Willie Mack is one of the most influential creative forces working today. As a creative director, brand marketing executive, photographer and entrepreneur, he’s had over 20 years of experience pioneering award-winning campaigns for clients including Absolut Vodka, Ray-Ban, Microsoft, GQ, Estee Lauder, and the Obama Administration. But in recent years Mack has joined forces with actor Christopher Jordan “CJ” Wallace, son of the legendary hip hop artist Christopher Wallace (AKA The Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls), to form the brands Think BIG and Frank White. Wallace and Mack, with their co-founder, record producer Todd Russaw, are using these brands to elevate cannabis companies to their full potential and empower artists to unlock the magic within themselves. Taking the world by storm, they are breaking cannabis stigmas through art and justice every day.
Honeysuckle caught up with Willie Mack ahead of his speaking engagement at the Business of Cannabis New York conference, which will be held on November 3rd at the New York Academy of Medicine. Produced by Business of Cannabis, and powered by Prohibition Partners with headline sponsorship by Leafly, this premier B2B event will bring together the best of the East Coast cannabis industry. Mack's panel will include New York tastemakers Matthew Mazzucca, Mike Wilson, and chef Jordan Andino. (For tickets, use code HoneySuckle20 and click here. CJ Wallace, Fab Five Freddy, and a host of industry leaders will be there!)
Mack shared with us his brilliant insights on celebrating Black creativity, the importance of the Flow State, the future for social equity and diversity in cannabis, and so much more. Read on and be inspired.
Think BIG, Frank White and New York Cannabis
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: You’ve spoken about both the Think BIG and Frank White brands with a major question in mind: “As a business leader, what responsibility do you have to your community and society?” How has that idea influenced your journey with these businesses and overall?
WILLIE MACK: When I initially met CJ [Wallace] and Todd [Russaw], it was really looking at “What are the things that unite us as Black men, as it relates to the general cannabis industry?” And not even just as Black men, but in many other ways. As a gay man, as someone who has spent a lot of my career – the last half, practically – I focused on social entrepreneurship and what connects us. The responsibility I think we all have is to fix a lot of the issues that are affecting the planet, the world, and how we work and form this capitalist society in the Western Hemisphere.
I got into cannabis in 2014 and I’ve witnessed a lot from different positions in different companies besides my own business. I saw that there was this disconnect between the responsibility that the industry owes to so many people, Black and brown, who were most harmed by prohibition and how the industry was being structured. Are we going to let this industry allow these people to sit in jail and have their family members and communities continue to be harmed? There are also all these people who can’t use cannabis, even in states where it’s legal, because they work for the federal government or the military. And that’s just in the U.S. When you think about the global impact, it becomes an even bigger problem.
The industry as a whole has a responsibility to right those wrongs. So as we started looking at Frank White and Think BIG, our responsibility [became] to tell the true story and be advocates. We’re leveraging the goodwill that we get and the impact that we want to have to make sure that this doesn’t get lost. In 2018 when we first started, that was a true north for us.
The social impact aspect is particularly important in New York, where there’s been more emphasis on equity and restorative justice than anywhere else in the country.
We’ve all had personal family members and friends affected by the criminal justice system’s injustice toward our communities. How can we speak to and be a voice for them? How can we provide resources to hire and educate and train [our people]? As we looked at what California was doing as their legalization was taking place, we thought, New York is such a central part of our lives and especially for CJ’s father Biggie. We have the opportunity to help New York get this right. It’s government, nothing’s ever perfect, but with the intentions and will of the people and political leaders, we can learn from a lot of the mistakes that have happened across the country. We have a responsibility to do that and make sure that’s at the forefront of how we push this business forward.
You have been a major part of the legalization effort in New York. How does it make you feel to see the transition as we get ready for adult-use retail to open?
WILLIE: It’s a double-edged sword. When we started working out our policy plan for New York, a lot of it was making sure that the entire supply chain is letting Black and brown people be part of it. It’s good to see that social equity and social justice and restorative justice have been put at the forefront. I think there’s some issues with the regulations and how it’s been structured that potentially could and will harm some of the applicants and the intention. But these are the first steps of what will be an evolutionary process.
I always remind people, this is not a “turn the lights on and walk away” situation. This is a long-term fight in a marathon. The moral arc of the industry will hopefully bend toward equity and it takes space like New York and the leaders in New York to say, “We’re going to do this.” All of the machinations of politics and lobbying will be fighting. But if we can get the general public to recognize and support the intention, and also provide a pathway for people to see how they can be part of the industry, the more we can continue to engage and inspire Black and brown people as owners and operators, and in ancillary businesses, then for us that is the long-term success.
Willie Mack and CJ Wallace: The Christopher Wallace/Biggie Smalls Legacy in Frank White and Think BIG
What’s the immediate future of Frank White and Think BIG?
What we’re most excited about is coming to New York and applying for a license and building a home and flagship to bring Frank White to life. That’s going to include a lot of things from CJ’s father’s personal effects. So we’ll be showcasing some of those things the world’s never seen before, [Biggie’s] personal pieces and the stories behind some of his famous clothes and artifacts. We’ll be able to bring how we want the world to experience our cannabis products to life and have that story and connect with the community on that side. For us to build a home for Frank White in New York, that becomes a home for CJ.
How does working with CJ Wallace and the legacy of Biggie impact the direction of the brands?
The next couple of years are going to be the world really understanding and learning more about who Christopher George Latore Wallace was, through the eyes of Christopher Jordan Wallace. I can just say on a personal level from the last four years of working with CJ and the team, the more I’ve gotten to understand his father’s innovations as a 19-to-24 year old Black man, the more I love him as an artist and have so much respect for him as a human being. He’s not really honored in the way I think he should be, as one of the greatest writers and storytellers of the 20th century. Here we have this young Black man in the 1980s and 90s who was so amazing that to this day, 25 years later, [his talent] continues to motivate and inspire the world. We need to honor and talk about that because that’s what New York does.
That's what New York can give you. That's what being Black and struggling can give to you. That's what cannabis can help you figure out. How do you find your voice? How do you test out different ideas and have the confidence to push through and say, “I’m going to try this because it feels right” or “It came to me in my dream”? And we’re really excited about being able to paint the second half of who the artist and young man was and his motivations. The world knows who The Notorious B.I.G. is – but seeing it through the eyes of his son is a whole other way of understanding. CJ’s undertaking a quest to understand for himself the traits they share, and everything we do is in honor of that, Christopher explaining himself and coming to understand who his father is. The duality of that is really exciting.
Willie Mack On New York Cannabis and Politics
What do you think about New York’s ability to be one of the largest global cannabis markets?
I would love to see a report from the state [regarding] the makeup of the diversity of the industry in New York, as far as owners and operators from every part of the supply chain. If it reflects the communities most harmed – there being Black, brown, women, minorities, etcetera, then I think we’ve been successful. I just think it’s going to take some time to do that and a lot of hard work and dedication to continue to push the industry, as well as state and federal legislators, to do the right thing.
Seeing how so many states don’t have the political will or the people involved who will do things right, it warms our hearts to know that New York [is]. The demographics of the legislature looks like us. It’s people from communities who were on the front lines of the criminalization from prohibition. The more we can continue to fight for [representation], the more that bell is being run and attention given toward it, the better it’s going to be in the long run. It means more people are going to start to ask questions and want to be involved and find ways to help and support and move things in the right direction. The political power that local communities have and are starting to move into, not just because of cannabis but because of everything happening in this country, like the repeal of Roe v Wade – there’s another piece of armor we can use in our fight against the injustice that exists in the world.
And I think even the Biden administration’s request to start to examine the rescheduling and the pardons, the first step he’s done to at least shine a light on inequities within the industry – You know, there’s a lot more work to do and many things that aren’t great about [the pardons], but there are also things that are. I’m always a glass half-full kind of person.
Since you brought up President Biden’s pardons and announcements, what are your thoughts on the effectiveness of these actions? It’s been very controversial in the cannabis community. However, it is the first time in history that a sitting U.S. president has said officially that we should review whether cannabis belongs on Schedule I, and that people should not be imprisoned for simple cannabis possession.
Symbolically, a great first step, yeah. Even globally. I have friends and partners around the world who have said, “Wow, this is a big deal for the U.S. president to come out and say this, instruct the Health and Human Services to look at rescheduling.” Yes, we all [in the cannabis industry] knew that he’s not going to really free prisoners. People incarcerated at the state level, or [facing] other charges, or those who aren’t U.S. citizens, those types of things get into the nitty-gritty and that’s just how government works. But if some of the governors who are cannabis-friendly, Democratic and Republican, can take it as a way to go, “Okay, let’s look at this and that…” The fact is that this is something we need to address and put out there for legislators to consider, and hopefully with the midterms and the state legislatures, we’ll have the political power in a few years to do something real about it.
I give [Biden] a bit of a pass only because we don’t know all the other stuff he’s been dealing with in every area of the government. In a few years there’ll be books about it. Having to stabilize and manage all these parts from the Ukraine crisis to Covid, financial recession, inflation, all sorts of international issues… I grew up in D.C., and one thing I can say about his administration is they recognize the importance of cannabis as an economic driver for the country from a job growth and generation standpoint, from a tax benefit, education and creativity standpoint. So when it comes time to figure how to stimulate the economy continuously, ensure people have jobs, you want to find a way to support and expand on that. You don’t want to shoot down one of the biggest industries as a country that’s helped more people than anything else over the last several years. Hopefully all of these things are part of the long, long, long, unimaginably long to-do list that his administration has to deal with.
The Flow State: Willie Mack on Cannabis Creativity
You pointed out cannabis as an economic driver. There’s an issue right now with New York’s proposed marketing and advertising regulations on cannabis being extremely restrictive. What are your thoughts on that as a creative director and marketing expert?
I’m wondering, where are the big agencies who I know have been waiting for cannabis to become legal in New York? Madison Avenue advertising is one of the massive industries here – marketing, communications, PR, all the creative industries that exist. I ran an agency in New York for over 15 years, from digital design to creative and experiential marketing, working with spirits, luxury brands, fashion, nonprofits. Are you literally going to cut off all those industries from [cannabis] because of some arcane packaging design limitations? Where’s the uproar? Cannabis is going to generate so much economic power from ancillary businesses. The creative industry… is one of the things that makes New York such a powerful city and an amazing place. To cripple that is one thing I don’t understand, and I don’t understand how the advertising industry, the creative industries, have not been at the forefront of lobbying for this to change. It’s huge.
This plant has obvious medical benefits, and now that we’re moving to adult-use, we must allow this industry to feel that it’s embracing and welcoming all it can do. That’s going to be one of the biggest challenges this industry faces… There are so many more positive parts of this plant that we don’t talk about. So many ways in which it’s helping people be creative, connect to the Flow State, get in the zone and find their voice.
The Flow State is a huge part of Frank White’s mission, because your work there is centered on cannabis and creativity and unlocking the magic inside of people’s minds. Can you elaborate on that?
Steven Kotler, who is one of the leading experts on Flow State from the Flow Research Collective, is a friend of ours. His books have been massively helpful and inspiring to me. There’s a lot of scientific research on cannabis’s ability to help us connect to the Flow State. If you go back anecdotally to jazz, to every genre of music, we call it the ultimate ghostwriter. It was uncredited for influencing so much of the music of the last hundred years. Louis Armstrong needed it. CJ’s dad Biggie talked about how it helped him get out of his head and look at things differently. Steven just told me about a research project he did at Johns Hopkins where they did brain scans of jazz musicians and hip hop artists and they could see the brain patterns change getting into the Flow. I think cannabis connects to six of the nine triggers needed to get you into the Flow State depending on the strain. I know from my 25 years of doing creative development, every campaign I worked on from Ray-Ban to Absolut, there were moments I had to smoke some weed and get in my head to do it.
And the core of our business is, how do we talk about that and celebrate Black creativity? How do we celebrate cannabis as an impact? That’s a huge part of what we’re fighting for. We want everyone to find their flow and connect to it and be free to be themselves.
Frank White and Think BIG's Cannabis Partnerships
How do you vet the companies and brands who want to partner with Frank White and Think BIG?
One, we have a list of brands and partners that we feel are aligned with us and our mission and values. Two, it comes from our team taking a hard stance… that foundational element of who you are [needs to] fit within our purview. Three, as CJ says, if we don’t vibe, then it’s not going to work. We just want to tell the truth. Then as well, we’re very open to brands who want to understand how to do this right. A lot of cannabis brands and their partners look at this space like “Social equity, restorative justice, criminal justice reform, these are things we believe in. But we’re just a bunch of white dudes, or we may not know how to have this conversation in a way that’s authentic, can you help advise us?” So with my role at Frank White and Think BIG, and my being on the Board of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, we’re looking at how best to do that.
How are you working with communities of color and mentoring entrepreneurs from smaller, developing brands?
They come to us from different ways. CJ’s tapped into a network of some people doing really dope, cool things. So his connection and network and friends in New York here and across the world are the ones who are moving culture, between music, fashion and art design. We look at them and say, “Yeah, these are people who are aligned with our mission… Let’s find a way to support them as creatives and artists, and some NGOs as well.”
This year for us has been a lot of refocusing as we plan for New York and build a home for the brand. Christine De La Rosa of The People’s Ecosystem, she’s an advisor and friend and we’re working with them. We want to partner with the ones who are actually doing the work. Mary Pryor, Roz McCarthy and Minorities for Medical Marijuana, all these folks. We wish we had more money and resources to support more of these people. Hopefully as we go through and continue our fundraising efforts and build the brand, we will be able to utilize our retail space or our network and systems to give them as much support as possible. We’ll create collaborations that can allow us to really blow things up in a way that makes it so that it’s fun.
‘Cause the industry and the culture is there. I think our communities have been left out, have lacked financial and political resources to move things as far and as fast as we can. The more we can secure those for ourselves and our communities, the more we’re going to see a big swing in how powerful the voices of Black and brown people, minorities, women, LGBTQIA+ can be and how we’re going to push this culture and industry in ways that no one can imagine. That’s what I’m really excited about.
Willie Mack at Business of Cannabis New York
What upcoming projects are you most excited about?
I’m excited to speak at the Business of Cannabis New York! I’m going to be moderating a panel on how cannabis looks on the “higher end.” Matthew Mazzucca, who was the creative director of Barneys, Jordan Andino, who’s an amazing restaurateur and chef, and Mike Wilson of Temeka Group, who’s doing the contracting for DASNY [Dormitory Authority of the State of New York] for all the retail design of the social equity stores. The four of us together will talk about what the customer experience is when it comes to fine dining, fashion, retail architecture and more. New York is so great at creating popups and new experiences. Let’s take this cannabis culture and spin it on New York’s head.
Business of Cannabis: New York will be held November 3rd at the New York Academy of Medicine, located at 1216 5th Ave, New York. For tickets and more information, please visit cannabisnewyork.live.
Get a discount on admission to Business of Cannabis: New York by using code HoneySuckle20 - book your tickets by clicking here!
For more about Think BIG and Frank White, visit comethinkbig.com and frankwhite.co.
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Featured image: Willie Mack, co-founder and CEO of Frank White Co. (C) Frank White Co.