As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Molly Conroy.
Molly is the CEO and Co-Founder of both Canapa and Scientia Labs. Canapa is a consumer-facing CBD brand, while Scientia Labs is a business-to-business hemp extraction lab producing wholesale extracts and providing toll processing, contract manufacturing, and white labeling services. Molly brings a powerful suite of skills, including leadership, project management, and operations experience, as well as extensive knowledge of local, national, and international legislative processes and regulatory frameworks. Molly’s time at Scientia Labs is balanced between sales, partnerships, quality control, strategic planning, and navigating the regulatory landscape of domestic and international CBD policy. As stress levels rose while launching Scientia, Molly’s chronic migraines became more frequent and more severe. With pharmaceuticals doing more harm than good, Rubin convinced Molly to try their whole plant full spectrum hemp extract dissolved in extra virgin olive oil. Spettro worked so well that Molly devoted her newfound energy to helping her myriad of stressed out, overworked, underslept peers discover its benefits. Her vision for elegantly effective CBD became Canapa: beautiful and tactile packaging encasing industry-leading extracts produced by Scientia, with QR codes on each product scanning to batch-specific third-party lab testing.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
I’ve been a cannabis consumer since I was 15 or so, but completely recreationally. I’ve always had intense anxiety but living in a pretty conservative state (Missouri), it was never brought to my attention to use cannabis to actually treat health conditions. I was working in policy in Dublin and DC and was ready for a move, but wasn’t sure to what yet. My ‘life partner’, Rubin, had started a vegetable hydroponics company in Chicago and brought up that he thought we should move to Oregon to get involved in the CBD industry. That was five years ago — no one in the Midwest knew what CBD was, and there was no plan. (I’m a planner. I generally go through about 5 planners a year.)
Once I started thinking about it, I started getting excited and couldn’t quite remember why I had been so opposed to the concept. So, we packed up and drove from Chicago to Portland to embark on this wild, cannabis adventure. My first experience with cannabis in a regulated state was to completely overdo it on edibles — who hasn’t been there? And I remember thinking to myself “This was a mistake. I can’t even handle a 5mg edible.” But, we started really educating ourselves, and stuck with flowers and concentrates until I understood what my body could handle and what it needed. (It needs Peak Extracts ‘High Indica’, and only Co2 or RSO extracts. I can’t handle distillate, I don’t know why.) I started working for a large, Canadian owned cannabis extraction company and was able to start doing public affairs there. I then moved into the role of Program Director for the Oregon Cannabis Association and this was really how I was able to combine my passion for politics with cannabis. I loved being able to serve on Rules Advisory Committees and work with lobbyists in Oregon and Washington, D.C.
In hindsight, I can’t believe that my initial reaction was negative — cannabis has been a complete game-changer for me, both mentally and physically.
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?
There have been a million interesting things that have happened to me since leading this company, but I think the most significant had to do with skepticism and migraines. I’ve gotten migraines since I was a kid and have pretty much always been on the same pharmaceutical drug, Maxalt. I always considered it a miracle drug — it really did help my migraines but did give me what we called “Maxalt hangovers”. However, once we started Scientia Labs, my migraines became significantly more frequent. Turns out, when you start a business, your stress levels increase! There was a month where I got daily migraines, and the medication I had been on essentially stopped working. Rubin had been encouraging me to take our whole-plant, full-spectrum extract to see if that would help and I was so skeptical that anything could actually help. I don’t know why — I strongly believed in CBD for other people, and had seen the positive effects it could have. I had even experienced those for myself with my anxiety but just didn’t believe it for migraines. Eventually, I got a migraine where I lost hearing, at which point I finally tried our chlorophyll-rich whole plant extract mixed with olive oil and it actually worked. Well — I didn’t believe that it worked, but six or seven similar experiences later, I became convinced. This was how Canapa was born — we figured if someone as skeptical as me could be convinced of the power of CBD, other people could be too. I think the lesson I learned was really to be more open to things and a little less skeptical. That being said, I definitely still believe in a healthy dose of skepticism.
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?
There have been so many. I don’t know that this was necessarily a mistake, but when we launched Canapa, we didn’t know what would happen. Our primary focus was our extraction lab, Scientia Labs. Canapa was more of a side project. We didn’t do any press, advertising, or marketing. But, a good friend of ours, Zoe Sigman, mentioned us in an article for Vogue magazine as a brand that was effective and could be trusted. We were absolutely over the moon — to be mentioned in Vogue wasn’t even a dream because I never thought of it as a possibility. We were so excited, and orders started coming in. And then, about 3 hours later, our payment processor shut us down. It wasn’t really a mistake, and it wasn’t very funny at the time, but it’s just kind of a microcosm of how the industry is — something wonderful happens, which then results in a plethora of unforeseen issues.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
I mean, pretty much everyone I knew reacted the same way — skepticism at best. Most people looked at me like I was insane and said “so you’re going to sell weed and be a drug dealer?” and not in a positive way. It wasn’t until this past year that I felt like people outside of the industry took me seriously and honestly started taking cannabis and hemp seriously. I guess a few people in the Midwest thought it was ‘edgy’ — ironic because I’m the least edgy person ever. That being said, it has been really amazing to see people’s mentalities towards the cannabis shift. This isn’t the case with everyone, but it does feel like the mentality that a lot of people had due to the rhetoric that was instilled during the War on Drugs is shifting.
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?
There is no one particular person — it has absolutely taken a village. I am really fortunate to have an incredibly solid group of women in cannabis that I got linked up with when I first moved to Oregon. I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, but these women have become some of my closest friends and supporters. They show their support, friendship, and help in a plethora of ways. A few months ago, we were rapidly expanding some facets of our business and were putting every dollar into our facility and production. I had planned to go to Females to the Front (a retreat for women in the cannabis industry), but we just couldn’t justify the expense of the hotel, meals, and flights. Catherine Leathers Self and Hannah Hayes immediately offered their rooms to me. When I got there and was having major imposter syndrome, these women, along with Jordon Cloud Rahmil and Angele Henne, boosted me up completely and gave me the confidence to be myself and represent both Canapa and Scientia. I ended up meeting so many women that we are now starting to work with on that trip, and couldn’t have been there without the emotional and financial help from those women.
I’d be remiss to leave out my brother, Kevin — we quite literally wouldn’t have a company without his ongoing support and guidance. He approaches every problem level-headed and unemotional. Running a business with your romantic / life partner can be tough at times, and I would say that Rubin and I have both learned a lot on Kevin to be a solid rock throughout our partnership and relationship. Kevin’s advice is always thoughtful, intelligent, and experienced, but he is also open to thoughtful discussion and debate. There have been countless times that I’ve been at my wits end about something and he has grounded me. He is really our business partner, mentor, therapist, sounding board, and so much more.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Canapa just launched two topicals (Calmante Salve and Crema Lotion) and two skincare products (Pelle Delicata Face Serum and Crema Della Terra Clay Mask) and I am so excited to start promoting those and seeing how they go with consumers. I think that CBD as an ingredient in skincare can be hugely beneficial and I’m excited to be part of that. But we are also working on so many new and exciting projects for 2020. Scientia is also rapidly expanding our contract manufacturing services, and are focusing on working with small companies that are just getting started, especially ones with female founders. A lot of manufacturers have super high minimums — we’re on a mission to keep our minimums low (100 units) so that you don’t have to be heavily funded in order to start something that you’re passionate about in the CBD space. We’re also starting to work with breweries on non-alcoholic CBD products. I’m really excited about collaborating and partnering with an exciting beverage company in St. Louis — they’ve been a favorite of mine for years and it’s really amazing to be able to work together on this endeavor. We have some other exciting projects for 2020 in addition to those I already shared, but we’re keeping those under wraps for now.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite the great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to this 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?
Companies need to actively seek out and hire qualified women.
Individual women need to take a seat at the table. No one is going to give it to you, so you need to take it. Companies should be making sure that their leadership team is diverse in both gender and race. We have a lot of ways to go on that front. But, if you don’t have a diverse leadership team, how can you have a successful business? So many voices are missing in companies and it seems pretty basic to me. How could you market to women if you don’t have a woman involved?
Society — this is a much harder one. I was incredibly fortunate to go to an all-girls high school, Nerinx Hall, whose entire ethos is to empower women to lead and make a mark on the world. Our mascot was actually “The Marker” because of this ethos. I was taught to question everything and that because society often marginalizes women, it is our responsibility to empower ourselves and each other. I think society could take a hint from this ethos and start encouraging girls from a young age to be themselves and lead.
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.
Test everything. Multiple times. (see below). The analytical labs aren’t perfect — there have been many times where we have gotten something tested and it comes back wonky — we could change our processes, but if we think something seems ‘off’, we pull an additional three samples and get them tested.
Contracts for everything — people are flakes. Yes, in an ideal world, you’d be able to trust the people you’re working with, but when there is a contract in place, people act differently. For example, we were told that the second batch of hemp that we were purchasing had 10% CBD. There was a lab result to validate this. But you know what? Anyone can attach any lab result to any batch — just because there is a lab result, it doesn’t mean that the material is what it says it is. We were so excited to start processing that we didn’t wait for the lab results to come back on the retest. We noticed that we weren’t getting the expected yields, but couldn’t fully understand why until we got the retest of the material back — the CBD content was 1.6%, which was essentially not worth the electricity to run the machines. 9 months later, we eventually got a replacement batch of hemp, which we obviously tested first. The potency was fine, but once we got to the bottom of the bag, the bottom third of the bag was completely molded. Had we had a contract in place, we would have just gotten reimbursed.
Don’t hire extraction artists — hire chemists. I can’t emphasize this one enough — the way that scientists think through problems and come up with creative solutions is completely different than the rest of us. You don’t want someone who claims to be an extraction artist — you want someone who is trained in chemistry. If someone’s resume says ‘butane extraction artist’ and you ask them where they worked and they said they have an at-home lab in their basement, walk the other way. That is an explosion waiting to happen.
Network. This one is definitely the most obvious, but this is an industry without a guidebook on how to do things, and there is nothing better than getting insight (and giving it) from people with experience.
Don’t demonize THC. Again, may seem obvious, but I am seeing so many CBD brands be SO negative about THC. It is one thing to advertise that the CBD product is THC free (there are still a lot of people who get drug tested and CBD should be available to everyone), but you don’t have to act like THC is CBD’s evil cousin.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
1. We’re just touching the tip of the iceberg in regards to the science around cannabis. I’m so excited for more research to be done, not just on CBD and THC, but on all of the other parts of the plant — minor cannabinoids, terpenes, and plant fats/lipids. I can’t wait for more research on the short and long term effects of cannabis. I also am so excited about hemp being used for fiber, Hempcrete…I can’t wait until these uses of the plant become more common.
2. The shifting mentality towards cannabis in both the United States and internationally. When I started in this industry, people thought we were crazy and definitely not very open to seeing cannabis as anything other than something that a bunch of stoners consumed that made them apathetic. Now, I get daily questions from people across all walks of life, but especially baby boomers, wondering what cannabis they should start with. People are definitely more open to starting with CBD, but I’ve seen so many people add THC into their lives once they feel comfortable with CBD.
3. Female support. I am sure that other women have had a different experience, but I’ve never experienced support, encouragement, and empowerment as I have from women in the cannabis industry. We have the opportunity to do this right, and people need to work on that. Maybe it is because people are actually consuming cannabis more, but I can’t express how grateful and excited I am about the females in this space.
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?
There are a lot of things that concern me about the industry, but also a lot of things that I think the industry is doing well. The biggest concern I have is the fact that people are still getting arrested for non-violent cannabis-related offenses, and there is an enormous number of people incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses that would be legal in some states. It looks like Illinois is doing things right with expungements and equity programs, but expungements should be part of cannabis legalization — companies being able to profit off cannabis is fine, but not if there are people, predominantly people of color, in jail for doing the same thing. We are giving 5% of Canapa sales to The Last Prisoner Project in December, and are really encouraged by the amount of other cannabis and hemp companies engaging in similar initiatives.
Another major concern I have is for the lack of regulation on the hemp side of things — we need clear and fair regulations on packaging, labeling, lab testing, growing, processing, manufacturing, etc. We’ve tested products from other companies that say 1000mg of CBD and the COA shows 0mg. This is unacceptable, and as an industry, we need to self-regulate until federal regulations come. We also need to be in touch with our local, state, and federal elected representatives, as well as submit comments on interim rules.
The third major concern I have is about the lack of female decision-makers. On the hemp-derived CBD side of things, there do seem to be a decent amount of female-founded brands, which is great. But where are the female-founded extraction labs, grows, testing labs, contract manufacturers, etc? I’m yet to meet another female founder of a hemp extraction lab in Oregon. At the last female-focused conference I went to, I met one extraction lab founder out of 400 women. (There may have been more, hi, reach out!)
What are your thoughts about the 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?
Well, I am fortunate to live in a state (Oregon) with two amazing, pro-cannabis Senators. I frequently communicate with them and their staffers about the need for the seed to sale tracking, standardized testing methods, interstate commerce, etc. BUT — I think you have to tailor your arguments to the audience and play where you can win. So, in a state like my home state of Missouri, I would make an economic argument — the tax revenue that cannabis can bring in is significant. There are also some studies that suggest that opioid-related deaths have decreased in states that have legalized cannabis.
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?
Different. And cannabis should also be regulated differently than alcohol. Tobacco and alcohol have both been shown to have very serious negative health consequences. Obviously we need more research before we can say that cannabis doesn’t have those same effects, but I believe that cannabis is a much safer alternative. Cannabis absolutely needs to be regulated, and there needs to be an emphasis on consumer safety. If the packaging and labeling rules for cannabis are the same as alcohol or tobacco, there really isn’t an increase in consumer knowledge about what they are taking or what the effective dose is. I believe that cannabis will and does require its own regulatory framework — there need to be advances made concerning testing for cannabis intoxication in drivers, and there need to be warnings to minors. But intoxication is completely different for cannabis than it is for cigarettes and alcohol. There should be educated cannabis leaders that serve on rules advisory committees to create this framework.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The first draft of anything is shit.” — Ernest Hemingway.
Yes, I’m being somewhat facetious, but I do believe this. If we had gotten discouraged every time we made a mistake with Scientia Labs and Canapa, we’d be out of business. Additionally, if we sent out our first draft of anything, we’d be out of business. I think the most important trait to have in running a business is perseverance — you just have to keep getting better and keep working.
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.
I think the cannabis movement IS changing the world. However, I think there needs to be a movement for fact-checking — the amount of things published that aren’t factual is absolutely appalling to me, and I think we are only just starting to see the negative global repercussions of that. The fact that there are still climate change deniers is crazy. I also think there needs to be a major emphasis on equality and respect — the rhetoric that is being used by some of our leaders is disgusting and I’ve noticed it seeping into the vernacular of people I know. We must change that.