It’s not unusual to meet magical people in the cannabis industry, but even in that illustrious company, Kim Jage is special. I’d been told the award-winning brand developer and marketing executive was a badass (which she is), but her warm, welcoming nature and ready laugh enveloped me like a hug from the start of our conversation. Within seconds she’d confided in me that this was her first in-person interview – she usually prefers being behind the scenes – and we quickly bonded over a love of Old Hollywood trivia. It turns out that Jage’s grandfather was Frank Morgan, a veteran character actor most famous for playing the title role in The Wizard of Oz.

“No wonder I like to stay behind the curtain!” Kim grinned.

But as the co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Jage Media, a cannabis-focused media company that includes the digital platform MJ Brand Insights and the exclusive conference MJ Unpacked, Jage can’t hide from the limelight any longer. When she speaks about the cannabis industry, it’s with an unbridled enthusiasm and elfin charm that makes you realize the family connection to the Wizard.

Watch Honeysuckle's exclusive video from MJ Unpacked 2021!

Jage Media and MJ Unpacked

Kim and her husband George, a cannabis pioneer who’s served as both president of MJ Biz Daily and CEO of Dope Media, founded Jage Media because they’re on a mission to make cannabis a genuinely equitable, diverse and accessible industry from the inside out. With MJ Unpacked, a revolutionary forum that puts retailers and consumer packed goods (CPG) brands in the spotlight, the Jages and their team have created a truly unique platform for cannabis companies and retailers to learn from each other.

Premiering last fall in Las Vegas, MJ Unpacked returns May 18-20 for its first East Coast outing in the cannabis consumption capital of the world, New York City! Jage, who’s originally from Hillsborough, New Jersey and lived in the Big Apple for many years, can’t wait to come home. Ahead of the show, she gave me the low-down on what to expect from MJ Unpacked when it hits New York, her advice for cannabis marketing, and the importance of human connection.

MJ Unpacked CEO George Jage, left, hosts a fireside chat with cannabis pioneer Steve DeAngelo, center, and Overton Capital operating partner Javan Bunch, right. (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

Kim Jage on MJ Unpacked in New York

HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: The basic concept of MJ Unpacked is to have a forum to highlight the evolution of CPG within the cannabis industry. Here in New York, as we head toward an adult-use market, things are changing by the day. What are you doing differently in New York from the Las Vegas show?

KIM JAGE: One of the main differences is that we are allowing in license applicants, or in New York's case, those that intend to apply, rather than just current license holders. And we do ask for proof. So they have to have a letter of intent from a CPA or an attorney, or show us some sort of documentation that they do intend to apply for a license in New York. But as far as New Jersey's concerned or other areas on the East Coast, they just have to let us know that they're in the process. So that's exciting, ‘cause then you get to have them involved in the conversation. I'm really excited about that because we do have a large contingency from the West Coast that are going to be in New York and those new applicants have access to that experience and that expertise, which is very cool.

So in Las Vegas, you had to have a license even just to attend?

Yes, you had to have a license. And the reason for that is not because we want to exclude anyone, but we're not like every other cannabis event. We wanted to have a high-level conference and event where people could talk to their peers. I had Rabbi [James] Kahn from Holistic Industries say to me at MJ Unpacked, “[The] best part about this event is that I got to meet someone who does my job.” When you create that type of environment, magic happens.

It seems like we’re seeing more of a culture clash now between the East and West Coast cannabis industries. Some people have these stereotypes where the West is characterized by a lot of space and rolling farmland and the East Coast is characterized more by ties to street culture and the legacy market. Is that something MJ Unpacked will address?

We actually have a panel about that at MJ Unpacked, “How Do CPG and Retail Brands Translate Coast to Coast?” It reminds me I'm old enough to remember the hip-hop worlds of the East Coast and the West Coast. I'm having flashbacks (Laughs). But I hope that we find ways to work together. I think Native American lands are going to be key on the East Coast, and I wanted to have a session on that. We have not properly embraced Native American culture in cannabis. [Unfortunately] we didn't have time [to organize it the right way for the May event], but we can cover it in different ways, and I certainly hope that we continue to have that conversation in New York.

Social impact brand 40 Tons exhibited at MJ Unpacked 2021, with brand ambassadors Corvain Cooper and Evelyn LaChapelle, also Partnership & Reentry Coordinator for Last Prisoner Project (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at MJ Unpacked

But you do have a very specific approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at MJ Unpacked, as you showed in Vegas. What are you planning for New York in that regard?

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is so important that it will be in every conversation at MJ Unpacked, not just one. We are working with the nonprofit Our Academy (Our Dream) again for this year, which is a pre-celerator for social equity applicants and BIPOC entrepreneurs. We've been able to expand that program since Vegas… We have 11 social equity sponsors. So what MJ Unpacked does is we go out and we go to the sponsors and we say, “Hey, we want your money, but don't give it to us.” That money is given directly to Our Academy. This year they're bringing 8 to10 companies along with those entrepreneurs [and covering] their travel costs, their hotel, their food, their brand showcase, and they will pitch to investors. That all happens at MJ Unpacked.

I would love to meet an accelerator in New York that can help us [also]. We don't have an exclusive agreement with Our Academy. We want to embrace as many accelerators as we can that work with BIPOC entrepreneurs and social equity applicants, so we are looking for that… DEI has to be woven into every single conversation. And when [our conference manager] Chris and I meet with the moderators and panelists, we talk about that. “How does this topic relate to DEI issues and how do we approach them? How do we make them successful?” It's in every conversation.

MJ Unpacked is special because you make the extra effort not only to showcase the companies pushing for DEI and representation, but you’re giving them the chance to get funded by putting them in front of investors. We hear from women and BIPOC leaders all the time that they’re asked to speak at events without being given the opportunity to get resources to grow their business. To have access to that through MJ Unpacked is amazing.

It’s one of the reasons why I love this event. I had a guy come up to me in Vegas and hug me, saying we’re changing people’s lives… He said, “We never would’ve been able to meet the investors, we would’ve never had this access to capital without MJ Unpacked.” And that makes my heart soar. That’s why we love what we do.

What we're also doing differently this year is that [previously] we learned that we had too many events happening at the same time. So we didn’t always pack the room full of investors at every presentation. We wanted to make sure that we packed the room with investors this time, so we did a few things. One, we created a pitch competition. There's now a prize for the best pitch. And through doing that, we said to these key investors, “You have to be in the room because you're judges.” Two, this year we have a longer timeframe where we can market who's pitching. In Vegas we didn’t know until the last minute and I didn't have enough time to market those companies. This time we have more time to talk about them and we have investors in those seats guaranteed, which I think will be helpful. We also have a special session on the last day, the last hour, which I can't reveal yet, but believe me, everyone will want to be there.

Richard DeLisi and Steve DeAngelo onstage at the MJ Unpacked 2021 benefit for Last Prisoner Project (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

MJ Unpacked and Last Prisoner Project

You recently announced a special benefit concert for the Last Prisoner Project. What can you say about that?

MJ Unpacked always does a benefit event where 100 percent of the net proceeds go to Last Prisoner Project. This year we have a concert of blues, reggae, and rap. We have eight-time Grammy nominee Roy Rogers, a legendary slide guitarist, and following Roy, we have Hempress Sativa, who is this amazing Jamaican reggae artist we're super excited about. And then we have Ghostface Killah [from the Wu-Tang Clan] doing the rap. That's a separately ticketed event. It does cost $150 and people buy the ticket through registration, but all those proceeds go to LPP and their efforts to help release prisoners for nonviolent cannabis crimes. We're super excited about that, and it’ll be at Terminal Five in New York.

Kim Jage on Women in Cannabis

You’ve spoken very passionately about helping promote women in the space as well. It used to be a badge of honor for the cannabis industry that we had so many women leaders, but the latest studies show that number is shrinking. Why do you think that is, and what can we do about it?

I don't know the answer to why we're shrinking. It doesn't make sense to me, especially because women are the greatest consumer pool right now and the biggest assets. So why don't these companies embrace women in executive positions when that's their target market? How do we combat it? We put more women on stage; we highlight and showcase people who have something to say and who are [typically] not heard. I try to do that with our speaker lineup. I bring in people who have talent and expertise, who are not on every single conference stage circuit.

We just decided to start doing webinars – we’re a very small team, a small family-owned business, and we decided to do webinars on top of everything else – but we did our first one on what investors are looking for in cannabis companies. I purposefully made it a female-only panel, but I didn't call it out as a female only panel. [I did that] because I hear from a lot of cannabis brands that they are looking for funding and they want a female-only cap table. Then I talk to them and I say, “Okay, how many female investors do you know of?” And they say the same three names. Well, there's more than that. So it's my job to reach out to those investors and to get them to attend MJ Unpacked and to make sure that we create those connections. And that’s one way to combat it – Make sure they’re in the room. The other way to combat it is to have these exact conversations constantly, and share the information. It is a passion of mine, you’re right. I want to help elevate women in this industry, the BIPOC community in this industry, the social equity applicants in the industry and the legacy, the legacy operators that are looking to enter the legal market. We need to find a way for them to do that. Nobody can do it all by themselves. But MJ Unpacked's goal is to facilitate those conversations, to put the right people in the room.

The MJ Unpacked Aesthetic

One aspect George mentioned for the Vegas show was a very defined aesthetic, almost like a luxury department store where people could wander freely and go to whatever attracted their eye. Will you keep that same vision for New York?

Our idea was always to be like a retail store, but I don’t think MJ Unpacked is like a luxury store at all. With the glass display cases we have, you can wander around, discover new products; you can scan a QR code and learn more about the product. What we didn’t want was to have aisles of booths where people are crammed in the aisle and they're turning over their badge and pretending they're on their phone so that they don't have to get talked to. We wanted to give people space to connect and to really have conversations. In New York, it's going to be the same way. There will be glass display cases.

But when I think of luxury, I think of exorbitant costs. And we're not that. Attendance is free for retailers because we realize they're already strapped and strangled from taxes and fees. The showcase is a reasonable cost for the cannabis brands, because we recognize that they're not used to exhibiting at trade shows at all. Even the exhibitors that are in 10 by 10 booths, we provide hard wall booths. They're prefabricated and that keeps the cost down for exhibitors, and we even host some of their freight. Our conference program is included with registration. We don't charge extra for that. And our costs to attend are less expensive than any other cannabis conference I know of.

There certainly are luxury cannabis brands, and then there are brands that target more of that legacy feel. There's a place for all of them, and the same with retail outlets. I think there are going to be high-end retail outlets, and there's also going to be a Walmart of cannabis. And there's also going to be your pot shop down the street where you feel most comfortable. I think there's a place for everybody.

Team Honeysuckle behind the scenes at the MJ Unpacked 2021 benefit for Last Prisoner Project (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

The Future of Cannabis Marketing and Legalization

We’re now seeing data being released that says cannabis consumers are the most progressive, attractive markets for all areas of business. Will MJ Unpacked be addressing that?

I'm not sure that the cannabis brands are ready. Let me put it this way. Deloitte Research says that while CPG brands spend 20 to 30 percent of their operating budget on marketing, non-CPG brands spend less than 10. I am not in sales, so I don't talk to the brands every day and ask them what their marketing budget is, but I suspect it’s not 20 to 30 percent. I don’t see most cannabis brands approaching marketing holistically yet, and I think that’s because of all the obstacles that are in place. But I think they need to try anyway. For example, we work with The Flower Agency; they take care of all of our digital marketing and they exclusively work with cannabis brands except for us. So thank you, Flower Agency. When Google pulls my ad, they’ve got another they can put up lickety-split. Honeysuckle accepts print ads from cannabis companies, so there’s your print vehicle for brands. Cannabis companies should collaborate with other companies like this.

Every CPG brand connects to the consumer, but… THC brands have yet to really [do that] and get to the next step. That’s through advertising with platforms like Honeysuckle. That’s through trade show marketing. If you come to MJ Unpacked, you’ll see the innovation. You’re going to learn from your peers what is successful for them and what can help you.

Wana Brands just came out with their new packaging for live rosin and gummies that includes a QR code, but it’s not about the product. If you scan that QR code, you go into this augmented reality; that’s a direct-to-consumer relationship you’re helping to create. And so new or developing brands on the East Coast can see Wana’s showcase and learn from them. So I hope cannabis brands do learn to market holistically and budget for that.

What do you see going forward as the next step of collaboration between cannabis and non-cannabis brands?

The nano-emulsified cannabis products that have a faster uptake and less intoxication profile, I think that’s pretty interesting. That’s where we might see more mergers between cannabis and non-cannabis brands. Consumption lounges are also a hot topic… I see them coming to the forefront and I see ways in which we can merge cannabis and non-cannabis brands in those environments.

As we get closer to the prospect of federal legalization, with the MORE Act passing the House again, how do you think the industry might change?

I feel like I'm in Vegas and you're telling me final bets! (Laughs) Well, now there’s the PREPARE Act bill, [just introduced a couple weeks ago to prompt a fuller pathway to federal legalization]. That’ll be interesting to watch and see if that passes. My guess, and we’ll see if I’m right – if I am, I should win a million dollars – but I think it’ll take two to four years to be federally legal. I hope it’s sooner, but even if that PREPARE Act bill goes through, they give it twelve months for the Attorney General to create the path for legalization. Frankly, we need to get rid of Mitch McConnell before anything can happen, or it has to be his [colleagues] who have enough stake in the game where he wants to make them money. Unfortunately, that’s [the only situation] I see where he’d pass it.

But we need to do it. We need a lot of help. The social and economic disparities of this country are enormous and need to be adjusted. I’m not sure why we don’t help each other enough, whether it’s greed or fear, but we’re going to get there.

What I hope we accomplish in this industry, and with MJ Unpacked, is to be a facilitator of human connection. That means a lot to us. We’re going to make mistakes, but we’re going to learn from them. That’s key for me and it’s key for George… It’s been a big part of my life to work with energy and with people, and cannabis does facilitate that. The plant has a real potential to help us heal.

For more on MJ Unpacked, visit MJ Unpacked comes to New York City May 18-20, 2022.

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