As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Rose Kennedy, Co-founder of PuraPhy, the digital voice on all things in the hemp/CBD industry, who is an expert in the field and has been consulting with CBD brands from seed-to-sale for years.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
The journey to success as an entrepreneur can be a bumpy ride, and difficult to navigate in any business. However, this can be exacerbated in the hemp and cannabis industries. I was a marketer that had a passion for cannabis, and was looking at the direction of where legalization in both California and Nevada for medical was headed four years ago, and made a gamble to put all my chips on green and move to Nevada to work in this crazy industry.
Since then, this gray industry has been a rollercoaster in start-up mode with constantly changing laws, compliance and regulation that are just only beginning to be defined, the struggles of a difficult banking system, a highly taxed seed-to-sale product, and more barriers of entry than other industries I can think of. There’s no road-map or clearly defined path so far in the space, we’re still looking around to see who and how the successes in this uncertain and wild space will navigate their journey to the top!
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 so many interesting stories in this industry — never a dull day! I’ve wanted to walk around with a Go-Pro camera on my forehead at times, with some of the situations and people along the way that I have met in this space. The truly amazing thing about the cannabis and hemp industry is that it pulls the smartest minds from a wide variety of industries — globally from Silicon Valley to Wall Street to some of the top scientists and medical professionals that believe in the power of this plant.
Being a part of the marketing team that brought the Cannabis Museum to life, Cannabition, one of my favorite experiences was when the largest glass bong in the world, at 24 feet high, was made and assembled for the Cannabis Museum by some of the most talented cannabis glass artists in the world.
Another interesting project was seeing the hybrid desert-greenhouse project for Solaris begin as a concept and seeing it through fruition and come to life the last few years. From the idea of the project, through construction, and plants being grown in the building have been one of my favorite experiences so far.
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?
A few mistakes made along the way, but one of the biggest lesson I quickly learned was “compliance, compliance, compliance.” The value of what it takes to get a legal cannabis license or the ability to work on one in Nevada (or any state) is too valuable to have mishaps.
Quite a few mistakes personally were made, but one of the biggest lessons in compliance was when I was working as director of marketing for a large cannabis company when one of the national cannabis publications at the time was planning to host one of their regional award events. They were unable to get the proper state approval needed for this event right before the date, and unfortunately went from having every licensed brand and dispensary signed up to participate, to almost all of them being unable to, because the proper compliance documents were not in-order.
I quickly saw from that experience, even though this industry is evolving at a rapid rate and moving quickly, to make sure individuals, companies and brands hold themselves accountable to the highest level of regulation, that this industry is only going to have more and more higher levels of compliant operating standards.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
I had previously worked in disruptive and non-traditional industries my whole marketing professional life, and had always been an advocate for the legalization of both cannabis and hemp. Working as a marketing consultant in the high-tech industry, nutraceutical and even the music touring industry previously, professionally, was a natural transition into the cannabis industry.
People’s reactions can be summed up with: “That’s a gamble! Good luck trying to get a job in a ‘normal’ industry after working in cannabis.”
Taking my previous life and professional experience, I couldn’t imagine working in a different industry now!
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 are so many incredible people along the way that have had a huge impact in my life in my cannabis and hemp career journey.
My partner, best friend and boyfriend, Ryan, who I’m especially grateful. He has been collaboratively worked with me on multiple projects the last few years, in cannabis and hemp and has always been my rock through the ups and the downs.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! The big new launch is, PuraPhy! PuraPhy is a digital media publisher focused on hemp/CBD. PuraPhy’s original, exclusive content bridges the gap to mainstream consumers by educating them about hemp/CBD. We’re featuring quality products through a review site platform giving our CBD brands the ability to reach millions of new consumers and having the support of a team that is uniquely positioned to deliver a vast audience compelled to purchase hemp/CBD products!
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?
Although there’s a huge opportunity for women professionally, there’s much more that can be done to be more inclusive and empowering to foster a larger community of women leaders in the cannabis and hemp industry. I personally feel that there is greater naturally occurring inclusion in the cannabis and hemp industry in some regard, but I have felt a shift in industry culture as there are more mainstream companies and investors entering the space in the process of ‘normalization’ that is happening. As the perception of cannabis becomes less nefarious, there are more people entering to service the industry and the industry is having an influx of people overall enter the space. I’d love to see more women entering the cannabis and hemp space on the cultivation and farming side of the business, science and traditionally male-dominated careers that would benefit from having more women.
Individually, I’d express to other women this is an ideal industry for women that bring other knowledge, education and know-how, and the need for experts and professionals is only becoming more and more apparent.
Companies, and the industry as a whole, that create a platform for one another to learn and grow together are setting themselves up for long-term success. People are filtering out the credible sources of information, and naturally sensing the authentic companies, information and people that they want to align themselves with and feel connected to. With that being said, a sense of community and support is essential — no one in this industry is getting through the hurdles of climbing the ladder or being an entrepreneur without leaning on one another and creating that space. That space needs to be diverse, open-minded and forward thinking. How could the industry and companies aspire to be these things without considering the most influential demographic of our population?
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. PERSEVERANCE. It’s a marathon, not a sprint! Think about the stepping stones of how to get to your goals of growing with a cannabis company or creating a brand and having lasting impact in history.
2. LEARN HOW TO FAIL. Being an industry of uncertainty and never-been-done — this is an industry of constant state of learning and learning lessons. Wanting to evolve (knowledge, network, skills) is key to success professional development — being an expert in one area or understanding how the industry works in a more macro sense and how certain sectors feed into others can be quite important as well.
3. HAVE A THICK SKIN. People are passionate and opinionated, and as wonderful as that can be, that can sometimes be a challenge when it comes to collaboration and harmony.
4. MINDFULNESS. Attempt to tune out the ‘white noise’ and to stay focused in an industry that every day there is a new product, innovation, influencer or cultivar that is discovered or released. Being able to stay focused on the situation, conversation or even the task is important to see traction on your efforts.
5. VERSATILITY. Wearing a lot of hats is almost second nature. You need to understand so many aspects of business while being presented with a number of situations. Being able to go with the flow and be a chameleon depending on the situation will be able to let you navigate many more opportunities.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
1. Pioneering a new legalized industry that’s only now defining who its leaders and brands are going to be.
2. Constant Learning And Growth. I’m always learning more information, and about the healing benefits and other applications of cannabis, hemp and plants-based medicine.
3. Being able to work with top professionals in their respected fields (scientists, activists, lobbyists, growers, technology experts, production extraction experts, marketers)
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?
1. STANDARDIZATION. Standardization, especially when it comes to testing and when it comes to consumer safety. This lack of consistent guidelines clarity is what allows subpar product to make it on the shelves (especially for the hemp industry), and this makes consumers wary of products as a whole, and overall can be so damaging and difficult to change public perception. Setting multi-state or national guidelines that would assist with making sure ‘white hat’ and safe products were available to consumers. Additionally, industry associations could help with this effort.
2. BANKING SOLUTION. I often hear people saying that the banking system is still the №1 issue in the cannabis and prior to the Farm Bill the hemp industry (even though there are still issues in hemp, especially for merchant processing). Because the federal banking regulations make it difficult to operate a (legal/compliant) cannabis business, it has made these legitimate cannabis businesses operate on an all-cash basis and a target risk for safety and liability when only operating on a cash basis.
3. FDA & CBD: Being a marketer in the hemp industry, it has felt like dog years since the Farm Bill was passed in December 2018. Although there have been huge strides in hemp federal legalization, there are still delays and inconsistencies in issuing guidance related to the CBD/hemp cannabinoid classifications, labeling, quality, marketing, and sales for the industry. This is important for long-term consumer safety, and to manage the growth boom of an industry that is expected to have more significant growth.
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 think when we look back in history, like we tend to do, we’ll see a right side of history when it comes to the debate of legalization and normalization of cannabis. Currently, two-thirds of Americans being polled are saying that they’re in favor of legalization, and I feel that it’s only a matter of time until the stigma of marijuana is gone and that it becomes federally legal. Eventually, I can see that cannabis use will be accepted by the mainstream standards as “normal.”
If I was to speak to my Senator, I’d want that person to consider what impact and success the legalization in the various states of medical and recreational cannabis has had and acknowledge the cannabis industry is both figuratively and literally budding before our eyes. The train has left the station on this debate, and between the jobs created, access to medicine, decriminalization and the tax revenue generated are but a few of the reasons why we should have a national legal cannabis framework for our country. We can see this evolution from prohibition and a black market to a gray market into a highly regulated and compliant industry beginning to happen.
Today, cigarettes are legal, but they’re heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they’re somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?
As it stands now, legal cannabis is treated as a controlled substance in the various states that allow medical and recreational production and sales. There are already similarities from both the tobacco and alcohol industries that can be seen in legal cannabis markets from restrictions to advertising to children to compliance and testing standards for consumer safety.
Unlike tobacco and alcohol, however, cannabis does have medicinal benefits, and should be more accessible to patients that need access to their medicine. In order to distinguish the cannabis industry from these similarly controlled industry shadows, I feel as though there needs to be regulation that falls somewhere in the middle of allowing patients/people to have access to cannabis for medicinal or recreational access, but also safety regulations to ensure consumers have access to legally produced products that are compliant.
Another powerful distinction between cannabis and tobacco is that there is more research, clinical studies and education about cannabis having medicinal benefits whereas studies clearly show there are harmful effects with tobacco usage. The goal isn’t to prohibit people from using tobacco, but through public health information, convince people tobacco isn’t a healthy choice. Similar guidelines to amplify studies, for better or worse, I feel should be available for consumers to understand either the health benefits or warnings of cannabis and allow the consumers to decide for themselves.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Robert Frost’s, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference,” comes to mind when I have had to make personal and professional decisions when there have been forks in the road in the directions I can go. Although there’s uncertainty with the road less traveled, there’s often unique opportunities!
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. 🙂
To use less and reuse more. If we could focus our energy on renewable and sustainable living, that would be the movement I’d want to see in my lifetime, and would impact — and dramatically help — generations to come.
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!