A Southern California girl at heart, Courtney Dorne grew up in her family’s restaurants for the first 14 years of her life. In the service industry, she learned nights, weekends, and holidays were just more opportunities to work a half day (12 hours), and to contribute to the family business. As a teenager, her first career in telemarketing sales taught her the life lessons of rejection, the art of a good close, motivation, and knowing that each “No” she received just put her closer to the “Yes” she wanted. Following that path, Courtney moved across the country to run sales, marketing and management for a tanning industry icon. She honed her talents over many trade shows and industry events, and after spending years helping to build someone else’s empire, Courtney decided to take a leap. She agreed to an equity position to return to the food manufacturing business she helped start on her living room floor back in high school.
Fresh and Ready Foods became a fresh food manufacturer and distributor with more than 12,000 customers across the western United States. With 120,000 square feet of FDA, and USDA- regulated kitchens running 24/7, and 70 daily truck routes from four distribution centers, the company grew to nearly 500 employees by servicing airlines, airports, hospitals, universities, the U.S. military, hotels, convention centers, convenience stores and many others. In fact, if you’ve been west of Texas and bought a pre-made sandwich in the past 20 years, there’s a good chance Courtney had something to do with it.
After selling her food company in late 2015, Courtney left in June 2016 to take some time off and relax with her family. She clearly did not know what that meant, because in July 2016, she joined The Vertical Companies in Agoura Hills as President of Brands. One of the largest cannabis management companies in the United States, Vertical has roughly 1.5m square feet of cultivation and manufacturing facilities, and manages large-scale licensing, development, manufacturing, extraction, and distribution operations in the industry, along with retail and consumer brands. Under Courtney’s leadership, the company is launching multiple, unique brands across the United States. Courtney has recently moved into the Managing Partner position to further Vertical’s initiatives as they move around the country.
Her leadership continues as a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) Hollywood chapter. Courtney began in 2010 in the Las Vegas Chapter, and she has held multiple leadership roles, including being the current Chair of the Women’s Business Network, and is on her chapter’s leadership ladder. She will be joining the regional board next year.
When not working or networking, Courtney enjoys spending her free time with her two inspiring children. She is also passionate about working to feed hungry children and is an avid supporter of multiple cancer organizations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
Cannabis changed my life. I have had three spine surgeries and have six fused vertebrae. I’m allergic to narcotics, and in my early 20s, I was suffering with debilitating migraines. A friend of mine convinced me to try cannabis after a three-day migraine had me in tears. Within 15 minutes, I had relief! From that moment on, I knew I had to learn everything I could about this incredible plant. That was in 1996.
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?
The most interesting story since being in this industry has actually been interactions with my own mom community. At first, I was vague, telling my kids I’m no longer making sandwiches and now I make plant medicine and help people. So, of course, the kids sharing the fact that their mom makes plant medicine evoked curiosity and a bunch of conversations. I couldn’t believe that the most conservative were coming to me to talk about cannabis. I started using my voice and sharing my story and learned to be my authentic self each and every day. Not everyone agrees with me all the time, but the way cannabis has changed my life cannot be argued.
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?
I’m not really known for being funny, although this industry makes me laugh every single day. Some of the funniest mistakes I’ve made have actually been in the dosing of samples. With a background in the food industry, I should have been more sensitive to the nuances of what goes into a recipe – be it a sandwich or a cannabis product. Let’s just say, I made a few mistakes in the food and cannabis kitchen, respectively and have learned by trial and error. This has inspired me to continue to innovate and create new lines of products to help others alleviate their pain. There are enhancements and products that are advancing every day and it is so exciting to be this space.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
My inner circle was not surprised at all. However, I immediately started taking my own mom community by storm. Within six months, I had but my whole mom crew visiting dispensaries and thriving using cannabis while consuming much less alcohol. I love talking to first-time consumers and really helping them to understand the experience they want to create using cannabis. Focusing on education has been the foundation with adult use for me; I want everyone to consume safely and achieve the desired effects without feeling paranoid or over served.
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?
I knew more than seven years ago that I wanted to be in cannabis full time. I literally sold my food manufacturing company so I could dedicate my career to cannabis. I’m grateful for many people that have supported me along the way. However, my true support system came from my YPO community. YPO is an organization fondly known as the ultimate support group for CEOs. I started speaking to everyone opening in the space at the time. Back then, there were maybe 40 members active in the space; now it is over 500. YPO has helped me to become a better leader while providing life-long learning to help guide my journey.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, my main focus has been creating products for not only the soccer mom community, but the baby boomers as well. My mom doesn’t take a pill to save her life, and as a lifelong Yogi, she uses CBD and cannabis to help with many issues along the way.
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 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?
Women need to continue to support women. The first thing I believe is that we all need to find a community that will stand by your side no matter what. I found mine through the women of YPO. YPO is a global organization for young leaders focused on building a community. I call it my “CEO support group.” These women are like unicorns who inspire and support me daily no matter what.
Companies need to realize that the primary consumers in every household are women, and we know how to create, sell and market to ourselves. The cannabis plant is so uniquely female and can do so many different things for so many different people. Companies, and especially institutional capital, need to look closely at diversifying their portfolios and learn to make a concerted effort to expand their network. I have a huge network of mentors who constantly make warm introductions for me. I highly recommend female founders align themselves with men and women they respect and get out in front of them to expand their network. Sometimes it just takes asking for help and not giving up until you find it. There are a couple of funds in the space that are investing in women- owned businesses; but we need more.
While running my family business for many years, I didn’t have the same negative experience that many of my counterparts did. I had to fight my way to the top to prove myself to my employees, but I was raised to believe my gender didn’t matter if I did the job right. Being a woman in business has actually been an advantage. Having empathy is not a weakness, but a strength. We need to ban together and support qualified operators in this emerging global industry. This is a huge opportunity to right the ship…
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?
- Respect the plant. This plant changed my life, and ultimately every day, I focus on the benefits and how to help others.
- Respect those that have paved the way. Many days I must remind myself as the money comes in, there are still people sitting in jail because they fought for cannabis legalization. I will never forget the sacrifices they have endured to help me legally manage my own pain and suffering without opioids.
- Have compassion. Everyone I’ve met is in this industry for a reason. Usually it’s a very personal story of how cannabis helped them or someone they know. This industry is not for the weak of heart. It is a dog fight every day for positioning and funding. Remember “Together Everyone Achieves More.”
- Do your due diligence and take your time to get to know the people in the fight with you. This industry is moving at warp speed. We’re literally living in dog years, and we’ve seen people come and go rapidly. You need more than just an idea these days to enter the space.
- Don’t take yourself so seriously. I have a really hard time with this one because I am definitely a serious person. I have to remind myself to breathe and that there is plenty of opportunity to do the right thing and always take the high road.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
Being part of and watching the community of passionate people involved in cannabis literally inspires me every single day. I’ve never witnessed so many people from so many different walks of life work together to create magic.
In my past life, when everything hit the fan, I used to look at my partners and say, “At least we’re not curing cancer.” In this industry, I truly believe the possibilities are endless…
I never imagined in my life that I would get to be on the forefront of actually inventing in an industry that didn’t exist. This is what gives me my drive and fire to succeed every day.
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’m very concerned with the regulatory differences between states. Coming from the highly regulated food industry, cannabis has a long way to go.
Regulators who are governing the space are not there yet. I would like to see a U.S. plan for implementation of testing that aligns with safety standards and is the same for every state. My biggest concern remains that everyone growing, and manufacturing should be obligated to play by the same rules with the ultimate goal of creating the safest, most compliant product for consumers.
The industry needs to be more diligent about stopping the black-market operators. The tax structures set in every state or county seems to be linked to their success. There are too many layers and unclear definitions on taxes. This is allowing the black market to continue to thrive. We need to shut down the black market in order to maintain regulated, legal and safe products into the market. My biggest concern is that sick people will be made sicker because they are being forced to purchase illegal products based on cost alone. Many patients just can’t afford the cannabis they need to help them. This makes me sad and angry, and I want to help.
The social equity piece of the industry is high on my radar as well. I believe we need to make sure those incarcerated who have been fighting for legalization for many years are released from prison.
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?
Cannabis saved my life from a dark path I could’ve gone down if I had been able to take opioids. Thank God I’m allergic. I truly believe the best possible outcome for these plants is to stay out of big pharma’s control. People should have a choice of whether they want to grow their own plant in the privacy of their home or purchase cannabis from a safe, reputable source without a prescription. I believe we need to train the medical community on the benefits and let doctors help guide patients to empower their own care. Cannabis is not just about the money for me. It’s about healing and living and wellness. I would love our country to focus on the education and research to learn all the benefits of 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?
I would like to see the crops regulated by the USDA, the food regulated by the FDA, and the distribution regulated by the FDA or ATF. I ultimately believe cannabis is a supplement that should be allowed in a multitude of products that enable our endocannabinoid system to work at its optimum potential.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I wake up every morning with a choice: I can be “Bitter or Better” and every single day I choose better!! I believe in people and that “Together Everyone Achieves More.” “If you don’t grow, you die” so learn something new every day!
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 use my influence for the greater good, I’d say choose love. I try hard to lead with love. I don’t always get it right and certainly not with everyone. But I wake up every single day with the intention of leading with love and not fear. This allows me the space to make mistakes and forgive not only myself but others in my path. Surround yourself with great people that inspire you! Find your tribe and hold on tight.
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!