There is nothing like working in the cannabis industry. Cannabis has its own language, culture, and rhythm. It requires a heightened level of resilience, hustle, and grit if you want to successfully operate in the space.

This makes more sense when you consider the status of cannabis legalization at the federal level and its subsequent impact on banking, among other things. For example, most operators are unable to open bank accounts, access lines of credit, and move money electronically. These are just a few of the basic services that our industry is deprived of, and it makes running an already complex business all the more difficult.

Never could I have imagined that I would make such a major pivot in the middle of my MBA program—into a career in cannabis, no less—and that Fuqua would encourage and support me every step of the way. Here are some examples of how the Global Executive MBA (GEMBA) program helped me navigate my new world.

Support from Faculty and Staff

First, our faculty and staff go above and beyond. I received my job offer during Term 4—a little over halfway through the GEMBA program—right before our cohort was leaving for the residency in India. Lucky for me, while in New Delhi, I would receive the nudge and encouragement I needed to make the right call. It came from my professors Dr. Sharique Hasan (Strategy), Dr. Mary Frances Luce (Marketing), and Dr. Tony O’Driscoll (Global Markets & Institutions). They each gave me advice and reassurance, whether it was takeaways from their own experiences or lessons from their areas of expertise. I also received ongoing support from our Career Management Center, specifically from Susan McClanahan who provided me with one-on-one coaching sessions as I dealt with new challenges in my new role. Our cohort had the absolute best teachers and staff, and I am so grateful for them.

Visiting the Taj Mahal during our residency in India

Applying Lessons from the Curriculum

The GEMBA curriculum was particularly helpful for me in the cannabis space. As if cannabis could not get any more complicated, 2020 happened. When cannabis was eventually clarified as “essential,” we readied ourselves for some disruption, but I never imagined it would become a record year for cannabis sales. As of August 2020, BDSA reported that our company’s flagship brand STIIIZY had risen from thirty-third in early 2019 to the second leading brand in California.

I dusted off old notes from classes such as Operations Management, Managerial Economics, and Strategies and Tactics of Pricing, as I tried to help navigate my department in the COVID-19 environment. As orders soared, I thought a lot about Dr. Fernando Bernstein‘s lessons on operational bottlenecks and how to strategically relocate them to maximize productivity. And when demand continued to increase, I realized that the demand curve for cannabis had actually shifted right, just like Dr. Leslie Marx had explained, and we would need to respond accordingly. Last but not least, lessons on pricing strategies and value maps from Dr. Wilfred Almadoss came in handy. I know that sometimes, people wonder if you ever really use what you learn in school. I definitely did.

Developing as a Leader

The GEMBA curriculum also covered leadership and management in depth. Leadership is especially critical when you are in an industry as unpredictable as cannabis, filled with uncharted waters and unclear laws and regulations. For example, because so much of cannabis is still ‘unwritten,’ I had to learn to simply experiment a lot and see what works. Dr. Rick Larrick, for example, teaches that a lot of company milestones were reached not by sophisticated business plans, but by organic evolution. This doesn’t mean that you do nothing and simply hope to make it big. Rather, that stumbles forward are still progress in the right direction, and the skill to adapt and course-correct will set you apart.

Another lesson that was ingrained in me is this deep, basic need for people to feel safe. Dr. Sim Sitkin touches on this in his Six Domains of Leadership, and how Supportive Leadership, one of the Six Domains, “gives the team the protection it needs to accomplish its tasks.” As the cannabis industry can be a roller coaster, I try to find ways to communicate often, neutralize what volatility that I can in their worlds, and introduce more predictability into their tasks and systems. Additionally, security can be more profoundly felt by fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace. As of September 2020, 85% of our company are people of color, but we still have more work to do.

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The Decency Quotient

There is one more lesson from Fuqua that grounds us all: decency. Your decency quotient, or “DQ” as Dean Bill Boulding calls it, is just as important as your IQ and EQ. DQ is about an authentic desire to care for one another, which I think is especially needed in today’s world. The world, especially cannabis, could use more compassion, and I try to anchor my decisions every day with this in mind.

I am proud that the company I work for, Shryne Group, is just as committed and are supporters of the Last Prisoner Project, a non-profit committed to bringing restorative justice to the cannabis industry. We believe that cannabis leaders, especially those profiting from it, have a moral obligation to help free those imprisoned by cannabis offenses which are now legal in most states. We still have a long way to go, including helping those with prior cannabis arrests or convictions, find meaningful careers and opportunities in the cannabis industry. Social equity programs mark an effort to help make this a reality, and it means a lot to me that my company is partnering with social equity applicants to do just that and help change lives for the better. I don’t know of any other industry that is this deliberate in creating opportunities for those that didn’t have them prior.

Participating in a protest to activate all Asians and allies to stand up and fight back against hate crimes and racism

Cannabis isn’t just a business—it is a powerful movement and community, and I am so honored to be a part of it. Both GEMBA and this industry have given me more opportunities and experiences than I could never have pictured for myself. I get to work next to the best of the best in the game and play an active role in shaping strategies and giving back. I am having the time of my life in the cannabis industry, and my GEMBA experience has made all the difference.