Title: Founder and CEO
Before creating PLUS, one of the leading edibles brands in California, Jake Heimark worked in the tech industry for Facebook and then with a startup called Gumroad. Having come from an entrepreneurial family, Heimark knew it was time to spread his wings and start his own business but had yet to settle on an industry. That’s when he received some direction from his father.
“He shared the ‘60 Minutes’ piece on cannabis and suggested that I look at what I could do in this completely new and undefined market,” Heimark says. “I headed to Colorado and joined Green Labs, a Denver accelerator focused on marijuana startups.”
While the industry in Colorado presented opportunities for cultivation, retailing and extraction, Heimark felt comfortable with edibles, since his family “has a strong background in that industry.”
Heimark analyzed future projections for the edibles market and then turned his findings over to his father, the former chief information officer at Swiss Bank UBS. They “both agreed that the business opportunity was unbelievably compelling,” Heimark says.
Heimark took what he learned to California and started PLUS in 2015. In 2018, PLUS revenue grew to $8.4 million, a 681% increase from 2017. Heimark says the company’s new goal in 2019 is to bring its gummies to shelves in other states.
“My entire family is involved in the company now and I know that they are fully invested in making PLUS a success,” he says. “We have seen amazing demand for our gummy products.”
Title: Founder and owner
Despite being only 28, Bethany Rondeau is a hardened CEO who has no problem sticking to her price point and telling retailer buyers “no” when they try to get her to lower her price. It’s a skill she learned in her other business, raising and selling falcons to sheiks in the Middle East, and she literally laughs at the idea that any pot buyer in Washington state is difficult to deal with.
“Uh, no,” she says. “I would like anyone to talk to (a sheik) and try to get the deal you originally quoted them at and then come back to me.”
To this day, Bethany says Falcanna, the Tier 3 indoor grow she owns with her husband Justin, has never lowered the price of its product, which has led to monthly sales of between $150,000 and $200,000 and a reputation for high-quality bud that is so sought after it rarely gets off the Olympic Peninsula where the farm is located and into stores in Seattle.
“You can always say no,” she says about being asked to lower a price. “I’m holding on a price where our margins are going to make it so we can be here long term.”
Bethany has already been in the cannabis business for longer than most. She and her husband got their start in Washington’s medical industry more than 10 years ago when they opened the Olympic Sinsemilla dispensary. When the state folded the medical program into the recreational market in 2016, she and Justin sold product until the last legal day and then went “full throttle” into the recreational market.
“It’s going great,” she says. “I’m turning down stores.”
It’s partially her other business of selling raptors that allows Bethany to hold to a price point. She got her first bird, Nikoma, a red-tailed hawk, at age 14 after reading “My Side of the Mountain,” a young adult novel involving falconry. Bethany also met her husband through falconry when she was 18 — Justin was the apprentice of a falconer she was studying with and they bonded over a love of both the birds and the book.
“I have a passion for nature and a huge respect for it,” she says.
The two hit it off, continued their birding education together and started their falcon breeding project soon after. Bethany says they are youngest falcon breeders in the world registered to export their birds overseas, mostly to the United Arab Emirates, where their birds have helped the sheik win multiple titles in the country’s falcon racing circuit.
The overlap between the two businesses, she says, is the focus on genetics and breeding. In both businesses, you select for the traits you want and breed out those you don’t. And when Falcanna finds a strain the Rondeaus like, they stick with it, instead of cycling through trends. Bethany says it has created a recognizable brand with recognizable strains.
“We just don’t compromise,” she says. “We don’t cut corners.”
At Falcanna — a combination of the couple’s two main business interests — Justin is the “mad professor” while Bethany handles much of the business side, something she learned from her parents, whom she says are entrepreneurs that have run businesses her whole life. In fact, she dropped out of school at 14 to work with her parents at the family businesses.
“I learned a lot from them,” she says.
Despite her success and the demand for her cannabis, Bethany says Falcanna has no plans to expand in the next year or so, though the company recently purchased another production license from a failing grow. Instead, the goal at Falcanna is to keep growing the type of high-quality marijuana that she wants to smoke.
“We’re not industrial cannabis,” she says. “We’re really craft cannabis.”
Jeannette Ward Horton
Jeannette Ward Horton
Title: Executive director
As vice president of global marketing and communications, Jeannette Ward Horton has helped MJ Freeway become one of the largest cannabis technology companies in the world with clients in 11 countries, but her time in the industry has also allowed her to pursue another passion as the executive director of the NuLeaf Project, “an organization that is focused on solving the capital, education and connection hurdles that cannabis entrepreneurs of color face when entering the cannabis industry.”
“Our goal is to increase success outcomes for cannabis entrepreneurs of color,” Horton says.
The Oregon-based nonprofit received the nation’s first direct investment of municipal taxes into the communities harmed most by the War on Drugs. In January 2019, using money received from the city of Portland, the NuLeaf Project awarded $30,000 in grants to two minority-owned businesses — Green Box and Green Hop.
“Because Oregon is known for being very white, people in the beginning were skeptical that we weren’t going to find cannabis businesses owned by people of color to fund, but that has proven to be unfounded,” Horton says. “We’ve had over a 300% return on investment with these businesses. That, in itself, to me, is a huge milestone — that it wasn’t just a photo of a check. We have real results in dollars and cents.”
Horton says NuLeaf Project’s next milestone will be repeating this year’s accomplishments.
“It’s a big deal,” she says. “Hopefully people are hearing about our success over here and doing this in other places.”
Company: Flow Kana
Title: Co-founder and CEO
The stigmas around cannabis never made sense to Flow Kana CEO and co-founder Michael Steinmetz, who as a child, learned about the plant’s medicinal benefits from his mother. In fact, the myths about marijuana only fueled his passion for change.
“I’ve been a passionate advocate for cannabis for a long time,” Steinmetz says. “Because I was exposed to cannabis in the right light from day one, I want to be part of preserving that and helping others see it in that way too.”
His company is now one of the largest distributors in California and helps to keep cannabis in a positive light by promoting responsible farming and business practices.
“At Flow Kana, we promised to never cultivate directly, but instead distribute and source from the small farms and communities that have been cultivating this plant for generations,” Steinmetz says. “What we’ve seen in other states is the default vertical integration, but we have built a model that builds a healthy supply chain, while also supporting and serving the small farmers and the legacy that they have been cultivating for decades.”
In February, Flow Kana completed a $125 million round of financing, bringing the company’s total amount of capital raised to $175 million. In addition to helping fund the company’s next venture into manufacturing, Steinmetz says the money will also be used to continue its mission of supporting local and sustainable cannabis farms.
“This is a huge milestone for us as this capital allows us to continue to expand and support the partner farms we work with, expanding our sourcing to more and more farms who need a path to market,” he says. “Flow Kana will continue to source all cannabis inputs from the independent, sungrown farms in Northern California — namely Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties — and are so excited to provide more paths to market for their product.”
Company: Aloha Green Apothecary
Title: Director of strategy
Helen Cho was originally hired as a freelancer to help Aloha Green Apothecary build out its website. But when the executive team, comprised mostly of lawyers, needed someone to handle patient relations, she was there to lend a hand. After that, she started doing legislative work. Then vendor relations. Then hiring. And before she knew it, they were asking her to come in on Monday and leave on Friday as the Hawaiian company’s director of strategy.
“I think the message there is: if you have an opportunity, you grab that tiger by the tail and hold on,” says Cho, who is originally from New York. “When the company is in need of something you are capable of doing, you figure it out and do it well. It’ll take you to places you never thought it could.”
During the past three years, Cho has helped Aloha Green Apothecary get its production facility up and running, open the doors of the company’s first dispensary, grow its staff to approximately 80 employees and outfit a $500,000 lab. She is currently helping the business plan its second retail store on the island of Oahu.
Unlike many who lament the changing regulatory landscape of cannabis, Cho finds it to be the industry’s most endearing quality.
“This level of growth and change has been able to engage me,” Cho says. “I’ve never had such a fulfilling job.”
Known as “the nose of France,” the city of Grasse is considered the Perfume Capital of World because it was there, back in the 17th century, that craftsmen perfected the extraction of essential oils from flowers in order to turn them into perfume.
“We’re trying to take it back to where it started,” says Munib Bhandari, co-founder of Portland, Oregon’s Grasse Company, which makes hand-crafted, all-natural, solvent-free, cold-pressed rosin.
“We are essentially the cold-pressed juice of cannabis,” he says.
Bhandari, who is originally from Queens, New York, and grew up on Long Island, studied business at college in Albany, New York, and worked in finance. He says he dabbled in startups and though his goal was always to start his own company, cannabis was never really the focus. One of his first companies sold medical supplies and devices and while running a health technology incubator program, he met a nurse who was passionate about what cannabis could do. He calls that “my first gateway” into the industry.
After visiting the West Coast, Bhandari and his brother settled on Oregon and decided to make their way in the processing industry because “we’re not farmers.” Bhandari says his business background and knowledge of distribution channels give Grasse a leg up over the competition, as does the company’s decision to take a “culinary perspective” on its business: using the best ingredients in order to make the best product.
“Our strategy is to think like a chef would, not a chemist,” he says. “If it’s not broken, why fix it?”
Company: Healthy Roots
Title: Founder and Owner
Liz Merritt got goosebumps every time she looked at the test results for her CBD oil.
“I knew this was going to change people’s lives,” she says.
Merritt had already been involved in cannabis for 12 years when many people in the industry began to transition toward hemp production. After researching, growing and doing her own extractions with hemp, she quit her job as a lead grower for a marijuana company and started Healthy Roots in 2018.
“If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself,” she says.
Healthy Roots takes a different approach to CBD formulations. The company has a provisional patent on its own variation of a Rick Simpson Oil and CBD isolate mixture. The research, development and testing that go into every product are an added stress to the process, but nothing compared to the anxiety of launching her own business as a woman in the cannabis industry, she says.
“It’s really hard to be a normal person in a normal world when you grow cannabis, have kids and you’re a woman,” Merritt says. “My story is that I’m an ordinary person and I can do extraordinary things.”
But Healthy Roots wasn’t just an impulse. Merritt lost her mother to liver disease associated with the harmful opiates prescribed by her doctor. Although Merritt advocated for cannabis, the doctors wouldn’t allow it and even tested her for cannabinoids to make sure they weren’t in her system, Merritt says.
“If it was, they would remove her from the (pain management) program,” Merrit says. “She wouldn’t have had a doctor, she wouldn’t have had prescriptions. They put that fear inside of her and it wasn’t an option. So she’s a part of this company every day.”
Title: Co-founder and CEO
For Christopher Dell’Olio, the “a-ha moment” came when he saw a dispensary owner California’s San Fernando Valley trying to take his business to the next level using pen and paper to track sales, revenue and inventory.
It was soon after that when Dell’Olio pivoted his web development firm from creating websites to building a software solution for dispensaries in the California market. Today, the company has changed its focus again, now concentrating on delivery and allowing brands to connect directly with consumers — even if the brand doesn’t have its own retail license.
Using the WebJoint platform, customers can order a product directly from a brand’s website and have that product delivered directly to their door by one of the state’s licensed delivery services.
“What we started to understand is that when it comes to delivery, because you can’t actually see the product before it’s delivered, you’re typically ordering a brand,” Dell’Olio says. “The consumer has the experience of ordering from the brand, even though they are really ordering from one of our licensed retailers that utilize our management software.”
Prior to working in software, Dell’Olio worked in the music industry and sees cannabis as a similar bridge between “culture and corporate.” WebJoint appears to be doing just that, having raised $4.5 million in venture capital thus far.
“It’s really cool to be solving problems in an industry that hasn’t been figured out yet,” he says.
Company: Leaf Nation
Title: Co-founder and principal owner
Even as the legalization movement has hit a tipping point in the United States, Reefer Madness is alive and kicking. It’s what keeps Wes Abney committed to advocacy journalism and pushing for cannabis business owners, patients and consumers to be treated equally to every other member of society.
“Ironically, the need for activism and education has only gotten stronger,” says Abney, the co-founder and principal owner of Leaf Nation, a Washington-based publishing company that has grown to encompass events, products and hospitality transportation. “Pre-legalization, we were just fighting for legitimacy and helping patients stay out of prison. Even on the West Coast, we’re still fighting for legitimacy and still in a state that considers a single plant a felony … and parts of the country are still 10 or more years behind the West Coast.”
Abney used a $1,600 loan to print the first 10,000 copies of Northwest Leaf in 2010.
“By month three, we were making money and we’ve never turned around,” Abney says. Since then, the company’s publishing arm has expanded with Oregon, Alaska and Maryland versions of the Leaf (Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania are coming later this year), now totaling 65,000 copies of the free magazines each month.
“We’re there for more than just making money,” Abney says. “We’re there for positive influence, in an industry that’s very focused on money at this time.”
In addition to publishing five regional magazines, the company’s Leaf Chews edibles are available in three states and it also hosts events like Danksgiving and Tannins & Terpenes, among other products and services.
“This was originally a project to take me to law school and instead, here I am nine years later still doing it,” Abney says. “Depending on how my journey goes, I still may end up in law school to fight for these issues on a larger level.”
Company: Confident Cannabis
Title: Co-founder and co-CEO
Whether they know it or not, roughly half of all licensed cannabis producers have their inventory and test results registered with Confident Cannabis. Steve Albarran, the company’s co-founder and co-CEO, helped lay the groundwork for a national cannabis wholesale platform by building software for the industry’s smallest population of businesses: labs.
“Right now, we have half of all the labs in the country using Confident Cannabis daily,” Albarran says. “Which means that half of the legal cannabis produced in the U.S. and half of all the legal cannabis producers and processors have accounts with Confident Cannabis. All that inventory comes through our platform every month.”
In late 2018, the company also launched a wholesale marketplace that complemented its lab software.
Along with co-founder and co-CEO Tony Lewis, Albarran developed the idea of Confident Cannabis in 2014 while attending grad school at Stanford University.
But as a dual citizen who spent his childhood in Mexico City, Albarran had a darker outlook on cannabis. Like many Americans, he was taught that drugs were bad, but in Mexico, he says, drugs are the root of all evils in the country.
“Really every problem Mexico has with the economy or the politics can be traced back to the drug cartels in some way,” Albarran says. “The illicit market is a horrible, evil thing in Mexico.”
He wanted to put his education toward doing good things for the world. At first cannabis clashed with his preconceived notions, but he saw the potential to help take power away from Mexican drug cartels.
“If I can help this industry thrive and help legal, ethical cannabis businesses take money from bad guys with guns in Mexico, that makes me really happy,” Albarran says. “It’s a very indirect, but direct way for me to feel like I am giving back to my country.”