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“The strength of your brand is as dependent upon you and your team’s ability to connect with people as it is to have a big marketing budget” – Trista Okel, Empower BodyCare

As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Trista Okel.

As an “aromatic alchemist” with more than 15 years of formulating experience, Okel uses scientific data, guiding principles, and her keen sense of smell to create the company’s award-winning topical products. Her dedication to transparency and integrity using the highest quality ingredients, organic and sustainably sourced whenever possible, and high testing standards is what has made Empower BodyCare one of the most trusted topical brands in Oregon and increasingly, on a national level. The EMPOWER acronym: End Marijuana Prohibition, Organize Women, Enact Reform, is ingrained in what the company stands for and drives its calling to educate and encourage women to support federal regulation of cannabis.

When asked why she believes in the healing power of plants, Trista’s answer is simple: “Plants and humans have symbiotic relationships. In harnessing these synergies in our products, we have an opportunity to affect change regularly. I’ve had the joy of watching people get relief from my products for 15 years.” And that, without a doubt, is her favorite part of her job. “In addition to growing the company, meeting people who use the products and hearing about their experiences is very rewarding,” says Okel. She has dedicated the last 15 years to perfecting Empower formulations, growing the company to empower people across the US and beyond, and advocating for plant-based wellness.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?

In 2004, three things happened that would forever change my life. First, I went to trial and was acquitted in under 9 minutes by a jury for possessing three small cannabis clones. Determined to use my experience for good, I participated in a sit-in protest at Health and Human Services in Washington, DC, to promote removing marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 controlled substances (no medicinal value). The sit-in protest in DC which resulted in a six-hour jail stay with cannabis activists from Americans for Safe Access (ASA) and the creation of the acronym EMPOWER End Marijuana Prohibition, Organize Women, Enact Reform. Lastly, but equally pivotal for me, my mom was diagnosed with three forms of arthritis.

At that time, women’s approval rating of cannabis was in the low thirtieth percentile, and while men approved cannabis legalization at a rate of around 50%. There was no way to achieve federal legalization without more women being open to the idea. After my initial foray into cannabis activism, I realized that by creating products that didn’t smell like cannabis, I could advocate through helping people with effective products, which, in my experience, was much more impactful than the activism approach for me.

I also wanted to help my mom find relief without using potentially harmful or addictive pharmaceuticals. I started researching cannabis topicals and found they could be helpful for soothing discomfort and were non-intoxicating. I started researching cannabinoids, other ingredients that have beneficial properties for relief, and the basics of cosmetic chemistry formulation. This turned in to an eight-year research and development project with feedback from elders, medical marijuana patients, and of course, my mom, and was the birth of Empower. Rooted in advocacy, plant-based wellness, and the notion that women are the key to adult-use cannabis regulation on a federal level, Empower was born.


Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

On October 1st, 2016, during the transition from a medical marijuana system to the regulated adult use marijuana system, regulations changed that required the entire cannabis industry in Oregon to shut down. There was only one lab available for about a month, and they were charging exorbitant prices for testing products with 4–7 week turn times on test results. Testing that had cost between $100-$150 previously was then at $3600-$20,000 per product. All packaging had to be changed to accommodate the new rules, and the packaging company that was supposed to have our boxes to us by the first week of October didn’t get them to us until December. We were shut down for 70 days in total before getting everything lined up to make sales again on December 10th.

At the same time, our merchant services account for our hemp CBD products was closed, so we had no income for much of the time we were shut down. We managed to come back, stronger than ever, getting back to our mission of easing discomfort for a much larger market than we previously had in the medical market.

This taught me that resilience and the ability to pivot quickly are musts to be a successful CEO, especially as a self-funded company in ever changing regulatory environments like the hemp and cannabis industries.


Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In the beginning, I hired friends to help me grow the company. Although I got super lucky in hiring my brilliant wife, Michele, in hiring friends, not so much. While not necessarily funny, it was definitely a mistake, especially if one wants to remain friends. Setting company culture is a big part of my job, and when I hired friends, it didn’t work out so well for either the friendships or the company culture. That was a huge learning experience for me, and I learned that lesson very quickly.


Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?

Since I began as an advocate for cannabis in the early 2000’s, I think many people close to me expected me to enter the cannabis industry as a natural progression of my career and interests. I remember going to dinner parties, especially in my first couple of years in the industry and telling people about what I did for a living. It provided me an opportunity to educate and open hearts and minds to cannabis. It’s been an honor to be able to do so.


None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Normally, running a company with one’s spouse is not a great idea. When Michele and I met on Tinder in 2015 (it can happen), I was looking for someone to go out to dinner with, not a life and business partner. I got super lucky. We quickly hit it off and fell in love. A few months later, she joined me in helping to run the company. For many, this could be problematic, but we have found that through great communication and dedication to the success of the company, we can navigate any situation, no matter how stressful. We are stronger as a team than I could have been without her. Michele has a complementary skill set and we work well together. I am forever grateful to her for taking this journey with me.


Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We have two companies, both with the Empower BodyCare branding. Our cannabis line and our hemp-derived CBD line. I am super excited to launch our new Luxe Collection, a high-CBD luxury line that will be available at select Nordstrom stores in January. Since we will be appealing to a new demographic with our products in Nordstrom and other luxury stores, we will have an awesome opportunity to educate and advance acceptance of hemp and cannabis products. I love getting people talking about hemp and cannabis, and what better way to do so than by offering products that help people? Our goal is to empower people to live their best lives.


Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to a report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?

Over the last few years in the industry, I have watched many female founders/colleagues get pushed out by investors, not find funding, or not get hired as a result of their gender. I have experienced the funding issue firsthand. Just this year, my wife and I were meeting with a potential investor who behaved extremely inappropriately and propositioned us. We politely declined and exited immediately. What we learned from that experience is that women aren’t treated the same way that men are in business and that no matter how interesting a business is to a potential investor; women will still be treated differently. I am working to grow Empower so that I may be able to invest in women-owned businesses. I would love to be a part of what makes those kinds of experiences a thing of the past for women everywhere.

That said, individuals can support women-owned brands by buying their products and recommending them to friends and family. Companies can hire women for executive and upper level management positions, and society can support greater gender parity by supporting businesses that are women-owned and/or operated.


You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each.

1. Regulations change constantly. Staying on top of the regulations is a full-time job. Don’t skimp on this aspect of your cannabis business — ever. Companies that don’t take compliance seriously will not make it. For instance, I know that it is expensive to do so, but yes, companies must take inventory and put everything back in the vault every night. (I know it sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised).
2. Hire great attorneys. (yes, you’ll need at least three different attorneys) Attorneys have specialties. You may need a compliance attorney, a trademark attorney, and a corporate attorney, just to start. Raising money? You’ll need an SEC attorney as well.
3. Hire a specialized CPA to do your taxes. The last thing you want is to not handle 280E appropriately and owe back taxes. Just think — it won’t always be federally illegal, right?
4. The cannabis industry is relationship-based. The strength of your brand is as dependent upon you and your team’s ability to connect with people and provide high quality products as it is to have a big marketing budget. If budtenders don’t love you, it doesn’t matter how good your products are, they won’t sell as well as they could.
5. The hiring pool is smaller for cannabis companies than it is for more traditional businesses. Believe it or not, not everyone is clamoring to get into the exciting startup environment of a cannabis company. So, it can be challenging to find the right team members. I’ve been incredibly lucky and have an amazing team.


Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?

1. I love helping people. Knowing that we make awesome products that touch peoples’ lives makes me super happy and ready to take on any challenge.
2. The challenge of growing a business in an ever-changing regulatory environment with market fluctuations and tons of limitations is a fun puzzle to solve daily.
3. The opportunity to grow a business in this new industry is exciting. And since starting the company in 2013 on a wing and a prayer, growing it organically and significantly year over year, I’m excited to see what the next year holds.


Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

I would love to see tax code 280E go away. Not being able to write off usual and customary business expenses makes for undue tax burdens.
Our businesses are under more scrutiny than nuclear power plants. Regulated cannabis is cleaner than fruits and vegetables you can get in the grocery store. Think about that for a second. More sensible regulations would be great — starting with federal regulation.
Access to institutional investors, banks, and banking services would be world changing. I’d love for cannabis businesses to have access to SBA loans.
If the federal government would enact what the majority of the American people want and legalize cannabis, none of these issues would still be issues.


What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?

I’ve been fortunate to live in Oregon and be able to speak to both my Representative and Senator about federal legalization of cannabis. Unsurprisingly, they are both pro-cannabis and working to end federal prohibition. Although I don’t need to persuade them, my favorite two arguments for legalization are:
Drug dealers don’t check IDs.
By not allowing banks to work with cannabis businesses, many cannabis businesses are put at risk for crime and potential violence. By taxing and regulating cannabis, communities benefit, businesses benefit, and the economy benefits.


Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?

I don’t see a way around the heavy regulation or taxes on cannabis any time soon. Cannabis has therapeutic value, but tobacco really doesn’t. There are cannabis topicals, edibles, tinctures, and extracts, all full of therapeutic value, but not so much for tobacco products. Did you know that nicotine is used as a pesticide? The two are really apples and oranges to me.


Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” Charles R. Swindoll
I would much rather respond to life than react to it. Knowing how to respond and be solution-oriented is paramount to running a successful business, and frankly, in having a happy life.


You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire more people to stand up for and create more gender parity, I believe we could make a huge impact on the world. Women are the economic engine in most communities. In communities where women receive microloans for business, the entire community benefits, as women reinvest into their communities at a much greater rate than men do. Leveling the playing field and creating an environment that values women is high on my wish list.


Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!