Paving The Way For African American Leadership In The Cannabis Industry

By Ruben LindoCEO Sungrown Zero

CALIFORNIA: The nationwide trend toward cannabis legalization is a bittersweet moment for the African American community. On one hand, it represents the crumbling of a major pillar of the War on Drugs, which has largely targeted and persecuted black people. It also represents a new business opportunity and a chance for African Americans to take up a leading role in an industry that is built in great part on our legacy. On the other hand, the ugly specter of discrimination breeds concern about how much influence black people will be able to maintain as big business interests and institutional capital rush in.

As one of the few African American leaders in the cannabis industry and a seasoned business executive, I see it as my responsibility to help pave the way for others to enter the senior executive ranks in the space. Through education, recruitment and dedication, we can and will build a cannabis industry founded on diversity, inclusion and success.

Overcoming the War on Drugs

For African Americans everywhere, legalization is more than just a change in laws. It represents a meaningful challenge to the status quo, which has seen black people disproportionately targeted and incarcerated over cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs.

Cannabis prohibition is the result of decades of racism and propaganda directed towards African Americans and Mexican immigrants, who were associated with the use of the plant to demonize them in the view of the white public. By the 1930s, cannabis was made federally illegal and so began the long era of prohibition that followed.

Today, as cannabis laws loosen state by state, white business owners and investors are eagerly pivoting into the industry to profit from a crop that has led to the arrest of African Americans at four times the rate of white people, despite both races using and possessing cannabis at the same rates. The entrepreneurial response to legalization has been overwhelming, and its rapid development is much welcome, but only if African Americans can join in building the new industry.

Taking a leading role in the development of a new industry

The first and arguably most important step in developing an equitable and just cannabis industry is having the hard conversations; we need to have an open discussion about how this new industry has been built on the backs and legacies of African American people. Black people have suffered massively under prohibition, and so we must take the opportunity to lead in the creation of a legalized industry. As the CEO of SunGrown Zero, an agricultural technology company that also operates in the cannabis industry, it is my duty to be part of starting that conversation.

Dialogue begins with education

Any honest discussion begins with education, which I take to be a key component of my success. Through lecturing at colleges and speaking at high schools around the country not only about business, but also real-life challenges, I hope to impart some wisdom on the leaders of tomorrow. But it doesn’t stop with speeches — it can’t. To develop leaders, we first need mentors. For example, I started a program called “Lunch with a Mentor,” where I find a minority (whether they are in or out of the cannabis industry) to have lunch with; I get to spend a few hours with them and give them a glimpse of what life has been like as an executive. As an African American in business, there are some things you learn by experience alone and it is critical we pass that experience on to the next generation of leaders.

Disruption in business and in social relations

Being a black executive in a predominantly white business world has its trials and tribulations. You must pass a litmus test of being a proven leader and industry expert – nobody simply grants you that acknowledgment. My experience leading other organizations has been key to launching SunGrown Zero, because this is the first time I have been part of an organization that is disrupting its existing industry. SunGrown Zero is in agricultural technology, where we build indoor grow facilities that harness the power of sunlight to cut energy costs, as well as reduce cultivators’ ecological footprints in comparison to conventional facilities.

What the cannabis industry needs is similar in that the social order, long-established by prohibition and the War on Drugs, is ripe for disruption as well. It has always been a challenge for me as an executive to get more out of people beyond the color of my skin, but the cannabis industry is the perfect place for African Americans to lead. In order to make that leadership a reality, education, recruitment and mentorship are essential to bringing others into the space.

Diversity in leadership

This industry could be the one that teaches everyone that diversity in leadership is the key. African Americans are already playing a prominent role in shaping the direction of the industry. If these leaders are able to successfully educate and mentor young black entrepreneurs into the space, we will undoubtedly achieve the diverse leadership we expect. That work is well underway and continues today.

I would be missing a big point if I didn’t emphasize the scope of opportunity we have in the cannabis industry. When I say diversity in leadership, I don’t simply mean male leaders either; I also mean women leaders. In 2015, women made up more than one-third of all leadership positions in the cannabis industry. That number has declined a bit but remains higher than the average across all other industries.

Organizations like Women Grow are nationwide movements aimed at organizing the women leaders of cannabis. Black women, in particular, play a central role in these efforts; and well they should, as they have borne the brunt of both cannabis prohibition and a male-dominated business arena. That the cannabis industry holds the promise to address both these problems and turn them on their head is an historic opportunity that we must seize.

Why the cannabis industry is different

Building a new industry, especially as federal prohibition looms large, is a cooperative endeavor, even amongst competing companies. There is this overwhelming sense that we’re all in this together, that we’re overcoming a near century’s old injustice and facing down social problems that are much, much older than even that. That cooperation has brought all minds to the table, regardless of race, gender and background, to drive legalization efforts forward to the benefit of all.

But we must make sure that attitude endures and that the industry that exists when the dust settles is one that reflects the diverse make-up of those of us who are helping to build it today. Anything short of that would be a failure but, luckily, we have the power to ensure we realize our goal. By openly sharing our stories, educating others and mentoring aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs, the future of the cannabis industry is in our hands.