By Jaimie Lubin
Over the past five years, the Marijuana Business Conference (MJ Biz Con) in Las Vegas, hosted by Marijuana Business Daily, has been the hallmark event of the American cannabis industry. Honeysuckle traveled to Sin City to get the fullest appreciation of legitimate businesses surrounding the plant. What we found was extraordinary – and oftentimes quite unexpected. Such as the pioneering biochemical research in Israel, Canada’s premiere occupation in the space and revelations with Chris Walsh, Editorial VP of MJ Biz, and one of the first journalists in the field. But we began our journey with the Madame of MJ Biz herself, CEO Cassandra Farrington for the inside scoop on the cannabinoid industrial revolution.
How long has MJ Biz been holding the convention?
This is our sixth edition. Five years ago we had 400 people in this very funky hall in downtown Denver. It was a historic Masonic lodge. It was the only venue that would rent space to us for a marijuana business convention because they were all like, “Business? Haha! That’s not business; it’s going to be a smokefest!” No, when we said business, we meant it was going to be a marijuana business conference.
We had 400 industry pioneers, which at that time was a huge success, and every year it has at least doubled if not grown three or four-fold. Every year it continues to be a phenomenal success for this whole industry. This year we have 670 businesses that are represented on the floor and we are very close to 18,000 registrants with one more day of the convention still to run.
It’s very interesting that a publication in the cannabis industry was the one that decided to found what is now the premiere expo for marijuana businesses in the country.
So traditionally in the business-to-business media industry, business and media go hand-in-hand, because it’s truly all about the business information. Whether that content is in print, is online, or in person, it all fits together. As we put our business online, people kept saying, “You know what? We need some benchmarks, we need some industry. We need some things thrown into the dartboard so we can start tracking whether our expenses and our dispensary in Denver are in line with the expenses of the dispensary in Phoenix.” So we came out with our factbook and started that annual industry benchmark report.
Then people started telling us, “Okay, I know all about my buddies and the dispensaries in Denver, but there’s a bunch of people a lot like us in San Francisco, but I don’t know any of [them]. I would like to know what their challenges are. So we really need a place to get together and talk about the business side of the industry. Not a festival, not a lifestyle event, not a celebration of the plant. We need this to be about business.” And we were a great source – unbiased platform – to be able to put that together.
How did you personally get into the cannabis industry?
We truly saw it as a business opportunity. My cofounder and I are business-to-business media professionals, and [when] we launched what has turned into Marijuana Business Daily, we expected it to be niche, extremely narrow premium content, and that niche has become mainstream.
What would be the reason for staying solely B-to-B and not necessarily expanding into cultural coverage?
While we as a business could do that, as a brand that would not be authentic to who we are and the relationship that we have with everybody here. Honestly, the consumer media space is tougher, especially on the print side. Business people remain very engaged in getting regular ongoing news and information updates as it affects their businesses because that’s their livelihood. Cultural publications can go down the more hobbyist or personal interest space. And those interests or hobbies can shift over time.
You happen to be a CEO in an industry that is rather open to women and minority leaders. Please tell us what it’s like to be in that kind of leadership position.
The cannabis industry provides a unique opportunity for female and all kinds of diverse entrepreneurship. I think a lot of women came into this industry as businesspeople accidentally because they had a sick child they were looking for a solution for; they had an elderly parent and were working through their final days and used cannabis as a solution for their pain and saw how life-changing those uses can be, and wanted to share that with their tribe or communities.
The other reason why is that, in the cannabis industry, there’s no established hierarchy. It’s entirely an industry where we can slot in at all different levels of the organization depending on our skillset and what we’re interested in doing. So it’s proven to be a fertile ground for that.
It’s really like getting back to our matriarchal roots, when we were in those little nomadic societies.
I do think there is something about the way that females approach entrepreneurship and business differently than that traditional white male approach that really does resonate with cannabis consumers and the way that you run your business in this industry. You have to be authentic, you have to be genuine, you have to care about the cause, or you’re going to get found out. It’s not going to be effective for you as a businessperson. So I think that women have an opportunity to really be themselves and have that be a true advantage.
As a female CEO, do you feel differences between you and your male colleagues, or that there are situations where you might not be taken as seriously?
I don’t, but I think it’s because I am so dominant, so visible and because this is what I do and every single one of those guys needs me, and they know it. So they respect and appreciate me for what I have created.
I will say there are a remarkable number of men in this industry who are tuned into the fact that women think, behave, and approach strategy differently, and in ways that make a lot of sense for the cannabis industry.
What would you say to aspiring female entrepreneurs about how to keep each other safe in the business world, how to empower themselves and other women?
Over the last 8-12 months, I feel the emergence of a Good Ol’ Girls’ network, not to rival the Good Ol’ Boys’ network, but I very much sense that I have tapped into a network of other female entrepreneurs and executives in companies, not just in cannabis, but in my tradeshow world and among my MBA classmates and their world. I feel like there’s this really healthy network of females that are helping move conversations, get things done, and all that. And the more that that happens, the men in many of these companies are going to have to have really strong and respected relationships with women because they are otherwise going to miss out on deal flow that’s coming through that network, on great hiring ideas, on business strategies or what the future of the industry looks like. They’re going to miss out on those things if they don’t have a tap into that network.
Where do you see Big Pharma playing a role [in cannabis]? It’s that big silently approaching ghost.
I think that it’s happening. It’s not just Big Pharma. It’s Big Alcohol, Big Tobacco – all of those and more. The big money is looking at this space and they have very longstanding interests about protecting their companies and their shareholders and they are not going to pull punches about that. How do we combat that? Through effective lobbying. Through really great relationships with our customers. Through continued public relations about cannabis and helping the general public understand what cannabis is and what it is not. Being honest about what it can and can’t do, or at least what we know it can and can’t do. Those sorts of things. I think it’s continuing to build that grassroots support to help people understand that this is a plant. It’s not a chemical, it’s not created in a lab. It’s a plant! It’s like your tomato. Okay, it’s more like your oregano, maybe.
How do you want to see MJ Biz grow?
We came at this honestly and told people what we were doing and stuck to our guns, and therefore have garnered the trust of this entire community that we are the unbiased, trusted resource and we’re going to tell it straight. From here we’re going to follow the industry, just like we always have. We started this convention five years ago because people said that they needed that platform. Maybe ten years from now, they need connections to many other industries and that’s what we’re providing. Maybe ten years from now, it’s a federally regulated product like pharma and the business needs become very different. We’ll continue to follow what the business needs are.