they have held events such as an expungement clinic in Newark to educate New Jersey residents about the changes in NJ cannabis law. Legalization of adult-use cannabis first appeared on the NJ ballot in 2019, but was unsuccessful until November 3, 2020. The state has been approving recreational licenses since the beginning of the year, and launched retail sales officially on April 20th 2022.
“We did an expungement clinic in Newark in September of 2021 and expunged seventy-eight records,” Robinson said. “In October of 2021, we gave 25 individuals free Chromebooks, free headshots, free resumes, and free Business Expo tickets. In February of 2022, we provided about a hundred people with medical marijuana cards in Jersey for free. We didn't just pay the doctors; we paid the state.”
He continued, “When you do what Stanley and I have done, you talk to the people and you get to understand what they're looking for and what they need. We've done a really good job of filling those holes, and as we get ready to launch the Minority Cannabis Academy, we want the general cannabis industry to understand what this is going to be. This is going to change the industry. We're super excited about that and we want them to get behind it.”
Robinson and Okoro are Opening Doors for the Community with The Minority Cannabis Academy
The pair behind 420 NJ Events will soon be expanding their educational repertoire to include the Minority Cannabis Academy (MCA), a free resource for those looking to learn about potential roles in the rapidly growing New Jersey cannabis market. The program is a non-profit workforce development program aimed at creating a more diverse workforce in the state's cannabis industry. In collaboration with Shaya Brodchandel, CEO of New Jersey’s Harmony Dispensary, the 420 NJ Events team will be offering cannabis industry-related work training. This June, the program’s pilot will offer 8-week courses on budtending and cannabis cultivation for their first class of 25 students from Jersey City, Newark, and Irvington at Harmony Dispensary’s Jersey City location.
The MCA will provide a pathway for individuals that want to begin in the industry by working at a dispensary or cultivation facility. They plan to launch the program with three additional courses covering cannabis entrepreneurship, marketing, and law in the future. The MCA’s curriculum will ultimately help prepare minorities interested in the cannabis industry for various roles, including top-level CEOs, store managers, and cultivation directors. The MCA is making a powerful statement by focusing on bringing people from the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs into the cannabis industry as business owners and professionals. Their work continues to push the state to remember how crucial it is to build social equity into the foundation of the market, as a way to repair the damage done by decades of over-policing their communities. In correlation with the legalization of adult use, the state of NJ passed the CREAMM Act, which includes measures such as the expungement of people’s records for certain prior marijuana-related offenses. It also "directs the State Legislature to reinvest revenue from cannabis sales to initiatives such as financial support for individuals in Impact Zones".
Honeysuckle had an opportunity to chat with both Robinson and Okoro about 420 NJ Events and their most recent development, the Minority Cannabis Academy.
Honeysuckle Interviews 420 NJ Events Co-Founders Brendon Robinson and Stanley Okoro
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: Tell us about your partnership and what led you guys to found 420 NJ Events.
BRENDON ROBINSON: Stan and I have known each other since we could come outside. That's my brother. We've been friends our whole life–we grew up together and did everything together. We’ve always motivated and pushed each other to be great. Stan did his thing in the securities and logistics industry, and I did mine in the business banking industry. Both of us were very successful, and around 2017, Stan had the idea to start building out a cannabis platform for New Jersey. That's when Governor Murphy was first elected, and he promised to make cannabis legal in the first hundred days. It didn't get legalized that year, so we stayed with our jobs when nothing happened. Fast forward to 2020, it does get legalized, and around that same time, I ended up losing my job at the bank due to Covid. Stan said, “Listen, man, let's take this cannabis thing seriously.” At first, I wasn’t sure, and it felt like an uphill battle. He's like, “Let's just go after it.”
So we take 420 NJ Events, and we just run with it. We put our own money into it and hired minority writers. We wanted to keep it very cultural and give folks educational experiences they could rely on as this market was opening up. I’ll be honest with you; I was blown away. People were responding left and right. They said things like, “My husband, who doesn't like to smoke, has PTSD, and because of your articles and newsletters he's actually open to trying different things now.” We were actually making a difference!
Things took off for us when we got our first gig with 420 NJ Events with a company called Leafy Green Agency. They had a master class in Newark, and we went there for our first media gig, but we left [feeling] very [disappointed]. The master class went over how to get licensed in New Jersey. It can cost upwards of a million dollars to get that done. Immediately we wondered how our people were going to get access to this industry. That was a year ago, and the Minority Cannabis Academy was born in the car that day.
How has the recent legislative progress in NJ affected your business?
ROBINSON: It really accelerated it. Stanley and I wanted to provide a workforce development program that can cater to minorities and disenfranchised communities with the Minority Cannabis Academy. Our program would allow them to get into the cannabis industry and stay in it. The adult-use implementation just accelerated that piece. Now you have dispensaries that have seven or eight times as many clients. You need more jobs. You need more education. You need more trained and ready people to go right there on the spot. The MCA provides comprehensive, in-person, hands-on training. We offer background checks ahead of time. We provide all these things that employers will need but don’t have as much time to do themselves. With adult-use making the customer base grow so fast, employers can rely on organizations like ours for their staffing needs. On the flip side of things, the adult-use coming out woke a lot of our community up to the fact that cannabis is legal. I think it got people interested in running their own businesses as well.
What does the Minority Cannabis Academy (MCA) have to offer?
ROBINSON: What we are doing right now with the MCA is our pilot program. We scoured New Jersey, particularly in high-impact zones, such as the communities in North Jersey. We wanted to bring 25 individuals into our program, which is entirely free. It's a scholarship program that we are doing in partnership with Harmony Dispensary. The program is eight weeks in person, meeting twice a week. The students will be coming in on Mondays and Thursdays to the dispensary in Jersey City. Subject matter experts are teaching them hands-on lessons on budtending and cultivation. The biggest thing for us was to give them that hands-on experience with individuals they could trust.
Because if we're going to go to these MSOs (multi-state operators), asking them to get behind us from a funding perspective, we have to make sure that we're giving the best product possible to our students. We also make sure our students have the best opportunity possible to sustain themselves in this constantly evolving industry. It's crucial to have them educated in those two particular fields right away, but eventually, the MCA will launch early next year with more to offer. We're going to have the two courses mentioned earlier, cultivation and bud ending, and new classes such as an entrepreneurship course. We’ll also have an extraction and processing course, and we're going to have medical marijuana and cannabis law courses. Those will be our five standard courses, and we're going to work with those MSO operators and the state to get funding and put these individuals through the program on a scholarship.
We're urging people to join our waiting list because when we launch in 2023, we’ll be going through our waiting list to vet potential scholarship recipients for the program. We want people to join that waiting list, so we know they want the help.
What do you hope to accomplish with the academy?
ROBINSON: It’s tri-fold because we wanted to look at a couple of different things. First, we want to create a bridge between the community and the larger operators. Too often, you see these large operators come into these neighborhoods making hundreds of millions of dollars when individuals in that neighborhood lost family members due to the same thing they are making all this money off of. We gotta make that right!
Second, we want to empower our people. You can't be a CEO without knowing what you're doing. Nowhere else do you see a person walk into an industry without knowledge of it from a legal perspective and become a CEO. So we've got to educate them.
And the third thing is just giving people opportunities who want to be in the cannabis industry. If you wish to budtend, cultivate or work in an ancillary industry. Maybe you want to do cannabis marketing. You want to be involved in cannabis. You love cannabis, but you don’t know where to start. The MCA can help you. That’s what we hope to accomplish with our three primary missions.
How important are initiatives like these in terms of diversity and equity in cannabis?
ROBINSON: I think it's critical. When you think about New Jersey and where we are right now, you realize we're only getting this one time. We’re only getting the legalization of cannabis at one time. We’re only getting an opportunity to prioritize applications one time. We sometimes miss that as municipalities are opting in or out, there's only so much real estate. You can have unlimited licenses, but there are only so many places you can go. And then, when you think about the job opportunities, once you hire these people, your job is to keep them there. So as we're building this workforce, what better time to have a company like Minority Cannabis Academy where you have all these students who are eager, and who've been through a rigorous process. They’ve shown you that they want this really bad. You can come to MCA and hire these folks, and they will bring on the next generation. In five to ten years, we will have a diverse and inclusive marketplace. That’s why this is critical right now.
Do you have a nug of advice for those curious about working in the cannabis industry or becoming new consumers?
ROBINSON: For the person who wants to work in the industry, be prepared to work and work hard. The problem and the beauty of cannabis are that there’s no playbook. There's no handbook or guide, and we're learning on the fly. You've got to believe in yourself, your brand, your mission, and your partners. That's probably the secondary piece, I would add, building a solid team. Me and Stan, we couldn't have done this without each other–mentally, physically, or spiritually. It's just too much. You've got to build a team that you can trust. You've got to build a team with the same passion you have. It's going to work just as hard as you're going to work. There have been twenty-hour days, seven days a week, and we love it. But it's tough. And I think that too often because it is such a great thing to experience as a consumer, we assume that that will be the same vibe working in cannabis. And it's not. It's hard work. It's rigorous. It's stressful. You can smoke away from the stress, and we do a lot of that. But it's still stressful.
STANLEY OKORO: For new consumers, I’d say start slow. If cannabis is new, you don't want to overdo it and then have a bad experience that turns you off from cannabis. That furthers the stigma of cannabis. I would say definitely explore it. It's beautiful, but start slow and then change your pace. Just don't overdo it right.