When Mary & Main opened in Capitol Heights, Maryland, on Labor Day 2018, Hope Wiseman was acclaimed as the youngest black woman in the country to own a licensed cannabis dispensary.
That recognition earned her a weird level of respect — respect Wiseman felt she deserved, but not simply because of the newspaper and magazine articles that followed (including this interview to kick off Marijuana Venture’s fourth annual 40 under 40, highlighting some of the amazing young entrepreneurs in the legal cannabis space).
Rather than being recognized simply for getting a license and opening a dispensary, she wanted to earn the esteem of her colleagues through her work ethic and ingenuity — character traits she learned from her mother, Dr. Octavia Simpkins-Wiseman, a successful dentist and entrepreneur.
“I thank my mother every day, because now that I’m older, I can see the influence that she’s intentionally and unintentionally imparted on me,” the 27-year-old CEO says. “It has pushed me to be an extreme go-getter. I always reach for things that may have seemed unattainable to others, but my mother and her hard work, her resilience, always let me know that anything I wanted was possible if I put in the work to get it.”
Today, Mary & Main is still relatively small, with about 20 employees, but Wiseman says it’s exciting to have that many people involved, considering the years in which it was just the company’s three co-owners — Wiseman, her mother and Dr. Larry Bryant, an oral surgeon — toiling to make their business dream a reality.
Marijuana Venture: What does your strategic vision look like at Mary & Main? What areas do you want to grow?
Hope Wiseman: Our focus is definitely on education. I don’t want it to be hard, inconvenient or uncomfortable in any way for people to learn about cannabis and what it really is. We do free educational classes every Wednesday evening, where we can talk about everything from cannabis 101 to the history of cannabis, women in cannabis, health and cannabis. I think that’s a really good way for us to make cannabis relatable to their everyday lifestyle and change the stigma that surrounds this industry, that cannabis is only for people who want to get high.
I really get a kick out of talking to someone who heard “cannabis” and all they thought about was Snoop Dogg and weed. They come in and see a bunch of other stuff: “You have drinks?” “There’s a lotion I can put right on my nerve pain that’s not going to make me high?” Education is everything on the East Coast right now. Patients on this side of America are clueless to all the different ways cannabis can be used. It’s not just for lazy people and it doesn’t make you lazy.
We’re also working on an internal workforce development program to be able to continuously train people to move up in the industry. We meet so many people who are interested in joining the industry who know nothing about it. They have some skills that would be really valuable, but they don’t know how to transfer them into the industry. We feel like we can develop a program where if we hire somebody on an entry-level position, we have specific classes and different milestones to reach so that they know they’re making progress and learning. For us, those are good benchmarks for us to know that when a person has completed this step of the program, they’re ready to be promoted and to move up in the company.
If we can develop a program that is working internally, it’s something I can bring to other states to implement into other companies as well.
MV: What has the journey been like from developing this business idea to opening Mary & Main?
HW: This originally started in my brain back in 2014. I realized that Maryland was going to legalize (medical) cannabis, set up regulations and begin accepting applications. I was in Atlanta at the time, and I called my mother and said, “I know you don’t really know anything about cannabis, but let’s look at it from an economic perspective.” She saw those numbers and said it looked like a great venture to go into.
As we started doing more research, we started to realize how many other reasons there were to join this industry. We actually became much more passionate from other perspectives: the medicinal perspective and how this plant helps people have a better quality of life, as well as the social justice aspect of the industry and that African-Americans have been disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. We had this unique opportunity as minorities who have resources and have the capacity to really do this, to blaze a trail behind us and allow other people to enter this industry that may not have had the same resources.
My mother and I began putting things together, and we realized we needed help. Dr. Bryant ended up partnering with us, and the three of us wrote our application in 2015. We won the license in 2016, and from 2016 to 2018, it was an uphill battle trying to become operational.
From the capital needs to the difficulties of locating a property, it was very difficult, but I’m proud that we were able to open last Labor Day and we’ve been doing great so far.
MV: What were the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
HW: The wait time and the excessive capital needs to become operational are why the average person could not do this. There’s a time period where there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of money that has to be spent, but you’re not making any money. We have two people who are very accomplished in their careers and very successful and then one person who is also very successful, but young and no family. It wasn’t a big deal for me to be broke for four or five years, so I was the one who took the brunt of that.
My mom and Dr. Bryant, they couldn’t stop working to get everything done. I left my job and moved back to Maryland, and it was difficult, but I was able to strategically build this company during the time that we were looking for a building and then the buildout. I spent that year building our SOPs and building our operation. It was just the perfect marriage. It worked out very well that I had two people behind me who could put me up on their shoulders and make sure I had food on the table.
MV: What did you do before diving headfirst into cannabis?
HW: Before I really started moving toward the cannabis industry, I was going to have a long career in investment banking. At the time, I was working as an equity institutional sales analyst in Atlanta, which meant I was selling stock research to hedge fund managers and mutual fund managers, which was great, because I got to learn a lot about a lot of different industries. I got to learn how to model companies and what things you should be looking for to prove the financial health of a company. I learned things I utilize every day.
My education background is in economics. I have a degree from Spelman College. But before that — and I think this lends a lot into the way I am right now — I grew up doing competitive dance and pageants. I think that experience at a young age, having to be so regimented and dedicated to something, which was unlike the majority of my peers, is why I’ve always been able to put in extra work and kind of be isolated to achieve something. I’ve been doing it since I was a child.
MV: Do you miss the financial industry at all?
HW: No. [Laughs.] I love what I do now. I feel like I’m walking in my purpose every day. I feel like everything I’ve done throughout my life, even in my childhood, has brought me to this point that I’m at right now. Everything was necessary.
My financial background gave me the little bit of credibility that I did have before I won this license, for people to even believe I was capable. It’s so funny that as soon as I got the license, everyone looked at me differently. I was like, “Man, I’ve been telling you I was going to do this forever.” I’ve had the license for years, but now that the store’s open, people have said, “Wow, you’re amazing.” I say, “I’m the same Hope I was when I told you I was going to do it.”
MV: Did you experience people who doubted you as a young entrepreneur, or even more, as a young, black, female entrepreneur?
HW: I’ve experienced that my whole life in a lot of different areas. I definitely experienced doubt from pretty much everyone who really understood the complexity of the cannabis industry. They were like, “How are you going to pull this off?”
The thing they didn’t know was that I understood I couldn’t pull it off alone. I know what my strengths are, and I know what my weaknesses are. I also know that you need people with experience; wisdom is something that cannot be bought.
During the application process, we weren’t even tuned in to the fact that I should have been making connections (with state and local officials). Now that I’m in the industry, I’m much more politically engaged. I’m much more connected to local community leaders and leaders within the industry.
I don’t experience the doubt as much as I did, just because of the title I now have. I’ve been given a platform by being recognized as the youngest African-American woman to own a dispensary. That platform automatically gives me credibility, where I don’t get questioned from every aspect — being young, being a woman, being black. I find the only time those feelings come up for me are in fundraising discussions when I have to be in a room where I’m the only person under 50, the only black person and maybe the only woman.
MV: How can the industry get to a point where you’re not the only woman or the only black person in the room? How do we move forward in that regard?
HW: I think we’ve done an awesome job in this industry at making diversity a hot topic. At the same time, I don’t think we focus enough on equity inclusion from minority groups and that’s where the real change will come from. People who are stakeholders in the company, those are the people who make the real change. Although diversity is a hot topic and everybody is putting together diversity plans where they promise 50% of their staff to be black, I’m sorry, but 50 black trimmers is not doing anything for the black community that has suffered so much because of the War on Drugs.
That’s why I want to develop this workforce utilization program, so companies are able to hire people from these disadvantaged backgrounds and they’re able to have a real chance to move up in the industry and eventually reach a place where they can have real influence and power.
As an industry, we have to think more along the lines of equity inclusion, not just inclusion. I’m not saying minorities should just be given anything. I don’t believe in that. However, I think there needs to be more done to provide minorities with the resources so that they can actually achieve something. Don’t make it so unobtainable that there’s no possible way. Yeah, a black person can apply for a license and they could possibly win, but when the qualifications are so outrageous that we know most African-American families don’t have that type of wealth, you’re not saying it, but you’re pretty much saying black people don’t apply.
Another thing I’m working on is empowering minorities to do the work. They’re going to have to work hard. You’re going to have to compete with people that might have more money or experience than you. But how do you position yourself so you can still be successful?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.