Akele Parnell couldn’t wait to leap into the cannabis industry — but he’s spent the better part of the past four years waiting on the glacial pace of licensing in Illinois, while sitting somewhat on the sidelines with roles in other cannabis companies.
Parnell got his start in cannabis as an in-house attorney at Green Thumb Industries, one of the largest publicly traded cannabis companies in the United States, and later joined the e-commerce and delivery platform Lantern as its head of equity partnerships and led its business incubators in Boston, Denver, Detroit, New Jersey and New York.
But it was the prospect of creating and launching his own brand that ignited his passion.
Marijuana Venture: What were you doing before you got into the cannabis industry?
Akele Parnell: Before I worked in the regulated industry, I was a corporate and securities attorney, doing mergers and acquisitions, securities offerings and IPOs — stuff like that. You know, it sounds sexy, but it’s not.
MV: What prompted you to get involved in cannabis?
Parnell: I was looking for a different lifestyle, something that I enjoyed and something I felt passionate about. I felt like I was in a rut working in corporate law.
I was just sitting on my computer one day, and I had started thinking about it, but I wasn’t going to move to Colorado. I was in Chicago and didn’t really know there was an industry here. A recruiter randomly reached out to me about joining a startup company based in Chicago that I knew nothing about, but I was immediately, like, “Yeah, I’m in. I don’t care about all the details, we’ll figure it out. We’ll make it happen.”
This was my entry into the industry. I came in from the vantage point that whatever opportunity comes, whatever door opens, that’s what I’m going to walk through. I ended up getting the job with GTI after a long interview process. I literally knew nothing about them and didn’t know they were going to grow into one of the largest companies in the industry. I just thought their CEO was smart and liked their vision and where they were trying to go, so I sort of dove all in and I’ve been working in cannabis ever since.
MV: Now that you’re in the process of launching your own brands, what do you feel is going to make your company stand out? What are you trying to convey with this product?
Parnell: With ÜMI Farms and Lab 11, the way we structured our company, ÜMI Farms is the parent company and umbrella brand, so under that ecosystem, we’ll have about five retail locations and our craft cultivation facility. So that’s the ethos of the company, and what we’re trying to recall, and then our first brand is going to be Lab 11, which, in a lot of ways, flows from our ethos. It will be in everything, but in terms of product SKUs, it’s distinct from the apparel brand.
With both brands, we’re trying to bring fresh, new, innovative approaches grounded in a long-term plan. One of the things I want to see is an elevated design perspective in cannabis, bringing over a lot of influences we come from, like entertainment, fashion, music — and the folks we work with in our community, our chefs in the restaurant space, stuff like that. We’re also younger, so at this point, to have our own company and be young, relative to a lot of the other companies and operators, we should bring in a unique, fresh perspective and that perspective on urban subcultures and creativity that we want to come through in the products we create.
MV: How much do Chicago or the Midwest region influence these brands?
Parnell: The California brands are very much California, and the Colorado brands are very Colorado. We want to be very Chicago and sort of capture this amazingly, beautifully designed city that also has this reputation for being gritty and scrappy and working class. It’s all these things and super diverse in ways I think a lot of people don’t understand. So we just wanted to bring all that to life. And also to take into account the history of Chicago, because part of our brand is about nostalgia, so we’re going to celebrate that.
MV: What would you say has been your biggest milestone so far?
Parnell: I’d say getting to this point where we won the license through a competitive application process, getting one of the best scores in the state and getting a great location. Our location is 66,000 square feet, a great building that really allows us to ramp up production and set up strategic partnerships, getting it zoned, getting a prime retail location, and just getting to this point where we’re ready to launch a brand. Being able to launch my own product brand along with merch is like a dream come true.
MV: And you have five retail licenses?
Parnell: I own one license and that one’s hopefully going to be in Lincoln Park. We’re going through the final layer of zoning right now. And we’ve partnered with a couple other social equity licensees to launch the ÜMI brand across five retail locations throughout the city. So we’re really excited about the locations that we have in the pipeline, and we’re in a position to launch a strong retail brand alongside two product brands.
MV: When are you looking to open the first store?
Parnell: Hopefully, by the end of the year. We started the application process in 2019 — and of course, COVID and some litigation has something to do with that, but it’s a long journey.
By the time we get it open, it might be five years — I hate to even say that out loud. But it’s the highs and lows in industry. We try to ride those highs and really enjoy them. That’s one lesson that I learned, enjoy those highs, because there’s gonna be lows and hopefully it sort of evens out.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.