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The Careerist: Vangst Founder Karson Humiston on the Cannabis Job Market

Karson Humiston; photo courtesy of Vangst.
If you’ve been paying attention to the cannabis industry, you probably know it’s the hot sector for new jobs. What you may not know is that women are leading the call to action. Karson Humiston is the founder of Vangst, the top recruiting resource for the United States and Canada. At 25 years old, Humiston is one of the youngest CEOs in the industry (she was featured on Forbes’s prestigious “30 Under 30” list for 2018), and her accomplishments are nothing less than stunning. Taking Vangst from a concept called “Gradujuana” in 2015 when she was just about to graduate from St. Lawrence University, Humiston has now grown the online platform to have successfully placed over 6,000 candidates at leading cannabis companies, and the number continues to increase.
Earlier this summer, Humiston was a featured speaker at the Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition in New York (CWCBExpo NY). Appearing on a panel with Claire Moloney, Growth Manager for Leaflink – the country’s largest marketplace for wholesale cannabis – she discussed industry employment trends that can help those hiring and those seeking placement. Currently, staffing needs are greatest in Colorado, California, and Washington, and most companies are looking to fill staff and business development positions. Both women encouraged hopeful applicants to use their pre-existing skill sets to determine where they might slot into the industry, but cautioned them not to dismiss cannabis as a fun, easy experiment. “We take cover letters and writing samples seriously,” Moloney noted, recalling a horror story of hiring somebody who quit after one day when she realized that Leaflink employees couldn’t smoke at work.
Humiston and Moloney are evidence of the emerging female leadership in corporate cannabis, and the future seems bright as legalization efforts increase and more employment opportunities are created. We caught up with the Vangst visionary for her thoughts on the modern plant-based career path.

Claire Moloney of Leaflink and Karson Humiston host “Landing Your Job in Cannabis” at CWCBExpo NY.

JAIME LUBIN: Vangst is an especially useful platform right now because the cannabis industry has become a huge source of jobs for people across many different backgrounds.

KARSON HUMISTON: There are about 160,000 people employed full-time in the space, and that number is expected to triple by 2020. There’s going to be more jobs created in cannabis than there are in manufacturing. Right now, there are as many jobs created each day in cannabis as there are in the technology sector. So it’s definitely a rising industry, and the need to bring in talent from tons and tons of industries is very, very real. And it’s going to happen. [Vangst provides a service] so that people continue hearing about jobs and moving into the space.

You’re an example of a growing leadership trend in that you’re not really a consumer but were instead intrigued by the possibilities the industry offered.

I’ve used it before, but I don’t drink a lot of alcohol, I don’t take Advil, I’m just not really into any consumption—not just cannabis. But I saw a business opportunity and I think that’s why a lot of people are here as well… It’s certainly a good way to go if you’re looking for a job. Every one of our clients is hiring. If you’re not hiring, then you’re not growing. If you’re not growing in cannabis, as this whole industry is growing, then you’re doing something wrong.

How did Vangst come about? You’re at a pivotal growth point now yourself, having just finished a round of funding – congratulations!

Thank you so much! [Vangst] started when I was in college at St. Lawrence University and I had a student travel company called On-Track Adventures. And I sent an email to the students and the recent grads asking what industries they were most interested in exploring more of. An overwhelming amount came back saying the marijuana industry, and this was 2015—it wasn’t as cool as it is now. I went to a cannabis conference because I was curious—actually, CWCBExpo!—and I walked around the floor and asked people what positions they were hiring for. I heard chemical engineer, salesman, marketing director. Every type of position you can imagine. Then, when I asked how they went about finding their employees, they were pretty limited to their own networks. There wasn’t an industry-specific recruiting agency. Mainstream job boards were taking cannabis companies down, not a lot of cannabis companies can work with their platforms. So I saw an opportunity. Now we have 38 full-time employees and offers out to seven or eight more, so we’ll definitely be up to 50 by the end of the year.

And you’re placing people all over the United States and Canada. You’ve said there’s a real need for salespeople, but you’ve also pointed to a trend in director-to-C-Suite-level positions. Why do you think that management is the “hot” area?

I think companies are getting to a place where they need experience – [life experience], scaling experience, and operational experience. There’s a big difference between a ship builder and a ship captain. Someone who’s out there building the ship is different from someone’s who’s running the ship. So I think operations is huge.

One really interesting point you made is that people working for small companies are quick to call themselves CEOs and COOs, and doing so seems to de-legitimize the business if it isn’t large enough for that kind of structure.

What happens is the skill sets of your initial hires get outgrown, so as the business grows from five people to 20 people, there are different needs to go from 20 to 40, and there’s certainly different needs to go from 40 to 200, and 200 to 2,000. So the needs grow, and it’s important to keep that in mind as you plan out your timeframe and your hiring map.

What’s your advice for someone seeking to enter the cannabis industry who has unbridled enthusiasm but doesn’t really have expertise in terms of knowledge of the plant?

For people who don’t know anything about cannabis, the number-one thing they can do is go to events, network, and learn. It makes a huge difference to actually get out into the field and speak to other business owners. Come to a trade show, speak to the various exhibitors and the employees who work at the companies, to get a sense of what’s actually happening in the industry. It’s one thing to read about the cannabis industry and cannabis companies, but it’s another to actually go out and speak to them. So that would be my biggest piece of advice for day-to-day people looking for a job in cannabis.

And just in general, networking is critical. Getting in front of the people you want to work for and figuring out who it is you want to work for. Having a solid network of people in the industry is huge.

Are you finding that companies with female leadership have any significant advantage over those with male leadership?

That is a good question. I’m not sure, but there are a lot of awesome female founders doing a lot of awesome things with their companies. Though I was at a conference where Kevin O’Leary was a speaker, and he was talking about a big study where [of the companies surveyed], the most successful have been female-founded companies. They looked into some of these things that females do differently than what the male founders did. One thing I found interesting is that they set realistic goals and expectations because it really brings up morale. Guys tended to say, you know, we’re going to do one hundred million dollars a year—and it’s so unrealistic. So each quarter they’re missing their goals. But women would set the goals a little bit lower but make them achievable, so you can constantly have wins. They’re still aggressive, but they’re not completely unrealistic. So I thought that that was very interesting.

Speaking of successful women in leadership roles, what are you most excited about for Vangst in the near future?

I’m really excited about our on-demand component. When companies need to hire talent on-demand, maybe for two or three days, we have a team of employees who we’ll send to our clients to help them. And I’m really excited about some of the things we’re doing to streamline that process. We just hired an engineering team and they’re working on streamlining the process so companies can reserve an employee on demand. We’ve recently rolled that out and I’m excited to see the [wider] response.

To learn more about Vangst, visit vangst.com or follow on Facebook and Twitter.

For more information about the Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition (CWCBE), visit cwcbexpo.com or follow on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. You can book tickets now for CWCBExpo Los Angeles, September 26-29, 2018 and CWCBExpo Boston, October 17-20, 2018. 

Stay tuned for the latest news in cannabis and our print issue ONE, with more stories on the industry and community, sustainability, planetary wellness, and holistic thinking!

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