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30 below: Twelve young innovators who are rocking the industry

Cannabis is a young industry in more ways than one. So is youth an advantage as a cannabis entrepreneur? Short answer: sometimes. Today we’re talking to young players who exemplify their generation’s fresh approach to business, and hearing what they have to say about the challenges and joys of a young industry. 

Vanessa and Jade Gabriel, Marc Lopez, Founders of Drop Delivery

While still in college, Vanessa Gabriel teamed up with Marc Lopez and her sister Jade to get a head start on business. Marc had worked on startups in the vape industry, and they decided to use his cannabis connections to move into the industry. The outcome? They founded several companies before Vanessa even finished school. After selling their cannabis order app Greenlight, they went on to create Drop Delivery, which builds unique apps for cannabis delivery businesses. Vanessa is now 29; Marc is 28, and Jade is 24. 

Their youth might have something to do with the fluid thinking and media savvy that allowed them to quickly pivot from traditional capital fundraising to crowdfunding and then raise nearly one million in eight weeks. But it could also be why they had to pivot. “I think it’s a knife that cuts both ways,” Vanessa says. “On the one hand, it’s a considerable accomplishment to have launched as many projects as I have with my co-founders, including one that sold to a publicly-traded company after only eight months. And, I know that being so young, I have years ahead of me to continue growing. So, in many ways, the best has yet to come. But, on the other hand, there can be challenges, especially around raising capital where there is the stigma of being young, regardless of accomplishments or stellar P&Ls or EBDITA.” 

Felicity Chen, Founder of Potli

Based in the Bay Area, Potli is a line of cannabinoid infused products, including raw wildflower honey, olive oil, and sriracha based on a family recipe. Now 28, Fel credits her Chinese immigrant family for her strong work ethic and will to succeed, but credits her youth for her willingness to take risks. “I feel very fortunate to have started a company at an age where I could be fearless about creating something so against the grain,” she says, adding, “I have always used age to my advantage! I hope to always have a young mindset. To always be curious and open to learning new things.” This openness to new things has been particularly useful in our nascent industry. As Fel says, “There is no playbook for the recreational cannabis industry, and it’s humbling to be a tiny piece in writing the history of normalizing the plant.”

Vince Ning and Jun Lee, Founders of Nabis

Vince Ning and Jun Sup Lee

Launched by childhood best friends, Nabis has grown into a powerhouse that distributes cannabis products to 99% of California’s dispensaries. The company recently tripled its capacity with a massive new facility and continues to add brand partners. Vince, who is 27, says, “Given how new the cannabis industry is, being young and nimble has allowed me to quickly adapt to the ever-changing regulatory environment of this industry.” Jun, 28, agrees, adding, “The industry is tough and ever-changing. It truly requires stamina and obsessive attention to detail to make this machine tick. It’s a labor of love, because what you’re building today can be completely different than what you’re working on tomorrow.”

Vince draws a parallel between their own youth and the youth of the industry: “When we were starting Nabis in 2017, I was excited by how nascent the industry was and how there were no existing incumbents, which created an environment where Nabis had a chance to create the supply chain from a ‘first principles’ approach. Instead of borrowing the blueprints from other industries on how a distribution service would aid the cannabis industry, we were free to build our own model based on what works for this specific industry.”

Interested in how Nabis has expanded so quickly? Margaret Jackson investigates

Max and Zach Spohler, Xander Shepherd, Founders of Artet

Max and Zach are twins and they teamed up with their cousin Xander to create the cannabis aperitif Artet and, more recently, to-go cocktails. This spring the California brand ranked #3 on the Pioneer Intelligence index for the nation’s hottest cannabis beverages. Now 26, the twins credit their family for their strong work ethic and ambition, particularly their grandmother, who was a maverick of the travel industry. “This gave us a deep appreciation for hospitality beyond just travel, as the family adores spending long summer days together (often with some drinks),” Max says. “As we were all individually cannabis enthusiasts from a young age we were deeply motivated to see how cannabis can play a role in more social settings. From there, Artet was born.”

When asked if their youth is a benefit, Max says, “In many ways our age allowed us to see and experience the shifting culture around cannabis more acutely. Our peers were comfortable bringing weed and wine to dinner parties while at the same time, we were noticing a curiosity but still a hesitance from our parents’ generation. With Artet, we’re bringing cannabis into the food and beverage world in an intentional way, with plans to continue to build tools for delicious infused beverages.”

This intention resulted in their proudest moment. “We were very proud when we were able to bring cannabis to our first thanksgiving—putting cannabis on the table, not sneaking out after the meal,” Zach says. “It’s rewarding to give people another option and put cannabis into a format that continues to push forward the de-stigmatization of the plant.”

Alex Levine, Owner and Co-CEO of Green Dragon

Since 2009, Green Dragon has grown from a single dispensary to one of Colorado’s largest dispensary networks, with multiple licenses for cultivation and manufacturing. (For more on how Green Dragon is expanding into Florida, check out Margaret Jackson’s deeper dive into the company.) 

Alex, who is 27, is responsible for monitoring daily operations at Green Dragon, which employs more than 260 people, and administering license acquisition and the rollout of new retail locations. When asked what drew him to cannabis, Alex says, “I have always been fascinated with cannabis, its culture, medical benefits, and history. I felt that cannabis had such an aura of mystery around it, which was exciting, but I also had an intuition that the perception of cannabis was about to undergo a massive societal shift. Being a part of the new cannabis industry was a top priority for me, and I’m proud to say my entire professional career has been solely in cannabis!”

When asked if he’s faced any challenges specific to his age, Alex says, “I think I look a lot older than my actual age now (running a cannabis business is not a stress-free endeavor!), so it’s not as much of an issue, but I remember in earlier days other people thought they could take advantage of me because of my age and assumed inexperience. Thankfully, the cannabis space was different enough from a typical business that my age gap wasn’t considered so strange.” In fact, it could be an advantage.

“While many people in the cannabis industry are part of my generation (in fact, I would probably argue the majority are) not many are in ownership positions,” Alex points out. “Ownership of cannabis companies generally skews to older investors who are part of a completely different generation. I believe my age gives me a unique perspective that isn’t typical of most cannabis owners and/or investors. Most trends in the cannabis industry and politics are largely driven and shaped by members of my generation.”

Dalton Hicks, Chief Development Officer at Platinum Brands

As the cannabis industry goes “mainstream,” it’s attracting talent from the conventional business world. Dalton, 30, is a newcomer to our industry, but brings a wealth of experience in mergers and acquisitions and is excited to focus on geographic expansion for Platinum Brands, the parent company of Tastebudz and ebb. He says, “For me, the allure of working in cannabis was really the unique opportunity to leave my mark on an emerging industry with such immense potential.” 

He doesn’t see a particular advantage or drawback to youth, and says the greater challenges are unique to the cannabis industry: “That means an archaic regulatory framework making even the ordinary difficult: vendor sourcing, expansion site selection, working with financial institutions where our fundamentals would otherwise make us a slam-dunk client… Maybe I will get to face challenges due to my age after the industry’s regulatory environment improves, and I look forward to that!”

Victoria Plummer, Strategic Product Analyst at Lantern

Lantern is an on-demand cannabis home-delivery platform built by the founders of Drizly, the popular booze delivery platform. As Lantern’s strategic product analyst, Victoria oversees all data analytics and constantly works to improve the customer experience. Victoria, 26, was recently drawn to the industry because she wants to destigmatize the plant. “Cannabis demonization has disproportionately affected minorities, and it’s one of the rarer industries where a lot of policies are being written in real time,” she says. “I’m black and female and personally know families and communities who have been disproportionately affected by archaic Nixon-era policies. It’s devastated communities–leading to jail time, broken families and generational traumas. I’m here now, and I’m here to help fix this.

When asked how she chose her company, she explains, “Lantern has been making waves in the cannabis industry, and has been doing it with social equity in mind.” She was particularly impressed by their incubator program, which provides meaningful tools to people who want to start delivery businesses. “When I heard about that, there was nowhere else in this industry that I wanted to work,” she says. “The ability to analyze a budding (haha, pun) business, nerd out over numbers and code, and restructure stereotypes? It sounds like a dream.”

On the subject of age, Victoria says, “I honestly think that anyone can be involved–there’s so much here, and I don’t think age is a factor with the projected growth that everyone is going to see. But the volatility of something that is still forming is probably going to be appealing to those just starting to get the swing of things and willing to accept risk rather than someone looking for an established course of profit.” 

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