When I was just 13 years old, I began selling small amounts of marijuana, in response to our family’s desperate circumstances. Only 10 years later, at age 23, I became the youngest African American to own a cannabis retail establishment in the United States. I opened my first Elev8 Cannabis dispensary in Eugene, Oregon, in 2017, and am currently in the process of expanding my footprint to the East Coast and Midwest.
It has been tough getting this far, especially with no help of social equity programs designated to assist black men and women obtain cannabis licensing. But, I am making it in a business where Black men and women are significantly underrepresented. But, as I emerge in this business, I am also determined to help others do the same with a clear understanding of the roadblocks that exist and with the knowledge about how they can limit.
Obstacles are Sometimes Opportunities in Disguise
I arrived in the United States from Nigeria when I was just three years old. My family settled on the South Side of Chicago, where opportunities were limited and living circumstances were less than ideal.
I saw and felt the effects of systemic racism on a daily basis. Our family situation was unstable, which created even more challenges. Like so many others I knew, I had some minor trouble with the law, but that was fleeting and nothing serious enough to derail my future.
We eventually moved to Texas, and it was during my teen years that I began to develop a more comprehensive life plan. I was drawn to entrepreneurship, which seemed to offer the best prospects for self-sufficiency and economic independence. My family’s financial situation had always been precarious, and I was determined to create a better future for us all.
Taking a methodical approach, I began searching for information about emerging industries. The possibilities in cannabis quickly caught my attention, and I saw a chance to get in on the ground floor of this rapidly expanding sector of the economy.
I eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest, where the cannabis industry was already well established. Initially, I took a job with Sprint and later TMobile in Washington State, where I rose to the position of store manager in a relatively short amount of time. It was around this period I thought seriously about owning a cannabis dispensary.
But those positions were only a means to an end. They allowed me to gain valuable experience in business and paid just enough to allow me to save some money.
Not much money, though. When I moved to Oregon to pursue a future in cannabis, I had just $50,000 in my bank account, and I only had that much because of close friends who believed in my plan and pitched in to help.
It was rough going for a while. At times I got discouraged, but I never gave up searching for the right property. Finally, I found a lady in Eugene who was willing to let me rent her building. This was in 2016, and after navigating the torturous six-month licensing process, I was ready to open my first dispensary the following year.
Fortunately, I struck gold while recruiting a management team to help me launch Elev8 Cannabis. I wanted people who shared my passion for the cannabis business and who possessed the creative talent I needed to ensure my dispensary would not only survive, but thrive. I had no problem finding many outstanding Black applicants who could meet my standards, and without their assistance, I never would have made a go of it.
Everyone I hired was as hungry as I was and just as prepared to seize the moment. Our long-term plan is to build a vertically integrated Elev8 ecosystem that will serve customers in the recreational and medical spaces across the country, with ubiquitous presence up and down the supply chain.
Backed by a ten-year loan from the Canadian investment company TILT Holdings (through its subsidiary Sea Hunter Therapeutics), I’ve purchased additional properties in Massachusetts and will be opening three new stores there in the next few months, in the cities of Athol, Orange, and Williamstown.
Sea Hunter’s financing program for cannabis entrepreneurs has created some concerns about out-of-state ownership. But their loan terms are reasonable and fair and will allow me to take full and immediate control of my new dispensaries. My next planned stop is in Chicago (you can go home again!), but for now, my primary focus now is on Massachusetts, where the recreational marijuana industry is getting prepared to launch.
Understanding the Game, and Rejecting Systematic Racism
Growing up, I experienced discrimination firsthand and the over-policing of Black neighborhoods where my family and I lived. It is understandable how anyone growing up these environments can become jaded from the grind, but I refused to surrender to fatalism or cynicism. One thing was clear to me early on: oppression and chronic economic underdevelopment are not only the unfortunate side effects of racism—they are its enforcers. They exist purposefully and serve to maintain systems that keep people who look like me out of the economic game of success, a game where there are very defined winners and losers.
This reality, which treats opportunities like a scarce resource that must not be shared, is destructive to Black communities, as well as to the communities of other excluded groups, and ultimately to humanity and the planet as a whole.
Opportunities can and should be available to everyone. More and more, I believe that we all have the power to find them or create them, once we decide we won’t take no for an answer. With the support of loved ones and confidantes, you can translate your most ambitious and forward-thinking concepts into meaningful action.
Elevate, then Celebrate
As of 2020, only 4.3 percent of cannabis retail outlets in the United States are owned by African Americans. If you exclude those who don’t have full control or own their businesses outright, the percentage drops to around one percent. Despite cannabis’s progressive reputation, historical patterns that deny African Americans and people of color access to opportunities seem to be repeating themselves in this industry. But, it is Elev8’s main priority to create spaces for black ownership.
Through Elev8, I want to open doors for talented people who have been kept closed in the past. This is the purpose behind my new entrepreneurship and franchisee training program, which I’ll be introducing at my dispensaries in Massachusetts.
At Elev8, we are positioning ourselves as a company that truly cares, for our clients and for others who want to follow in our footsteps. We develop associates through one-on-one mentorship and group collaboration, passing on what we’ve learned with energy and enthusiasm. We take a personal approach to associate development that focuses on individual passions to guide us all toward a common goal. To set our teams up for success we always challenge them, but we never ask them to start or finish any task unless they are fully prepared. We know that everyone is a student in this life, and if we all accept and live by that concept, no achievement is beyond our grasp.
Through this innovative and dynamic training program, we hope to help other aspiring entrepreneurs in the Black and Latin communities enter the cannabis industry, which badly needs their knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm.
The current statistics on the number of Black dispensary owners, and Black people in the cannabis industry in general, are dismal. But those numbers can be changed, one business and one new entrepreneur at a time. I know from my own experience that great things can be accomplished in cannabis, regardless of who you are or where you come from.