When Nancy Whiteman was a pot-smoking teenager, she never dreamed of a future where THC would be legal. So it stands to reason she also never suspected that she’d be the CEO and co-founder of one of the most famous cannabis brands in the world.
This wildly successful business is, of course, the result of years of toil, but its point of inception was casual in the extreme. Nancy was running a sales and marketing consultancy and raising her kids in Boulder, Colorado. A fellow parent stopped by the house to pick up his kid, and they got to talking about an infused soda he was making. Nancy realized that it might be fun to develop a cannabis product of her own.
“It was not a long-term dream,” she says with a laugh. “It wasn’t something that we pondered for a long time. It was more sort of, Hey, let’s try this. This sounds like it could be rather interesting.”
Nancy is speaking to me from her airy home and looks relaxed in a blue cardigan, crisp white shirt, and simple jewelry. She has a warm, surprisingly mischievous smile, darkly arched brows, and a twinkle to her eye, yet she has a laser focus throughout our conversation. Everything she says is quotable, but in a real way, not in a “I memorized our company talking points” way.
“I got into it because I thought it would be a fun, cool product-based business,” she says. “We were a tiny little startup that was just bootstrapping it, so our research and development was really of the most basic sort, just trying a whole bunch of different products and then infusing them. Seeing how they tasted. Seeing how they impacted. And then putting it out in the marketplace and seeing what people bought. It really was that simple, which I have to laugh about now, comparing it to our rather elaborate ideation process, which is very structured and goes through all kinds of formulation and sensory evaluation. But back in the day, we were not doing that. We were just trying things, putting it out in the market and seeing what the reaction was to it.”
She notes that many of their friends were “willing guinea pigs.”
Thirteen years later, Wana still manufactures and sells products in Colorado and has expanded, via licensing deals, into seventeen US states and nine Canadian provinces. Throughout all these changes, Nancy has remained integral to the R&D process.
“Now, we’re very intentional about what we’re designing,” Nancy says. “So I work daily with Mike Hennessy, who’s our VP of innovation. And it’s probably one of the most interesting and challenging and fun parts of my job. I love it.”
Staying abreast of innovation is an intricate process that starts with listening closely to their sales teams.
“We do a lot of looking at the marketplace, figuring out what we think is trending, what we think will land the most effectively with consumers and meet the most needs. And then we try to validate that both through consumer research and what the science tells us about formulation.”
Wana is known as a science-forward company. Nancy calls their VP of Innovation “brilliant” and credits Hennessy with keeping Wana on the cutting edge of research. As Nancy says, “Innovation is the lifeblood of our business.”
When it comes to regulated cannabis, Nancy Whiteman is just about as veteran as you get. She says almost every aspect of the industry has changed since she founded Wana in 2010.
“It was really the Wild West,” Nancy remembers of Colorado’s early medical market. “I mean, seriously, people were making products in their home kitchen and printing out labels on their dot matrix printer, putting them in their backpack, and off they went. And now, of course, we operate in a highly regulated environment.”
But she also feels the changes on a personal level.
“It’s also just almost like a visceral thing,” she says. “I know that when I first started Wana, I was extremely careful about who I told what I was doing. You know, it really was not acceptable at that point in time to admit that you were in the industry. And now I’m always shouting it from the rooftops because I’m so excited and proud of it. So the attitudes are something that have changed.”
Those changing attitudes include expectations.
“The other thing that I would say has changed is just the expectations around what a brand and an edibles company needs to be able to do,” Nancy says, looking thoughtful.
Nancy Whiteman is a famous female executive in a famously male dominated industry, so it seems natural to ask her perspective on this perennial topic.
“Yeah, it is very male dominated,” she says. “In fact, interestingly, I would say more so now than it was when I started.”
She goes on to say that in Colorado, the comparatively low cost of entry to the medical market and the unlimited licenses meant that entrepreneurs of all stripes could try their hand at starting a cannabis brand.
“What has ended up happening over time is that as states have shifted to more of a limited license model, there’s incredible competition to get a license and a lot of expense to get a license,” she says. “It’s not uncommon to have to show half a million dollars or more to put up – to even apply for a license you have to be able to prove that you have that kind of capital. And the unintended consequence is that the industry began to favor people who’ve historically had the upper hand in terms of raising capital, which are white men. And so particularly if you look at the leadership of the largest cannabis companies, it’s very, very dominated by white men.”
How to hire for the cannabis industry
Last year, Wana simultaneously hired two women, Kelly Flores and Sandy Li, to executive positions. I ask Nancy if she was making an intentional statement with these well-publicized hirings.
“Well, yes and no,” she says. “It certainly was my intention to do my best to increase the diversity of our C-suite. However, having said that, I will always default to the best candidate. And the best candidates in this case were two women.”
When it comes to hiring, Nancy looks for people who have a connection to the plant.
“This is a really difficult industry,” Nancy says. “And I believe if you don’t have a larger sense of mission about it, it’s hard to stick it out through all the ups and downs. So I definitely look for that kind of interest and commitment and passion for the plant.”
Whiteman believes that certain personality types flourish in the cannabis industry.
“I love people who are really curious,” she says. “People who ask a lot of questions, who have sort of that insatiable desire to keep on learning, because this is a very steep learning curve industry where things are changing constantly.”
Although Whiteman, in her neat cardigan, hardly looks like an agent of chaos, she says that a certain attraction to chaos is helpful to get along in the industry.
“If you can’t enjoy that, then this really isn’t the right industry for you. I really look for people who like to have fun. I mean, we laugh all the time and it’s fun. It’s a fun environment. And people who are looking for something a little bit more buttoned up probably wouldn’t be that happy here.”
She describes Wana’s company culture as collaborative and supportive.
“There’s a lighthearted risk-taking culture there that really says to people: None of us have this all figured out yet,” she reflects. But this free-form momentum is balanced by structure and strategy. This balance, Whiteman says, has created an environment with very little turnover.
How to create good leadership
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Whiteman, who has always gravitated toward leadership roles, has interesting thoughts on the tenants of becoming a dynamic executive.
“I think you really have to have a vision of what you’re trying to do. I think if you want people to get excited and follow you, you have to have something compelling to put in front of them. And so I always make a distinction between people who are good managers and people who are good leaders. I think there’s lots of people out there who are decent managers. They know how to get the work done. They know how to manage people. They’re not necessarily good leaders.”
So what makes a great leader?
“I think leadership requires communication skills,” Whiteman reflects. “Ideally, I think it requires a great balance of emotional intelligence with business savvy…And I would also say, and this is a little corny, but I think it’s true: It’s really figuring out how to empower other people to be their best and do your best to not be the big hero who swoops in all the time with the ideas and the solutions, but instead really mentors other people on how to be great leaders themselves.”
Preparing for federal legalization
Under Whiteman’s leadership, Wana signed one of the most newsworthy deals in the history of the regulated cannabis industry. In October of 2021, Canada’s Canopy Growth agreed to pay $297.5 million upfront for call options to acquire 100 percent of Wana after US federal legalization or another “triggering event,” such as plant-touching companies being cleared to trade on US stock exchanges. It remains to be seen if this deal will come to fruition, in light of Canopy Growth’s recent upheaval.
Speaking of upheaval, Nancy Whiteman thinks federal legalization will be “a mixed bag” that will bring greater federal government oversight while retaining distinct state markets.
“I certainly don’t think it’s going to be like flipping a switch,” she reflects. “And now all of a sudden we can ship across state lines and we can sell in mainstream distribution. It’s not going to go like that. I think that there will be some things that will get easier…I think that being able to ship across state lines will give us the ability to scale and be more efficient at a very different level than we’re able to today.”
But the ability to scale efficiently will, of course, change everything.
“It’s part of the reason that I made the choice that I made for Wana in terms of our own transaction with Canopy,” she says. “I think it will become increasingly hard for small independent brands to be successful. I think you will see very large players coming in very quickly. I think you’ll see big alcohol will be moving in. I think CPG will be looking at the space and obviously pharma’s already looking at the space. So I think that there will be a huge shake out because there will be lots of companies that simply can’t operate in a more regulated environment. And also I just think the competition is going to be at a whole different scale.”
How to remain competitive
In order to remain competitive, Wana continues to innovate, releasing a near-steady stream of new products, like Wana Stay Asleep (which in addition to the usual “sleep cannabinoid” suspects, also contains thirty terpenes chosen to enhance relaxation) and their new Wana Classic Passionfruit Pineapple, which has a 1:1:1 CBG/CBD/THC ratio.
Their ever-expanding product line is mirrored in their near-constant expansion into new markets. This, of course, means constantly evaluating and learning new markets and regulatory structures. Whiteman says Canada was particularly challenging.
“Canada has been a really interesting market and we really didn’t know what to expect because the constraints in that market are so different from the United States…The whole sales process was completely different. It goes through the provincial boards. They’re the ones who are choosing which products the dispensaries are going to have access to. So it was a huge learning curve.”
Whiteman is quick to credit Wana’s Canadian partner, Endeavour, with helping the brand navigate the market with their “great manufacturing team and fantastic sales team.”
Ultimately, the hassle and uncertainty was worth it.
“The Canadian market for us is just a great example of the power of getting to a market early. You know, we were one of the first, if not the first major brand from the US to get to Canada. And the Canadian brands by and large were less developed than the US brands were. So we were able to really get a toehold. We still have, I think, about a 30 percent market share in edibles in Canada.”
How to keep things interesting
This has been a lot of business talk so I try for something lighter. I ask her if she consumes on a regular basis.
“I do,” she says with a smile.
“What are your favorite products?” I ask.
“Well I am fond of the Wana products,” she says with a laugh. “You know, my usage really is situational. Our quick onset gummies are perfect for social situations because they come on fast, and they last for a limited period of time, so you can drive home safely. So it’s great for that. But I’m also a terrible sleeper, so I also love our sleep products.”
I speak with a lot of industry veterans and am accustomed to a cynicism and a weariness that’s understandable given the difficulties and ever-changing challenges of our incredibly complex industry. So when I ask Nancy what she’s excited about, I’m surprised that she sounds genuinely excited and talks nonstop for another ten minutes, ranging from their expansion into New Jersey to new products in the pipeline.
“Every market—it’s like having a new baby, you know, it’s an adventure. It’s kind of its own crazy thing, right? So there’s just a huge, steep learning curve every time you open up a new market. So I’m excited about that.”
She’s also excited about a whole slew of new products Wana will be launching in the upcoming months, including more case-specific products and more live rosin.
“Some of them are already formulated and they’re just nicely waiting their turn in line to be brought into the marketplace,” Nancy says with satisfaction. But her face really lights up when she talks about the challenge of bringing the products to so many unique markets.
“We have ninety-two unique SKUs across all of our markets,” she says, and explains, “We try to localize for markets. Some of it is regulatory driven, right? You know, Canada has its own dosing rules. Then in some markets we’re not allowed to call products by cocktail names. But some of the variation is driven by our understanding of that local market. For example, people in Oklahoma like high dosage products, right? We’re going to have different mixes of SKUs depending on the preferences of the local market.”
Although Whiteman acknowledges that learning new rules and regulations is not particularly fun, for her the joy of the challenge overshadows the headaches of bureaucracy.
“It’s very intriguing. It’s like this giant puzzle when you enter a new market to figure out what SKUs are we going to enter with and why. How are we going to position these? Who are the key distribution partners that we want to make sure that we get on the shelves with? It’s a very interesting and engaging puzzle to be figuring out.”