Who is Christie Hefner?
Originated from one of the most storied legacies in American history, Christie Hefner - former Playboy CEO, current environmental activist, health care revolutionary, women’s rights advocate and more - has absorbed all of the birthrights from her father, the late Hugh Hefner. Hugh Hefner was one of the most notorious creators and activists to have ever lived, an animal lover and human rights activist, a fighter for First Amendment rights, sex rights, cannabis justice, and Playboy creator — Christie has evolved her birthrights into a spectacular oasis of intelligence, grace and most importantly, action.
As the keynote speaker at the inaugural MJ Unpacked conference during Las Vegas Cannabis Week, Christie wowed the crowd, moderating a panel with actors-turned-cannabis entrepreneurs Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi that she introduced by saying, “This panel should be called Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll.” In her fitted black dress, black pumps and black Blues Brothers sunglasses, she looked every bit a rock star as the men on the stage.
When we spoke in her Delano suite, Christie filled me in on all things Hefner. After achieving the title of longest-working female CEO in history during her tenure at Playboy, she is now involved in advising and investing in a wide array of companies. From recycling ocean plastics, to women’s rights and supporting female entrepreneurs, she is an advocate and pioneer in wellness and the cannabis space. We were honored to spend so much time with her for this Honeysuckle Exclusive.
Watch Honeysuckle's full interview with Christie Hefner:
Indivisible ties: The Business of Cannabis and Healthcare
RONIT PINTO: How did you come to be involved with MJ Unpacked?
CHRISTIE HEFNER: I've [often] been asked to do conversations with Jim [Belushi] at conferences because he's now been a grower for five years and in the last couple years has transitioned to building a portfolio of brands in the cannabis space. And he’s serious about the industry, the healing properties of the plant and also the social justice aspects of ending the War on Drugs. And because Danny Aykroyd and Jim had committed to doing a benefit concert for Last Prisoner Project, [MJ Unpacked] had the idea that I could have a conversation on stage with Jim and Danny.
When did you become a proponent of cannabis?
I was on the board of the Playboy Foundation from the '70s on and got involved with NORML [National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws]. We did some benefits for them, I went to some of their conferences, and then in the more recent years, I’ve worked with the Drug Policy Alliance, helping them build a network of supporters as they've worked to move from a criminal justice punitive model to a health model in terms of drug issues. And I'm chairman of the Hugh Hefner Foundation, which was set up as kind of an extension of work that my dad had done and one of the pillars of that is around drug reform too.
You’re now on the advisory board of Fyllo, a cannabis compliance and marketing company. What’s most interesting for you there?
So Fyllo has two complementary businesses, both of which involve data that it syndicates. One type of data is about compliance regulatory information. So they have the ability to get, in real-time, updates on what all localities and states are doing, whether it's around hours of dispensaries or packaging requirements, so that anybody who is involved in the cannabis business whether they're an operator, retailer, investor or law firm, can subscribe and make sure that they are aware of what's happening in terms of the legal framework. The other and probably, ultimately, the more valuable business is they also have agreements to gather point of sale information about consumer purchases. And through that, build a database of customers, and segmented in different ways based on the kind of products that customers are buying.
Would you categorize your interest as primarily in healthcare but also in criminal justice and civil rights reform?
I would say they're inextricably linked. You could start with just the premise that criminalizing marijuana made no sense in terms of law enforcement resources, in terms of putting people in prison, in terms of what the priorities ought to be, given that it's a victimless crime. But part and parcel of that is that it kept us as a society from learning more, earlier, about the healing power of the plant in ways that had we not had it as a Schedule I drug, had we been doing the research on the drug as we do research all the time on drugs, and learn the ways it could be used to help — whether it's a traumatic brain injury, PTSD, cancer or Parkinson's or anxiety. We might have avoided some of the opioid crisis, that we paid a huge and are still paying a huge price for in terms of human life.
The Careful Business and Strategic Evolution of Healthcare
What’s your prediction for the future of holistic health?
I think we're moving in the right direction. There's a much greater awareness of the idea that health is not just the absence of illness, that health is about how you feel. But where we have really fallen woefully short of any meaningful progress is in our healthcare system. We really don't have a healthcare system, we have a sick care system. Now, it's the world's best sick care system. If someone [in another country] needs a procedure and they have a lot of money, they come to the United States. We have the best doctors, and the best hospitals, and the best treatments. That's part of what we should be doing, providing intervention for people. Although we should be providing it at a much more affordable price.
But what we don't do at all is actually have a system that encourages prevention, and staying healthy. If the doctor spends a half-hour with you talking about behavior modifications that would help you sleep better, there's no money from the insurance company for that. If the doctor gives you a prescription, there's money from the insurance company for that.
We reward people for procedures, not for keeping people healthy.
You’re Board Director for the Healthwell Acquisition SPAC, which recently raised $250 million. It’s wonderful to hear that the CEO and CFO are women and there are a number of women on Healthwell’s board as well. How did you gravitate toward healthcare?
I did work with Canyon Ranch, first on their board, and then as a strategic advisor. And while they're not a healthcare company, they really were an early pioneer in healthy living and wellness. They had a real appreciation, before many others did, of how dispositive lifestyle choices are on our health outcomes. I think there used to be a view that a lot of health outcomes were basically genetically predetermined. But we also now know enough to know that the whole field of epigenetics is predicated on that our lifestyle choices either enhance or suppress the likelihood of genes being activated. So if I'm a smoker or not, if I get enough sleep, if I exercise, if I eat healthy, those are honestly more important than the genetic makeup that you were born with.
It sounds like Newlight Technologies is doing awesome work in terms of environmental wellness too. Can you tell us more about how you work with them?
It's based out in Huntington Beach. They've spent more than a decade figuring out how to turn the extraction of methane from the atmosphere into molecules that then can be made into completely ocean biodegradable plastic. There have been other products produced over the years that are good for the planet, as opposed to petroleum-based plastic, but they've always been at such a premium price that you're not going to get to any scale with them. So [Newlight] finally cracked the code.
Then they built their own manufacturing facility. And now we're going to market with the product. We decided to start in the foodware space because that's a big contributor of the problems: Straws, cutlery, cups. So instead of those paper straws that are good for the planet, but get soggy, these straws are incredibly durable [and reusable]. We have deals with Steak 'n Shake and Target and with some airlines, and we're rolling out the product. So that's been a really fun company to work with because it's very innovative and is very mission-focused.
You have so many business proposals coming across your desk. How do you select which projects to get involved in?
I have four questions that I ask when I'm approached about being involved with a company. The first is, would I like to have a long dinner with the people I'm going to work with? And if the answer is no, then that pretty much tells me that that's not something I want to do. I want to choose who I work with, and I want them to be people I really enjoy spending time with. Then the second question is, do I find the business genuinely of interest? Usually, if the answer to that is yes, it's because they're doing something innovative, disruptive, different.
The next question is, do I think I can help them? And the last question is, will I learn something new? Early on when I left running Playboy Enterprises, I made the conscious decision to not go narrow and deep and say, ‘Okay, I could spend the rest of my life helping media entertainment brand companies,’ and I definitely do some of that. But it would be intellectually interesting if I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. And I'm really happy that I made that decision because I definitely enjoy the diversity of industry and size of the company and ownership structure and geography and where the company is in its lifecycle. But I also have come to believe that it engenders a kind of intellectual agility that makes me better at what I do.
Representation in the Boardroom: True Gender Equality in Business
It seems that representation is also a deciding factor for you when working with companies. You were a founding member of the Committee of 200, the membership organization for the world’s most powerful women in business. What other work are you doing to support female leadership?
On the networking side, there are three organizations that I've helped start that I'm involved with. One is the Committee of 200, which has half of its membership as entrepreneurial women and half corporate women. Then there's the Chicago Network, which is not just businesswomen, but women in any field. It could be media, the arts, government, healthcare.
The last one is a group called Women Corporate Directors, and there we work to get more women on boards. So that's been an interest of mine for many decades. And we had a great year last year in terms of the percentage of women and people of color who went on boards, which was actually above 50% for the first time. Currently, there only 22% of women are directors.
Then there's a wonderful nonprofit I work with called Springboard Enterprises, an accelerator for women tech entrepreneurs. Women with technology-forward business ideas compete in what Springboard calls not shark tanks, but dolphin tanks because as we like to say, we swim with you. The women who get into the program are helped to refine their business plan and model, and what the organization looks like, and how they're going to go to market with whatever their product is. But also, they really are good at helping them raise money because there's still a huge gap on the venture side of how much money goes to women-led companies, compared to companies led by men. It's actually around like 5%.
You’re also one of the founders of EMILY’s List, the largest national resource group to fund women political candidates. What have you learned from that side of fundraising?
That acronym, EMILY, stands for “Early money is like yeast”: It makes the dough rise. So the whole premise behind EMILY's List was recognition that women candidates were having a harder time raising early money. If you can't raise early money in a race, then you can't hire the best campaign advisors. You can't demonstrate that you're electable, and it becomes sort of a vicious cycle. So EMILY's List was designed to reach out to women across the country and say, ‘You need to step up and help women candidates.’
I find it interesting that your father advocated for gender equality so much, yet his portrayals of femininity were often criticized. If Playboy were started today, what would that look like?
Everyone is a product of their time. I think [my dad] was ahead of his time in so many ways on race, on gay rights, on reproductive rights, on First Amendment rights. And I think he considered himself an ally to feminists. I don't think he considered himself a feminist, because I think for him, it was hard to distinguish feminism from the part of feminism that took the attitude that men were the enemy [or people who said] that all heterosexual sex is rape because the whole system is predicated on a power imbalance.
And all of that was just mind blowing [for my dad] because he believed so strongly that the sexual instinct was the humanizing instinct on the planet. That it was the opposite of violence, the opposite of war. But he considered himself an ally because he had women executives, he believed in equal rights, he believed in reproductive rights.
But the people who own Playboy now, because I've been out since 2009, they don't publish a magazine anymore, and they don't seem to do very much in the content space. But I think that there's a lot in media and entertainment that is the beneficiary of both the sexual revolution and the women's movement. And that's always been my approach to things: You want the culture, but also for the expression of the culture in media and entertainment to be one that is really pro-sex. And also pro-female. And I grew up at a time where that was the prevailing attitude. The Pill was available, abortion was legal, Our Bodies, Ourselves was published. An erotic, feminist art movement was going on. Conversely, it's not a coincidence that the countries that repress women are the countries that repress sex. I think those two things are very inextricably linked.
For those of you wondering, how old Is Christie Hefner?
Christie Hefner is forever young!
Listen to the full episode here: