Welcome to Marijuana Venture’s second annual “40 under 40” feature, celebrating some of the industry’s most exciting young entrepreneurs and rising stars. Of the thousands of potential candidates, the biggest challenge is narrowing the list to 40 individuals who have been successful in a wide range of opportunities within the cannabis space, ranging from growers and retailers to doctors, lawyers, politicians and tech innovators. This is not intended to be a complete list of the most influential or most successful entrepreneurs under the age of 40, but a cross-section of the traits and vision necessary to not just survive, but thrive in the ever-changing world of legal cannabis.
Position: Founder and CEO
Company: Ojai Energetics
Location: Los Angeles, California
Ojai Energetics has a patent pending on the process of “making little water bubbles filled with CBD,” CEO Will Kleidon says. The company’s water-soluble delivery system lets consumers feel the effects of CBD and other cannabinoids almost immediately.
Kleidon says there are some major beverage companies that are currently doing research and development to include Ojai in their beverages.
“We’ve had to scale up on production on the water-soluble end and we can now produce up to 30,000 gallons a week if needed,” he adds.
Since starting beta tests on its hemp-based tinctures and other products that are infused with water-soluble CBD demand has grown by several thousand percent, according to Kleidon. It’s fast growth, even for a company with former NASCAR driver Stanton Barrett as its president.
“We started exploding last year through word of mouth and I basically pulled the product back so we could scale for bigger distribution,” he says. “We will be in brick and mortar (stores) all over the U.S. this year.”
Coming from Silicon Valley, it should be no surprise that Kleidon built Ojai to operate in a similar fashion to a tech company.
“We are really set up to be more like the Intel Inside of cannabis delivery systems,” he says. “I built the whole intellectual property catalog for a whole bunch of uses, not just for the water-soluble element. The water-soluble element is for all cannabinoids, not just for CBD from hemp. We can actually license out our tech.”
Company: CMH Brands
Position: Vice President of Business Development and Sales
Location: Denver, Colorado
To be successful in the cannabis industry, companies have to be flexible, adaptable and tenacious — a concept that’s been embraced by Amy Diiullo, vice president of business development and sales for CMH Brands.
Despite its association with Willie Nelson, easily the biggest celebrity name involved in marijuana, CMH Brands is a relatively small operation. Amazingly, some of CMH’s retail partners have more stores than CMH has employees, Diiullo says.
“We’re a lean team, but we’re able to adapt faster,” she says. “It’s like a velociraptor versus a brontosaurus. A smaller, faster team can drive change much faster. That’s what we do and I’m so honored to work with such talented and hard-working individuals. I’m constantly impressed by every facet of my team.”
CMH Brands is the Colorado licensee of Willie’s Reserve. CMH partners with a number of cannabis growers to manufacture and distribute all the Willie’s Reserve pre-rolls, pre-packed flower and vape products. But rather than just repackaging somebody else’s product, CMH and Willie’s Reserve develop true partnerships with the farmers, Diiullo says.
It’s an uncommon arrangement in the cutthroat cannabis industry, where so many companies see each other as bitter rivals — but she believes working together will strengthen the entire industry.
“We’re all aware of obstacles and political gray areas that keep us up at night, but by working together, we only have more strength,” she says. “I might not agree with everything you say or agree with everything you do, but if you also operate in this space, you know how hard it is. You know it’s a grind and it’s risky. Together we have more power.”
Diiullo’s insight comes from having worked in Colorado’s cannabis industry since 2008.
“We’re really maturing as an industry and entering into this new era that will allow us to embrace more traditional marketing techniques and marketing approaches,” she says.
Company: Cannabis and Hemp Association
Location: New York City, New York
Scott Giannotti feels pretty blessed right now. The 37-year-old founder of the Cannabis and Hemp Association is in the final stages of acquiring his hemp farming license in New York.
“Our governor (Andrew Cuomo) is looking to be the Rambo of hemp,” he says. “I would never have had the foresight to believe that my state would come off to be the most aggressive hemp state in the nation.”
In addition to his own farming venture, Giannotti’s Cannabis and Hemp Association has helped produce more than 100 educational events since the trade association was founded in May 2014.
“The main focus of the Cannabis and Hemp Association is education and raising awareness of cannabis as, what I like to call, ‘a cornerstone crop for sustainable living,’” Giannotti says, “meaning that with one plant you can get food, shelter, medicine, spirituality and culture — everything you need to have a human civilization and have it run optimally.”
Giannotti, who is also the managing director for the Cannabis World Congress & Business Expo, plans use his new hemp farming license for a third enterprise, One Stop Hemp, which he envisions as a clearing house for the CBD industry and an incubator to help establish new hemp businesses.
Company: California Growers Association
Location: Sacramento, California
Position: Executive Director
Born and raised in rural Humboldt County, California, Hezekiah Allen grew up learning everything there is to know about cannabis.
He grew it, sold it, smoked it and ran his own cannabis farm before becoming executive director of the California Growers Association. Now his goal is to protect the young industry — especially in California — through lobbying and statewide programs.
“(Our goal is) ensuring that the culture, the varietals and the farmers that have long been the global leaders in cannabis are able to transition to the regulated future,” Allen says. “(That means) ensuring that cannabis remains a startup-friendly business, ensuring that cannabis is an equitable industry and continues to create good jobs in communities up and down the state, and ensuring that the marketplace of the future acknowledges and corrects the injustices of our past.”
The California Growers Association lobbied for and helped pass the Medical Regulatory and Safety Act in 2015. Many of the details in that bill were later incorporated into Proposition 64, which legalized recreational cannabis, including “recognizing cannabis as an agricultural product, establishing appellations for cannabis and ensuring that license requirements and fees are used to provide pathways forward for all,” Allen says.
After the legislative session ends in September, the regulatory process for new commercial cannabis licenses will move forward and likely be ready around the start of 2018. But that process won’t be easy.
“With two divergent regulatory frameworks (MRSA and AUMA), more than 45 pieces of cannabis related legislation and three new licensing agencies just getting off the ground, there really aren’t enough hours in any day, or enough days in any week,” Allen says.
Company: Haystack Cannabis
Location: Seattle, Washington
Position: Owner, extractor
Moon Sun was 18 years old when voters in Washington approved Initiative 502, legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults.
He was wrapping up his senior year of high school, but he knew he wanted to work in the nascent cannabis industry, so he turned his focus to biochemistry when he began attending Western Washington University.
For his senior project in college, Sun looked into creating genetically modified cannabis strains that included an additional THCA synthase, the enzyme that creates THC, with the goal of producing a more potent plant. On the chemistry side of his degree, Sun studied how CBD affects cancer cells and allows the body to more easily attack the invader.
At Haystack Cannabis, Sun helped the company refine its product line, developing the method for processing the distillate it uses in all its products, including the Tuscara CBD/THC topical.
Sun says he plans to improve his process further, making it easier to get some of the less accessible cannabinoids, such as CBN, which helps induce sleep. He also hopes to restart his genetics work to develop a plant with the additional synthase.
“People are forgetting why they got into this industry in the first place,” he says. “Always strive for excellence.”
Company: Cannabis Culture
A darling of Canada’s activist community, Jodie Emery has been at the forefront of the country’s marijuana legalization movement since 2004. However, this has also made her a target as the federal government has escalated its crackdown on gray market dispensaries.
Law enforcement officials recently raided seven Cannabis Culture dispensaries owned by Emery and her husband, Marc — five in Toronto, one in Vancouver and another in Hamilton. The Emerys now face charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy and possession of marijuana.
Emery, the self-proclaimed Princess of Pot, has been an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s legalization plan, saying it doesn’t go far enough to repair the damage of prohibition and she remains resolute in her activism in spite of her uncertain future.
“I’m not a criminal. I’m not a dangerous person … and yet this law seeks to put us behind bars, the police call us a threat to public safety,” she told reporters in April, according to the Toronto Star. “When the laws criminalize and harm peaceful people, those laws are unfair.”
Company: Cannabis and Glass
Location: Spokane, Washington
Starting at the bottom of a corporate ladder can greatly influence one’s perspective on business. Case in point: Tate Kapple, who began his business career — literally — in a Kansas City, Missouri basement.
Kapple worked at a miniature Applebee’s located in the basement of the restaurant chain’s corporate headquarters, serving the executives during lunch and dinner hours.
“I got paid $2 and change plus tips,” Kapple says, adding sarcastically, “It was great wage.”
Now, as the owner of Cannabis & Glass, one of the top marijuana retail stores in Eastern Washington, Kapple starts all his employees at a minimum of $15 an hour, with paid time off and health insurance.
“I think we treat our employees well and we are really proud of that,” he says.
Kapple was the youngest license-holder in Washington when he opened Cannabis & Glass in 2014 with $500 dollars of inventory, no money to pay rent and very little sleep.
“I was lucky that I didn’t have much money,” Kapple says. “If you have no money then you are salivating over all the possible decisions that you can’t quite make yet. It forces you to really consider the options at hand.”
Having recently hired its 40th employee, Cannabis & Glass now has locations open in Spokane and the tiny town of Millwood, with a third store in the works along the Idaho border.
“I am pretty sure we’ll do $15 million in sales after taxes this year,” he says. “I think that’s pretty good for a 28-year-old.”
Company: JDW LLC
Location: Anchorage, Alaska
Position: Attorney and Principal Owner
When Alaska legalized recreational cannabis in 2014, Jana Weltzin felt the call to return home.
Born and raised in Fairbanks, Weltzin moved to Arizona at age 18 to get her law degree at Arizona State University. She remained in the Southwest and joined Rose Law Group, the largest women-owned law firm in the country, where she focused on land use law and cannabis compliance.
“There are a lot of vague concepts in the law, like how do you define a community center, what’s a social services center, what are these things really when you’re looking at zoning a cannabis business,” she says.
As soon as Alaska legalized, Weltzin immediately started looking for ways to expand Rose Law into the state to help newly forming cannabis businesses. But when she realized that starting her own firm would keep more money in her home state, she founded JDW LLC, instead.
“I wanted to invest in Alaska, not send fees back to Arizona,” Weltzin says. “And I also wanted to know that I had what it takes to create and be a business owner myself. And I did. It’s the best choice I ever made.”
The young firm now has two paralegals and has worked to secure about 70 business licenses for cannabis growers and retailers in Alaska. One of its bigger upcoming projects is working with the state to allow on-site consumption at cannabis clubs.
“We’ve advocated really, really hard, but it hasn’t come to fruition yet,” Weltzin says. “But we’re going to keep working on that, and working on getting Alaska’s industry to be as strong as it can be.”
Location: Los Angeles, California
David Barakett had already solidified his career in real estate by becoming the youngest owner of a Century 21 office before deciding to launch a new business, ShowGrow, in California’s medical marijuana industry in 2015. Within a year, Barakett’s cannabis business grew to three locations in California and became one of the few to cross state borders and establish itself in Las Vegas, Nevada. Now he is looking to step beyond medical sales.
“Currently, ShowGrow only sells medicinally, but with recent changes in California’s legalization and as we grow nationally, we will be expanding into the recreational market as well making all the necessary adjustments to conduct business on the recreational side,” he says.
ShowGrow isn’t just a clever title. Barakett built his stores to literally show the grow it is selling (see Page XX for more on ShowGrow).
“It’s always been our focus to show transparency to our patients, as it allows us to showcase one of our core ideals, an inspiring concept for the ‘show’ in our ShowGrow name,” he says. “It provides a more hands-on approach for consumers, and allows them to get to know the product and industry for themselves.”
Barakett says the model has proven itself in the California and Las Vegas markets and he anticipates the upcoming removal of gray market competitors will stimulate his business further.
“The transition from medicinal to recreational will cause the black market to become almost obsolete,” he says. “The surge in people coming in for recreational purposes will happen at dispensaries across the board.”
Position: Founder and co-owner
Location: Seattle, Washington
Saagar Varu built a web-based cannabis sales and marketing platform from scratch.
Although he does have one business partner in the venture, Varu handles all aspects of the design and development of Harvestdate on his own.
That alone would be an impressive feat for just about anybody and it’s made even more impressive by the fact that Varu began working on Harvestdate before he was old enough to legally buy marijuana at retail shops in Washington. Plus, he did it while taking a full slate of college classes. His goal is to create a valuable tool for the industry and let people use it for free.
“I didn’t do it because I was necessarily super enthusiastic about cannabis,” says Varu, now 22 and graduating from the University of Washington in June with a business degree. “I did it because I saw a problem.”
There have been times in the past couple years that Varu felt like school was holding him back from building Harvestdate. He has an almost obsessive work ethic and plans to dive into Harvestdate full time after graduation.
“When I have a personal stake, I work harder than I’ve ever worked,” he says. “I work harder at this than I’ve ever worked in school.”