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Winning in Washington weed: Shannon Vetto’s journey from consultant to CEO

Shannon Vetto didn’t get into the cannabis industry because she likes smoking weed. She got into it because she thought that with her background in the investment industry she could help marijuana businesses achieve their full potential. 

Now CEO of The Evergreen Market in Washington State, Vetto worked in the investment industry for nearly thirty years before entering the cannabis world. She was a member of the Russell Index executive team and was responsible for the global operations that doubled gross revenue and tripled net profit in six years, expanded its presence across four continents, and contributed to selling the private company to the London Stock Exchange for $2.7 billion in late 2014. 

Vetto and staff at the Evergreen market

With that deal closed, the next step would have been for Vetto to move to the combined companies’ headquarters in New York or London. 

“I wanted to stay in the Seattle area — I had kids in middle and high school,” Vetto said. “I left the company knowing what I didn’t want to do but not knowing what I wanted to do.”

She stayed on long enough to integrate two firms’ UK and US operations, then left so she could remain in Seattle. Washington State had recently legalized cannabis for adult use, so Vetto went to work for private equity firm Privateer Holdings to expand its operations into the Asia-Pacific region.

“I worked with Asian governments, medical facilities and teaching hospitals to create protocols for research,” she said.

Ultimately, Vetto started her own cannabis consulting business. She worked as chief strategy officer for Shield Compliance, a cannabis banking compliance software firm. She also worked on global market strategy for the publicly traded Canadian cannabis company Tilray Brands Inc

But even when she started working in the industry, Vetto had preconceived ideas about cannabis that she didn’t shed until she met Catherine Jacobson, formerly Tilray’s vice president of regulatory and medical affairs. 

“Even when I went to work in the industry, I had a really big stereotypical reaction to marijuana — it was a gateway drug,” Vetto said. “It had a stigma around it that we all really bought into. The thoughts around that stigma were broken when I spent time talking to Catherine.”

Through Jacobson, Vetto learned that cannabis is less addictive than nicotine or caffeine and that it’s medically impossible to ingest enough to cause death. 

“It not only changed my view, but it changed my recognition that this plant had been highly stigmatized,” she said. 

Vetto also did consulting work for cannabis retailer The Evergreen Market. She helped the company expand its footprint, adding a third store in Washington and moving into California. 

Vetto learned the business by trying out positions ranging from budtender to working the door on 4/20.

“I wasn’t paid to do it,” she said. “I was figuring out how it all worked and what was different about it — the only way to really understand it was to live it.”

It wasn’t long before The Evergreen Market founders Eric Gaston, Jeff Anderson and Arne Nelson asked her to join the company as chief executive in 2019. 

Since coming on board, Vetto has relied on people with different types of expertise to fill in the gaps where her skills are lacking. Evergreen Market director of product and marketing, Porcia Doubray, for example, has spent a decade in the industry and held every position at the company.

“She knew all the growers, had the relationships, and is deep in the culture,” Vetto said. “She has a lot of natural skill and respect from her peers. That experience is just as critical as the science of business with experience of corporate America. You need to build a strong hybrid culture.”

Slideshow: Scroll for more images of staff inside The Evergreen Market

Vetto says her experience in the investment industry served her well as she embarked on her new career. In the investment world, she focused on growth and development — skills she’s using to help expand The Evergreen Market.

“Every state is like a different country, but the product is pretty much the same,” Vetto said. “Figuring out how to expand your business, whether it’s globally or state by state of a federally illegal profile while having state legal frameworks is challenging. It’s like having different investment frameworks in different countries.”

Founded by three dads — Gaston, Anderson, and Nelson — who met while their daughters were in the YMCA Y-Princesses program, The Evergreen Market has five locations in Washington — the maximum the state permits — and one in California.

Vetto plans to expand the business further in California and other states. But the company won’t expand beyond retail into cultivation or manufacturing because Washington does not allow vertical integration.

“Expansion is capital intensive, and it’s almost impossible to get debt-related instruments at a reasonable rate for companies our size,” Vetto said. “I have a foundation of background that’s very useful in figuring out how to expand with unique capital structures —  you learn the hard way what level of financial services are available to businesses that work in the industry…Our primary goal is to expand at a pace that allows us to stay relevant while regulatory changes are so unpredictable. That becomes a game of scale and capital.”

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