Advocating for Diversity in Cannabis with Ernest Toney (BIPOCANN)

Strategies for the cannabis industry to become more equitable

Episode Description

Ernest Toney is the founder of BIPOCANN, and leads the strategic efforts to improve equitable representation for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) entrepreneurs and business owners in the cannabis industry’s state-legal markets.

Ernest Toney shares practical insights for BIPOC people who are looking to enter the industry and businesses that are looking to connect with those individuals. He also gives insights into strategies for the cannabis industry to become a more social equitable industry.

It starts with business owners and cannabis retailers changing their mindset and promoting black owned businesses. It's exciting to hear some of the momentum and changes that are happening within the industry.

Be sure to check out BIPOCANN

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Episode Transcript

Tom Mulhern: Today on the show, we have a conversation with Ernest Toney, founder of BIPOCANN, which is an organization working to promote BIPOC, Black Indigenous, and People of Color cannabis businesses, and connecting them with individuals and professionals that are looking to enter the cannabis industry. It's a great conversation about creative ways.

Cannabis retailers can really work to promote diversity and social equity within their businesses. Ernest has a long history of learning and growing in cannabis. And he has a fascinating story of kind of what prompted him to start an organization to promote People of Color in the cannabis industry.

So let's jump right into the interview.

Tom Mulhern: Ernest Toney is the founder of BIPOCANN and leads the strategic efforts to improve equitable representation for BIPOCblack indigenous people of color entrepreneurs and business owners in the cannabis industries, state legal markets. Prior to BIPOC, can Ernest managed global marketing initiatives for marijuana business daily, the leading B2B news source for the cannabis industry in Us and Canada.

And the producer of MJ Bisson the award-winning trade show and expo for cannabis professionals held annually in Las BIPOCANN is a BIPOC owned cannabis business membership, organization, and consulting firm. That's working to shape a more accessible and profitable legal cannabis industry for BIPOC cannabis entrepreneurs, business owners and professionals in the Americas.

Ernest, welcome to the Kaya Cast podcast.

Ernest Toney: Hi, Tom. It's a pleasure to be here. Thank.

Tom Mulhern: Yeah, I'm so glad that you're able to join us from Colorado today. And I'm really looking forward to kind of hearing your story. So why don't we jump in, tell me a bit about your background and how you got involved in the cannabis industry.

Ernest Toney: Yeah, absolutely. Like a lot of folks that are now finding their careers in this industry, we started somewhere else. I spent a ton of time doing work in nonprofits and some for-profit companies too. Within marketing business development there's a big focus before I got into cannabis industry with, within the sports world.

So I worked in major league baseball for a year where I was doing, season ticket sales for the Arizona Diamondbacks and. Eventually I made my way to Colorado and started working at USA Ultimate, which is the national governing body for ultimate Frisbee in the USA. So I was there for five years.

Managed, grew some of their, large programs. We actually were facing some conversations related to equity during that time because we just, you know, had some contracts with ESPN and we were trying to make sure. You know, Women and youth were, that it wasn't just about the guys like that.

We were creating opportunities for everyone to play, be seen and have access. You know, I moved here to Denver about uh, a year before. Legislation happened where they opened up the, where they passed the legislation to make Colorado the first state to have a legal cannabis market. And it was hard to ignore all of the excitement, what was happening, in downtown.

I paid close attention to the industry and was just intrigued by for a lot of reasons, which I'm sure we'll touch. But I managed to pivot into the industry in 2018 shortly after, right around the time when Canada had federally legalized I was looking for a change in my career and the stars aligned and I had, an opportunity to work at MJ Biz.

Tom Mulhern: Now MJ biz is one of the biggest, cannabis, B2B media outlets. And so what was that like walking into this huge organization like that coming out of ultimate Frisbee, which, that sounds amazing. Like I know I've played before. I'm not very good, but what was it like walking into such a big thing as a brand new person in the cannabis industry?

Ernest Toney: There's typical challenges.

Luckily, I had paid close attention to what MJ Biz Daily was doing for a few years and, I was subscribing to their newsletters, their magazines, and uh, knew some of the people who worked there on the team. So I had some, knowledge of how things worked.

When I, you know, started I was part of a marketing team that was tasked with doing some pretty cool things. Like we, we not only had to make sure that we could promote like these awesome business conferences that were convening people from all around the world. I sort of Stepped in as a role in a role where the focus was on new business initiatives.

And some of those new business initiatives were focusing on increasing the international newsletter, readership amount of people that could attend conferences that we were hosting outside of the us. So I'd say the first few months was really just learning, doing research and I was at a great place to do that because of all of the content and stories that we were putting.

But because we were trying something new it matched my skillset because there was a lot of freedom to try to, experiment and figure out how we could make relationships with new people that we were trying to attract. And so yeah, it was hard at first, you learned so much so quickly in this industry that, within six months you felt like you had it.

Tom Mulhern: Yeah, you kind of gotta just dive right In and that's the best way to learn is there's so many good resources out there too, for learning about cannabis. And especially for someone that was maybe a casual consumer to come into, full-time, luckily there's lots of training out there.

So you were at MJ biz and then what kind of led you into starting BIPOCANN that sounds like a great role being a, International marketing manager and partnerships.

What led you to step out of that and, bravely start this brand new organization during 2020.

Ernest Toney: First off we had an awesome year in 2019 at MJ Biz. Like we put on MJ biz con had 33,000 people from 80 countries and we pulled that off while also having an event in Toronto having European cannabis symposium in Denmark and the Latin American cannabis symposium

in Columbia. And 2020, you know, I think we were excited for continuing to grow, continuing to expand then the pandemic happened and that changed everything um, because so much of what we were doing. And so much of the revenue for that business was tied to the event space and we could no longer have in-person events.

That impacted the business. Probably say a third of the company was , let go or furloughed. And so the dynamics had changed. Shortly after that the murder of George Floyd happened. That just struck me and I think it struck the entire country a lot of different ways.

And some of the things that we saw that came from that was increased attention to social justice issue. And a lot of those conversations were related to just how difficult and unfair treatment for, black people other minorities in the us has been, especially with regard to cannabis laws, possessions convictions, and

so I'm sitting at home, shook to my core about what's going on in the country. Also trying to make sense of this uncertainty with the pandemic. And I probably feel like maybe a lot of people were this way, but I just went into a period of reflection and had to say, okay how am I using my time?

And am I making the impacts in society that I wanna make doing what I'm doing at the moment? And. What can I do differently that can have a more profound impact than what I'm doing day to day? Because I wasn't really at a place where I felt like I could just go to work and pretend like business was, normal because everything had changed in the world.

and I knew that I, you know, I, I enjoyed the cannabis industry and I felt like it was very complex, but because of the work that I had done, I had seen just the huge economic opportunities that exist in this industry. I've seen how, when you go to other countries, you have all of these stakeholders that are coming together to try to figure out, Hey, how can we help people?

The health and the wellness of our citizens, how can we focus on research? How can we focus on the investing and the business, aspects and we, weren't having all of those conversations. I think in the us, whenever a new market was about to come on board.

And I felt like there was a huge opportunity to really increase people's education about something that was not gonna go away. And at the same time I felt like when I reflected on my experiences, traveling across the world going to conferences and looking at the room, there was not a lot of diversity in leadership and business ownership.

And that's problematic when you have people who are, mostly like minorities who are behind bars for the same thing that people are making millions of dollars off of. There's a lot of anger about what to do. I felt like there were a lot of companies that said that they supported, social justice initiatives.

Like they wanted to be equitable. There's this period where people were just putting black squares on social media and it's okay, that's not gonna do anything. And I just felt like I was in a spot where I could use my skills and insights to create opportunities for people to.

Know what I know, get connected to who I know have access to education and networking and the skills that are gonna help them. Not only start a business, but move up and hopefully become profitable.

Tom Mulhern:  I know like for most people around North America and around the world, seeing what was happening during that time, it obviously we've been wrestling with this as a nation for generations, but I know that I was shook to the core as well.

And like, what you're doing is making a tremendous impact in the cannabis community.

What do you see as the largest disparity within the cannabis industry for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color? Like you mentioned, obviously there's people behind bars that are visible minorities while people are making millions of dollars on the same exact product.

So what do you see as that disparity?

Ernest Toney: Let's put it this way. There's always been so much stigma around this plant and, you know, I grew up in Virginia. So I grew up in a place that was at the crossroads of the Confederacy. There was a lot of civil rights, issues that happened in my small town and. I remember that as a child growing up in a poor location, like there wasn't a whole lot of opportunity there still really isn't in that area.

But when I was five, they brought a correctional facility to town and it ended up being one of the biggest employers in the town. But it was also sending a lot of people from the neighborhood to. Have their residency there too. Putting people behind bars. I remember, as a kid that on pretty much a daily basis, and especially once you got towards the weekend, cops would just patrol the areas.

I could look out at my window and every single night, you're seeing flash and lights in the corner and people are getting stopped and , um, , during the five or six years when I lived in that area, no one ever offered me like cannabis or any other drug. But if I went two miles to the other part of town and hung out with my friends in the suburbs, it's quiet and peaceful, but I got offered so much stuff.

So many black people in this country have grown up experiencing similar situations where the likelihood for you to be incarcerated just increases, you know, just because of who you are, where you live.

And the war on drugs was one that was a hundred percent focusing on finding ways to demonize and make criminals out of People of Color. So you have this history of our communities being decimated. and one person goes to is locked up. Maybe it's like the father figure or the mother, but that has an impact on everyone in the family.

It has an impact on your economic realities. And there's also a lot of distrust too, that comes with that. So go back to go back and visit home and people. May not understand that there are percentage of licenses that are potentially available for you. If you want to get into this industry, or you may not understand that if there are folks from your community that were impacted, that they have viable pathways to start a business and participate in it.

There's still that stigma of let me stay away from this because all I've seen is bad things from it. So for the people that do want to pursue we also have this history of not having, generational wealth. This is a very rigorous, complex, expensive industry to get into. And there's not a lot of folks I know my communities that have, hundreds hundred thousand dollars or more in capital and the time that they can invest to not only support that business, but potentially pay rent on a facility for a couple of years while you're waiting for the market to open while you're waiting for losses, to over the way the licenses are gold out to get resolved.

And then if you could just take a look at how cannabis businesses are taxed with 280-E it's so difficult for people to be in a position where they could actually. Run a profitable business in the first place. There's so many like economic and systemic barriers that are against people.

And then it's even harder. If you want to pursue that process of getting a license and then actually growing it and scaling it because of all of the other barriers, that are at play.

Tom Mulhern: Do you see some of those barriers and challenges getting smaller as some of these social equity programs come along in legalization. I know stigmas with within the community would be huge. But if it's legal now, does that perspective change that?

Ernest Toney: Places like Colorado, like in the past couple of years, like they've tried to create some social equity programs that are gonna create some special licenses for folks that have been impacted, but there are still challenges with that.

We're in a saturated market. There's not a whole lot of access to available, property due to zoning laws due to just the limited, property that's available in the case, a lot of places, including Colorado when they started they made delivery, like the only like an exclusive license for social equity applicants.

The challenges there is someone has to not only start a business, but they have to find an existing operator to partner with. So just because the policy is in place, the social equity licensee immediately benefit because there's all of these things that still need to like line up for them to even open up their doors.

One of the reason, one of the ways that we've stepped in to to tackle the social equity and the representation issues is literally like leveraging the relationships that we've built. The networking, the education to reduce some of those barriers. Maybe we're not the place you wanna go to. If you're looking to do that huge capital raise but if somebody wants to get in, like we've already done this hard work of figuring out like who you should know how to navigate it.

So we try to make it easy for somebody from pre licensing to get the services that they need all the way through post licensing to literally make some of those connections and introductions to help people get operational.

Tom Mulhern: How are you supporting those efforts through advocacy, what does your advocacy programs look like for minorities in cannabis?

Ernest Toney: Some of the advocacy work that we do with an industry is educating people about in companies about the opportunities that they have, like how they can actually play a role. Let's not wait for policy to be the solution, what can industry do now to help people? So a lot of what we do is, in that space of the business and we are also finding ways to literally advocate for our members and for those individuals who may not have the platforms to be seen and heard.

So through our relationships and partnerships, like sometimes with event organizers, sometimes with media entities, like we have been able to elevate like people's stories. We share what they do. We have a monthly series that goes out where we are interviewing, someone like at a company or an individual or an entrepreneur who's doing great work to advance equity and diversity and inclusion within the industry.

So we create platforms to be seen and to be heard. We also, like again on the conference side have been able help over two dozen people get on stage for the first time and share their stories, increase their business visibility, at some of these regional or national conferences.

And those are ways that we are advocating for. Folks to have more representation in the industry.

Tom Mulhern: Is that a challenge to sometimes find those connections or are you finding more and more of those BIPOC owned businesses and professionals that are, looking to enter the industry.

Ernest Toney: One of the things that , we've benefited from is having a lot of individuals and companies reach out to us.

Also through some of the relationships and partnerships that we've created that's giving us that opportunity to get in front of people. So we have become more accessible to communities, to individuals who are trying to make sense of what the opportunities, within the industry look like.

We have done some collaborations that are focusing more on education. And through that, like we've been able to uh, provide resources that can just give them that foundational education about the cannabis industry or how to start a business.

And we've had the opportunity to, to uh, speak at, you know, some universities that are starting some programs like it was pretty cool earlier this year. Like we had a chance to speak with uh, Cornell at Cornell university to their graduate program, which had a focus on the cannabis industry and the opportunities that exist for minorities.

Tom Mulhern: What are some of the advantages for individuals or businesses joining BIPOCANN, because I know you work with both. Some of those plant touching dispensaries and cultivators, but you also work with other people that are working in the industry that maybe aren't plant touching. So how will they benefit from being a part of an organization like BIPOCANN?

Ernest Toney:  I'm glad you asked that, that question. Right from the beginning I wanted to have a focus on having a network of service providers.

So those ancillary businesses that are critical to the supply chain or professional services that every business needs set that up for a few reasons. One just through all of like my interactions with people, once they found out that I was working in cannabis I had so many people reach out just asking me, Hey Ernest, how do you get a license?

I wanna get a license. How do I do this? I think a lot of people they just see, dollar signs of this industry because it's growing so fast and they're like, Hey, I wanna get a license.

I want that lottery ticket. If I get a license, then I don't have to do anything. They don't understand the nuance and how difficult this industry is. But the other thing that I noticed is that. When I'd have conversations with these folks, I'd just ask Hey, what have you been doing for work?

And inevitably they'd tell me, that they're doing some type of service that the cannabis industry needs. And when I'm like, when I tell them, it's Hey, you could do that. If you want to get into the industry, like why you still pursue the license, like you can literally start a business doing what you do and that's not something that I think a lot of people realized or maybe didn't see like the huge opportunity that surrounds like this industry. Like how so much of it is you need a variety of services, whether it's marketing, accounting, legal, or, things like insurance or general contracting an HVAC, like all of those things are needed in this industry.

We did such a focus on the ancillary side for a few reasons. One is we want to educate people that there are ways that you can participate in this industry and that you don't need a license and a ton of money to do it.

The other piece is for the folks who are looking for licenses, They will need service. They will need some of these safe services, but might not know where to go to find them. So if we can be the place where you can go to find the services then it's gonna help everyone win. And so far the business model has, it's worked out and we've helped a lot of people literally just this just the summer, summer of 2022, New Jersey is awarding like their conditional licenses. Had, you know, some members actually refer some folks who were going through the process of getting those conditional license. Because these individuals were looking for services and they didn't know where to go. We sat down, met with them and then was immediately able to make tons of introductions from compliance, accounting, risk management, all of that.

And now these folks are in the process of, getting their license approved because we were able to connect them.

So the members in our network benefit, because they're able to get benefit business, the license seeker is benefiting because now, like they didn't have to go through a ton of barriers to find what they needed.

And they could work with people that are vetted and trusted and not have to deal with predatory businesses along the way.

Tom Mulhern: There's so much that goes into actually opening a dispensary other than just the license. I've spoken with security people and marketing people and getting a location. And there's all of that. And we need talented people working in those areas as well. Like with Kaya Push we're, we offer HR solutions for the cannabis industry, and it's not flashy.

It's not a dispensary, but it's a key thing that dispensaries need you.

Ernest Toney: Yeah, we should get you guys. You should join.

Tom Mulhern: Yeah. So for those businesses, those cannabis businesses that are looking to promote diversity and equality social equity in their businesses, what are some practical steps that they can take to today to get started promoting that in their business?

Ernest Toney:  You know, one of the things that I really liked about the cannabis industry is that it, it seems like it's one of the most relationship driven industries I've ever been a part of. And it's funny how sometimes this thing that's growing so rapidly can feel so small, because you can get connected to people you're like a degree away from anyone that you need to know.

And I think that, if the company is recognizing that there are issues, then I think that just reaching out, like to groups like mine or, or other folks that will work with you to address some of the diversity issues and challenges that you have.

I think there's a lot of things that you can do from a diversity standpoint. and it's not just about hiring visible minorities, there's so many different types of diversity. So it starts with, hiring practices and doing an audit there.

I think that if you are a plant touching, business one that's customer facing, especially in this industry, you're, your customer base is going to be so broad. You're gonna have people that are. Young, old you have gender diversity racial, ethnic diversity.

You have like veterans, you have such a wide customer base. And I think it's important to, understand what their values are, what their needs are.

In terms of other things that you can do, like with your dollars are actually look at your contractors and your vendors, are you being diverse there?

If you. Are looking for, some new companies to partner with if you want to have other, resources and options okay. Maybe I wanna work with this vendor here and this vendor here again, you could do outreach to organizations like mine, and we could typically are able to find someone to refer.

Tom Mulhern: That's good to know. So People can reach out to you if they're like, okay. It's time. It's time to make a more equitable business. They can reach out to you or other organizations and get good tips of different companies to partner with.

Okay. So we we've, we've kind of talked about the past, where do you see kind of progress and things moving forward.

You know, In the next few years here, where do you see like bright spots, the sun shining in in respect to diversity in the cannabis market.

Ernest Toney: Yeah, I feel like there's a lot to look forward to. Actually I believe like MJ Biz last year was making projections of how fast this industry's gonna grow, you know, by 2026.

And like they were estimating that it would go from, you know, 27 billion market, you know, at the end of 2021 to about a 52 billion market by 2026. So, I mean, You're looking at this industry essentially doubling in less than five years. And that actually might be a low number.

I mean, There's going to be more states that will legalize. I believe like right now there's only 15 states that have social equity programs. So there's a huge opportunity there. Like If states want to find ways to be more inclusive for those justice impacted, for the minority groups that have, you know, been displaced.

I see a ton of opportunity with regards to jobs being created more entrepreneurs getting into the space. Likely more colleges and universities having programs like people are gonna be going to school to major in something related to cannabis. That was not a thing 10 years ago. That's gonna create so many opportunities, especially for people who are working in this space right now.

I just think that we will, the cannabis in general cannabis products will become more accessible, for consumers.

If we get to a point where safe banking has passed or if we can get cannabis decriminalized, then I think that's gonna be huge too.

But I, I think that if we get to decriminalization or full legalization, then we're gonna see a ton of outside money coming into this industry. And that's when it's gonna be really challenging because I think at that point you will have some companies that just want to come in and take market share, but might not.

uh, So focused on trying to use this as an opportunity to correct some of the injustices in the past. So I feel like these next four or five years are gonna be really huge in terms of the current, people policy makers, industry players trying to be those advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion, and trying to educate people about the various ways that you can part.

and I'd like to see more collaboration in this industry. Like we're all in it together. Let's like, make it better for everyone.  

Tom Mulhern: know, I'd, I'd love to see more people who are, this is their passion in this industry and are really putting it out there. I just hope your organization just keeps on growing because I think it's so key.

Like you say, to this equitable future is starting now, before it really explodes.

Ernest Toney: The global market will continue to expand too, and there will be similar issues that countries have faced.

I actually think there's a huge opportunity. If the US market, the North American market can do something right with equity. Like how Colorado, was the model for how to, have a successful state regulated business. If we can get it right on the equity front here, then that's a template that can be used and shared globally.

Tom Mulhern: What are some of the things you're doing in your local community, to kind of increase that diversity in Colorado. I know cuz you're in Colorado and you're kind of sharing, there's some exciting things that you're working on locally.

Ernest Toney: Colorado has a cannabis business office and that business office was able to award some grants to just under 20 social equity, licensed businesses. So these were grants that were went up to about $50,000 to support their operations. Because this program is so new and just because of the services that we've created, the wraparound services and like the education that we offer we were able to submit a proposal that was approved and we'll be working with some of the grant recipients.

To create like a mentorship program. So it's a pilot program, over a couple of months, we'll be working to help them with goal setting, to literally make introductions and referrals to to services that they need to help their growth. We're also going to provide some, education in the form of there'll be like some some digital education some responsible vendor training that they can access.

And there's also going to be some webinars that we put that are focused on various topics that are critical to business development and growth.

So really excited about that because it's a pilot program and there's a potential to do more, if we do this right, do it well and I think that's something that we could also take to some other markets where we have a presence.

The core of our membership is in Colorado, but we have members like all across the country on the social equity front, we've had some successes already. Like we, we were able to help, you know, a gentleman last summer who had a licensed delivery business literally made introductions so that he could find his first partner to actually be operational. So he went from not just having a business. Now he can do business. So we're gonna continue to try to increase like our connectivity to the market here so that we can help, some of these app license, applicants and business owners have some success.

So we host events we partner with local conference organizers, like the cannabis marketing summit, like that. They just had that for the first time in, in person in 2022. Just through our relationships there and through our connectivity to local businesses, we were able to curate some panels and create, spaces for people to actually have their brands be promoted and also speak, at these events.

So we got our hands on a lot of different things, but really excited about the pilot program that we're gonna do and see what happens after.

Tom Mulhern: That's amazing. It sounds like you're doing so much. So, if someone wants to get connected to you uh, to BIPOCANN, what are the best ways to find out more about you and the work you guys are doing?

Ernest Toney: I would say as a few ways you can visit our website BIPOCANN.COM. And that gives you, a general overview of what we do. That's also where you can join if you're interested in, being an individual or a business member. We are open to everyone, that aligns that, that's interested in supporting like what, we're, what we're, trying to accomplish to reach out directly you can send an email or just find me LinkedIn.

Ernest Toney I'm pretty accessible. I like talking to people. I like to understand like how we can best, either partner or support what it is that you're trying to do. We put out a newsletter which goes out about once a month and that tends to give updates on you know new programs, activities discount codes to conferences and things like that.

So everything that we're trying to do is centered around, making it easy for people to access business resources, education, and networking through relationships that we've already created.

Tom Mulhern: Thank you so much for being on the podcast. I really appreciate it. And I would encourage everyone to go check out to find out more about Ernest and connect with him on LinkedIn. And yeah. Thanks for being on this episode.

Ernest Toney: Thanks Tom. I really enjoyed

Tom Mulhern: I wanna thank Ernest Toney again for sharing some of those practical insights for BIPOC people who are looking to enter the industry and businesses that are looking to connect with those individuals and ways that we can become a more. Social equitable industry.

It starts with business owners and cannabis retailers changing their mindset and really looking to promote black owned businesses. It's exciting to hear some of the momentum and changes that are happening within the industry.

I'd really encourage you to all, to check out BIPOCANN can and other organizations out there that are working to promote that diversity within the cannabis market.

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