If you sat down and tried to think up a dream brand to appeal to the ethical, quality-conscious consumer, you might come up with Calyxeum. The Detroit-based company is owned by two Black women, they grow their own organic medical cannabis, and they run an incubator program and a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing Detroit and teaching equity applicants how to navigate a complicated industry.
When it comes to best practices, Calyxeum has a leg up. Before breaking into the cannabis industry, CEO and co-founder Rebecca Colett got a business degree from Florida A&M, an MA, PMP from Georgia Technology Institute, an MBA from the University of Chicago, and worked for years in finance, including program management, risk management, and organizational road mapping for giant corporations.
“It was a great career,” she recalls. “I got to travel… But I hated it. The work-life balance sucked. I never got to impact the community because I was in the office all day. It really wasn’t me.”
The cannabis industry blipped onto her radar while she was working in emerging markets. Meanwhile, she was discovering the benefits of the plant on a personal level. Her veteran father struggled with PTSD and other health issues for which he’d been prescribed opioids. The family was looking for alternatives.
“I started researching and saw how access to clean, legal, tested cannabis was so hard, especially for veterans, because they could get tested and lose their VA benefits,” Rebecca says. “I just became real passionate about it. Like, wait a minute, this is wrong! I can’t get my dad a joint and he fought for this country. Meanwhile, I started seeing all these millions of dollars that were being made in cannabis. So I transitioned to cannabis using a lot of my corporate skills.”
Her first cannabis projects were in tech and operations, but she envisioned something more personal and impactful.
“I always wanted to do a project at home, in Michigan… People don’t talk about Detroit in a positive light most of the time. So I always wanted to do some social giveback work to Detroit. Because even though there’s a lot of issues with Detroit, it’s a great city and it started some great movements in our time,” she says.
For a while, friends had been telling her that she needed to meet LaToyia Rucker, a biologist who got her start in the industry in 2009, when medical cannabis became legal in Michigan. Rucker initially began making cannabis edibles to treat her jaw pain from a surgery and next became a caregiver for her grandmother, who was suffering from fibromyalgia. By the time she met Rebecca, she was an established medical supplier and successful entrepreneur, who also happened to have two advanced degrees. The women hit it off.
“After I met her, I was like ‘Oh, this is the project I’m going to do in Detroit,’” Rebecca says. They both agreed that they wanted to create a brand to fill what they saw as a gap in the Michigan market. Calyxeum grew out of their commonalities.
“We’re not rappers. We didn’t play in the NBA. We wanted to be authentic with who we are. We’re women of color. We’re entrepreneurs. Both of us had businesses before we started Calyxeum. We aren’t athletes, but we love to work out. We’re about fitness and health and wellness,” says LaToyia, who also owns a local chain of fitness centers for children. “That’s really our target market: We look at women like us that are entrepreneurs. We look at women like us that are health conscious.”
They didn’t want their branding to look like anything else they were seeing on the Michigan market. “We didn’t want the name to be Dank R Us or Green 420,” Rebecca says, laughing. The name Calyxeum stems from the calyx of the plant, and their striking purple and orange logo represents hues found in cannabis while at the same time standing out from the go-to green scheme.
But it wasn’t just about looking different. “In the cannabis industry you have people who can grow and make great edibles, but they don’t really know how to run a business,” Rebecca notes. In her previous work as a consultant in the industry, she’d been struck by the chaos.
“When you work in corporate America for a huge company such as Morgan Stanley and GE, they have everything to the T very structured and then I come to cannabis and I’m like ‘Y’all don’t got no structure at all.’” She saw huge gaps in organizational efficiency. “I’m like: Yes this is great bud, but are you compliant? When you hire people do you have training plans? Do you have SOPs?”
Efficiency may be a goal, but it’s not their reason for being. “We don’t have the same purpose, nor do we have the same goals as those huge corporations,” LaToyia stresses.
“Calyxeum is in the middle,” Rebecca says with a thoughtful expression. “We have a lot of that cannabis culture, like the legacy culture, but we do have a little bit of that corporate culture too, so I think that we’re a good mix.” She says this blend resonates with their target consumer. “They’re like: They professional, but they not uptight.” She laughs.
Both women are vegan and committed to organic gardening. A defining part of their plan is simple: grow good weed and formulate quality, healthful products. La Toyia is the mastermind of their grow operation.
“People really like to glamorize it…” LaToyia says. “But at the end of the day, I’m in my garden, I got my gloves on, I’ve got my music playing, but I’m working hard, sometimes I’m working eight or nine hours a day to make sure the product that people get is good, is high quality. I take pride in that, I really do.”
She’s growing a proprietary strain called Pancake Breath, as well as Biscotti Cake, Gelato Sunday, Garlic Cookie, Lemon Sexdriver, and Candy Gelato. “We really try to find cultivars that have our colors…purple hues, orange hues, a little pink here…” LaToyia says with a dreamy expression.
But they’re also moving away from defining themselves by strains and have developed a product line designed to make it easier for consumers to find the effects they’re looking for. They debuted Calyxeum Calm, Calyxeum Chill, and Calyxeum Create this October at MJ Unpacked in Las Vegas. They also make vegan gummies, topicals, and have a line of concentrates that includes vape oil, hash oil, dabs, and CBD oil.
“Our flower and our gummies and all that stuff is fantastic,” Rebecca says. “I’m a Rastafarian myself and I put my stamp of approval on it, but it’s equally important what we’re doing with our incubator and our nonprofit in the inner city of Detroit.”
Their good works are based on four pillars: STEM and workplace development programs, their social equity incubator, and neighborhood improvement projects such as a community garden and rebuilding dilapidated homes.
“Detroit in the inner city is not the best looking place so we’re really just trying to beautify it…” Rebecca says.
The incubator, Detroit Cannabis Project, is a partnership with the city government that offers weekly webinars on topics vital to building a successful cannabis business. They bring in experts from around the country to teach different units. They’ve been able to educate around 200 social equity applicants in the past year alone.
“We talk about zoning, we talk about real estate, we talk about cannabis taxes, we talk about 280E, we talk about supply chain, we talk about marketing, we talk about how you can’t say certain words on IG or your page might get shut down, we talk about which social networks are more cannabis-friendly, so we really do the full life cycle of best practices in operating a cannabis business…” Rebecca says.
Detroit Cannabis Project also offers a “business plan bootcamp,” a week-long intensive. Afterward, applicants can meet with experts for one-on-one consultations to refine the plans they’ve created.
Their expertise is vital to up-and-comers, but Rebecca and LaToyia know from experience that hard work and smart strategies don’t guarantee an easy path.
“We know what it’s like to have a viable business and a viable strategy but still have to struggle to get capital,” LaToyia says. She describes their company as “community-driven with positive social impact but few resources.” This is frustrating when she contrasts their situation with that of their mainstream competitors.
“There’s companies out there that are huge,” she says. “And they continue to expand, and they continue to raise capital and their products are terrible. And I’m like: Wait why is it so hard for us to raise capital when we have good quality and we have this wonderful brand message and people love us?”
To raise funds while highlighting the struggle that many Black-owned grassroots cannabis companies face, she and Rebecca are launching a crowdfunding campaign during Black History Month. Their goal is to raise 250k and they’re inviting potential supporters to participate in a revenue-sharing model.
“We are just getting started,” they write in their announcement of intent. “Join us as we seek to redefine the myths of the cannabis consumer, changing the perception of cannabis in the professional world. We represent women, community, diversity, opportunity, and empowerment.”