Title: Director of social impact
STIIIZY’s director of social impact DeRon Waller joined the industry only three years ago, but in that time he has channeled more than $1 million of the company’s revenue into community nonprofits.
“I do take great pride in knowing that we have the largest and most socially engaged collective of employee volunteers in the cannabis industry,” Waller says. “There’s not a lot of folks that can claim that they’ve built up a program as robust and effective as this, even less that look like me.”
Growing up in the South, Waller says he was never afforded the luxury of viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. But his parents empowered him to “be the change I wanted to see in the world by giving me the tools to do so,” he says.
While Waller has dedicated his entire career to helping people and communities in need, he says the “altruism that became a motivating force in my life wasn’t based on sympathy.”
“It’s driven by outrage and a prevailing sense that they need justice,” he says. “The circumstances some of the families found themselves in weren’t dictated by chance or that they made bad decisions. The harsh reality was that their predicaments were often by design.”
In 2020, Waller was frustrated with the sluggishness and complacency of the nonprofit he was working for and looked for an alternative path in the cannabis industry where he could make a more significant impact. He joined STIIIZY and says he “never looked back.”
“The opportunity to create something new without the nonprofit red tape, with a very diverse team of folks with similar backgrounds as me, and the full support of the company’s founder was far too intriguing to pass on,” Waller says.
Anytime I meet someone doing this kind of philanthropic/humanitarian work, I always want to know ‘what’s driving that?’ Could you explain?
Service and caring for others have been a part of my life since I was a child. I learned at a very young age that although we couldn’t afford everything I wanted, I knew my family was fortunate compared to others I grew up with. This altruism that became a motivating force in my life wasn’t based on sympathy. It’s driven by outrage and a prevailing sense that they need justice. The circumstances some of the families found themselves in weren’t dictated by chance or that they made bad decisions. The harsh reality was that their predicaments were often by design.
Growing up in the South I was never really afforded the chance to see the world through rose-colored frames. My parents were brutally honest about the lay of the land, our history, and quickly empowered me to be the change I wanted to see in the world by giving me the tools to do so.
My grandfather served in the Army, and I was raised to believe that the measure of a person is determined by their acts of service to others. By that metric, his stature was comparable to Andre the Giant. I genuinely couldn’t imagine myself doing anything other than serving people and encouraging others to get involved.
You had already been working with nonprofits for a while and could have found a similar position in any industry – why cannabis?
I chose cannabis because I saw what the industry was becoming early-on. It looked increasingly more like every other new industry that created wealth for generations, but gate-kept people of color. Specifically those who were incredibly capable and qualified, but didn’t come to the table with the ideal pedigree, prestige, or network of people, so they weren’t given a seat at the table.
It drove me wild to think that the industry that was built on the backs and sacrifices of communities that gave up their freedom for this movement wouldn’t be included.
That people from where I’m from in North Carolina are still serving jail sentences, some of them my own family, for something that could be ordered to your door like a cheap pizza now.
During the social unrest and racial reckoning that we all endured and grew from in 2020 the choice became easier. I had become increasingly more frustrated with the sluggishness and complacency of the nonprofit I worked for and was looking for a chance. I felt even more inspired to determine ways to serve. I was immediately drawn to the prospect of designing a community engagement program with a cannabis company that would allow me to bring my vision to life.
I knew I would be taking a risk riding the green wave, especially with a startup company in a new industry, and during a global pandemic. I worried I might alienate myself from future opportunities in the nonprofit sector, in public service, or that my involvement in the industry would pigeonhole me.
However, the opportunity to create something new without the nonprofit red tape, with a diverse team of folks with similar backgrounds as me, and the full support of the company’s founder was too intriguing to pass on. I took the job at STIIIZY and never looked back. Since then, I’ve found working in cannabis has allowed me to be radically kind and thoroughly intentional in my approach to serving people, and it has taken me to greater heights both professionally and personally. I was able to build a blueprint for how to engage community stakeholders, and for how cannabis operators, like STIIIZY, should conduct their corporate social responsibility with impact.
If you could add or change anything about the cannabis industry, what would it be and why?
Speaking on behalf of those impacted by cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs, the industry has failed to serve them as advertised. There are simple things I believe every legal cannabis operator should do that will make an impact. For example, hiring local and hiring people who have cannabis convictions seems like a no-brainer. But it’s not standard. Why is that? Further, sponsoring criminal expungement clinics for impacted communities, participating in compassionate care cannabis events, and donating products to those in need of plant medicine, but can’t afford, should be a standard. These programs should help people like veterans and those suffering from terminal illness. Also, empowering customers to support social equity brands should all be standard operating procedures in this industry.
If I had a magic wand, I’d use it on elected officials and the policymakers who regulate our industry. Safe banking and descheduling this wonderful plant are two things right off the bat I’d change. Not to say that the industry is perfect, but if these two barriers were eliminated, or at least stymied, cannabis operators would have more leeway in helping to address inequality in the industry and across communities impacted by the War on Drugs.
While I’m at it, I’d wave the wand at the holdouts and cannabis detractors to have them be more open-minded about plant medicine. I can’t rest on the hopes that I’ll get this magic wand so in the meantime, I’ll keep doing everything in my power to demonstrate the positive power of cannabis and show community stakeholders through our actions that we’re here to help improve quality of life, not disrupt it.
What is the biggest milestone you’ve hit so far in your career?
This is admittedly the most difficult question to answer out of all of these. I’m a perpetual achiever. My wife and colleagues constantly remind me to take a beat and reflect on the good that comes out of our completed projects, especially the more complicated ones. But, I really struggle with that. We all know how quick the pace of this industry is, so it’s difficult to stop and smell the flowers when there’s another mountain to climb. I do take great pride in knowing that we have the largest and most socially-engaged collective of employee volunteers in the cannabis industry. I also take tremendous pride in the fact that as a company, we just surpassed 1 million dollars in charitable contributions in three years. Then there’s the incredible satisfaction I gained by having my work get honored at the Clio Awards in 2021.
All of those are impeccable, but the biggest milestone I’ve hit so far in my career is growing into my own shoes, so to speak. That’s a milestone that, as a professional, I thought wouldn’t happen for years, if at all.
There’s not a lot of folks that can claim they’ve built up a program as robust and effective as this, even less that look like me. For me, the greatest accomplishment is seeing these pieces come together and knowing I’m the one with the vision to see the puzzle through to completion. That all of my unique lived experiences, lessons, and failures in a professional setting prepared me for this work. None of those accomplishments compare to knowing that the work we’ve done, that I directed, have contributed to eliminating the stigma around this plant that I adore, and that our work has helped support the community in a positive way. That’s the greatest milestone I’ve hit.