With more states legalizing cannabis for medical or adult use, the industry has experienced rapid growth, which means it's no surprise that increasing numbers of people in other industries are looking to work in cannabis. Cannabis companies require all sorts of skills, from marketing and accounting to research and political lobbying, so you don't need previous experience or training specifically in the cannabis industry to enter it.
“Cannabis legalization is as game-changing as the invention of the internet, and the trajectory will be much the same,” said Lisa Weser, who founded the cannabis communications firm Trailblaze after working as head of U.S. Marketing Communications for Anheuser-Busch. “Like the internet, cannabis started as something misunderstood and 'risky' — and in many corners it still is — yet will become completely mainstream within the span of a decade.”
“I recruit constantly because of the fast-paced growth and need for great businesspeople who understand process, presentation, promotion, and productivity,” agreed Suzi West, who began doing design work for cannabis companies in 2016 and now works as Director of Visual Merchandising for Harvest House of Cannabis. “Anyone trying to enter the market need only confidently self-assess their tolerance for risk and change. I find that there are also interesting roles in cannabis, and certifications are quickly popping up to welcome professionals into extraction, testing, compliance, coaching…you name it.”
But how do you get started? We asked six people who transitioned from other industries to cannabis about what the process was like and what advice they'd give others looking to make that switch. Here's what they said.
Samantha Ford, Senior Vice President of Business Development for the cannabis practice of Protis Global, who previously worked as a recruiter for Wall Street brokerage firms and founded a kids' apparel line, recommends networking as the first step to carving out a space for yourself in cannabis. Research companies you want to work for, connect with the people at those companies who you want to meet, and attend industry events.
“Simply sending your resume to a company is the least effective way to transition into the industry,” Ford said. “Most cannabis companies are deluged with incoming queries for opportunities. Resultantly, it's pretty easy for your resume and email to get lost amongst the hundreds of other emails.”
2. Find Mentors
Adriana Herrera, who founded Epic Hint, a social-learning platform that automates training for the cannabis industry, after founding a number of other businesses in industries ranging from tech to fashion, recommends finding mentors in positions you want to end up in.
“These relationships serve as checks and balances, provide insights to make sure you are on the right path, and can open doors to opportunities that otherwise would not be available,” she said.
3. Ask for Referrals
When Weser first founded her communications firm, she asked people she'd worked with previously to refer her to companies that might need her services.
“I was concerned that pivoting from the 'Queen of Bud' to, well, bud could seriously limit my client base and pigeonhole my future professional opportunities,” she said. “As it turned out, nothing could have been further than the truth. Everyone in my professional network knew someone who was starting a cannabis company, and the referrals came pouring in. My business doubled every month without so much as a website or a business card.”
4. Set Goals and Milestones
Herrera recommends deciding where you want to end up, planning milestones that will help get you there, and figuring out how you'll reach each milestone.
“The largest mistake someone can make is to enter the cannabis industry with a sense of entitlement,” she added. “Advancement is the direct result of contribution. Regardless of seniority or position, if you want to advance in the cannabis industry, be humble, be kind, constantly learn, efficiently communicate, have professionalism, apply your unique personality, traits, and talents, and consistently add value.”
5. Make a Big Splash
If you're starting your own cannabis company, don't be shy about saying what you are or making a statement. Richard Rose, who founded the hemp food company HempNut after making and selling vegan foods, made a name for his business by doing just that.
“I actually leveraged the stigma to create interest by putting a large neon green hemp leaf on my labels for HempRella cheese alternative and Hempeh Burger, a veggie burger,” he remembered. “Aim high; don't be generic. And be an authentic marketer, just be you. I had fun marketing products with 'Y2K ready' on the side of a HempNut peanut butter, a hidden hemp leaf on the side of the HempNut can, and 'first one's free' retail promotions. Have fun and it will show through.”
6. Never Stop Doing Your Research
Working in cannabis requires you to continuously research the industry's ever-changing trends, standards, and policies.
“You have to remain very flexible and engaged, as the changes that occur in the industry are fast and constant,” West said. “The growth of the plant, the changes in legislation, and the language vary by state or even ZIP code. You have to know how to pivot and comply.”
7. Remember, You're Representing a Controversial Industry
While a cannabis company may conjure up an image of people sitting around smoking all day, the truth is that working in cannabis is very hard work, especially as you're trying to create a positive perception of a historically stigmatized industry.
“So many people have made their way into the industry and find out that you have to clock in, communicate, put in effort, follow rules, and so much more,” said Judi Bolick, store manager for the Las Vegas cannabis dispensary The Grove, who previously worked as a receptionist for a naturopath. “I have seen people expect a laid-back free-for-all instead of systems, procedures, and regulations. The ability to follow rules and regulations is huge in this industry, as it is still an industry with a negative stigma. It is important that people in the industry [to] remember that they are representing it and that it is our duty to show that it is not 'evil.'”
However, don't let these challenges discourage you — the industry is very welcome to new players, West said. “In a nutshell, if you love what you do, bring value in that role, and have the desire and tenacity for an emerging category, you can find your way into the industry with pure ingenuity and passion.”
Feature image by Gina Coleman/Weedmaps