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Marlo Richardson: Black, Female, and Building a Cannabis Empire

Marlo Richardson: Black, Female, and Building a Cannabis Empire

Marlo Richardson is a businesswoman, serial entrepreneur, and the founder and CEO of four Cannabis businesses based out of California. I sat down with her to discuss her history, her experiences as a black woman in the cannabis industry, and how she has managed to be successful with her business pursuits.

Vivian McPeak: Let’s start by you telling us a little bit about your history. You have already accomplished so much. From where did you get your business acumen and drive?

Marlo Richardson: You know, I am not sure where I got the drive from other than just knowing that I wanted to have a pretty decent life. And unfortunately, I live in Los Angeles, California, and that’s pretty difficult to do with just one income. And I think for the majority of my adult life being single and just having the time to explore different passions of mine, I guess that’s just how I got started, just testing the waters and seeing what I enjoyed doing.

VM: I understand that your mother’s pain condition initially influenced your involvement in cannabis. Can you tell us some of that story?

MR: Yes, so it’s kind of odd, I spent a lot of my adult life in law enforcement, actually, and I retired as a lieutenant, and I had this preconceived notion of cannabis. And, you know, we’re kind of brainwashed to think that it’s bad because it is illegal, and I never really took the time to do my own research. So my mother had the most excruciating pain she’d ever felt. She said it was worse than childbirth. So I can’t imagine how much pain she must have been in. It got to a point where she had trouble walking, and it turned out she needed full hip replacement surgery. I had a friend that recommended these different CBD and THC-infused salves. My mother started using them, which was really the only thing that relieved her pain and allowed her to sleep at night.

Photo Courtesy of Marlo Richardson

So I started to research. And I started really understanding all the health benefits, and it blew my mind as to how I previously thought of it. I’m just really glad that I came around because I was introduced to a friend of a friend who had a business and needed a security plan to get his license. With my background in law, I was able to put together a security plan in order for him to get licensed. That was in the Palm Desert area. I started to get interested, and I started looking into the Los Angeles area, which was not yet open. He was supposed to call me and let me know when I could apply for Los Angeles.

When he called me, it was literally the last day that the applications could be submitted; within the last hour. So I put a company together, got an EIN, applied, and immediately got an invoice.

VM: You mentioned that you spent twenty years as a law enforcement manager. What does a law enforcement manager do, and what was that transition like to cannabis? Was it awkward with your comrades, or did they get it, or a little of both?

MR: Well, no, it wasn’t awkward at all, and I think at this point in the world, I think everybody gets it, even the people who don’t wanna legalize it yet. I think it’s more of a formality in terms of the government trying to decide how they’re going to monetize it for them. And that’s kind of what I see as the bigger picture in terms of legalizing it or not legalizing it.

I don’t believe in the whole deal of it being a gateway drug. To say that cannabis is a gateway drug is to say that smoking a cigar is going to turn into crack. It’s absolutely ridiculous, in my opinion. I don’t believe I ever thought that way. My understanding, being in law enforcement, and you asked what a law enforcement manager is, I was a lieutenant. So in law enforcement, similar to the military, you get to a certain point, and you become what they consider a manager, not a supervisor.

Once I was done in law enforcement, I was completely done. It was a sigh of relief to be able to create my own destiny and not have all of the rules and regulations that I had been forced to abide by for so long.

VM: The cannabis industry, like many industries in America, is predominantly comprised of white men, although that has somewhat been changing. What have your experiences been as a woman of color ganjapreneaur, and what unique obstacles or challenges have you had to overcome to enjoy the success you have had so far?

MR: I absolutely agree with you. First of all, I am typically the only person of color and female person of color when I go to cannabis events where executives are involved. It’s kind of sad, but I’m not really sure how I feel about it. Because, to be honest with you, that’s most industries, you know, unless you’re talking about the MBA. Being a person of color and in a particular industry, especially when you’re talking about something at a higher level that pays really well, we’re typically the minority. Unfortunately, I’m kind of used to being in that position.

VM: Has the cannabis community in general embraced you? Have you felt pushback or met obstacles? What has your experience been being in your unique position? You really are a leader. You are a great role model for other people of color or women of color. What’s that been like for you?

MR: Vivian, that’s a really good question. If I am being honest with myself, I really try not to focus on that part. I just try to do a good job and let my work speak for itself. My name is Marlo; I think when people see my name on an email or website that does not necessarily have my photo, they probably have no idea whether I’m a male or female or black, white, or green.

I don’t think I have one of those names where someone could look at it and say that’s who this person is. And so, I think it’s typically a surprise when people do find out that I’m a black female. So I don’t think I’ve seen any pushback because of it. When I do have meetings, I do believe, at times, I have to put my best foot forward, and I’ve always been the type of person that makes sure that I know everything there is to know about it because I am a surprise. I don’t ever want to be looked at as someone who was given this opportunity because of that, but because I am someone who has earned it.

VM: Can I ask how your mother is doing now?

MR: She is doing great. She’s got a new hip, and (laughs) she’s like Superwoman.

VM: I want to dive into your cannabis businesses, but first, the cannabis industry is a hodgepodge of constantly changing regulations and restrictions. You have had such a career. You have been a Committee Member of the State Bar of California, Public Safety and Justice Chair for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and more. How challenging is the regulatory framework of California’s cannabis model, and how well have your other positions prepared you to navigate the complicated cannabis legal environment?

MR: Man, you ask great questions. I will say that having a background in laws, rules, and regulations is what has actually helped me to succeed in this business. Whether it’s applying for the applications or the constant changing of the different rules and laws, it is extremely difficult to keep up. It’s almost like being an accountant. And if you know any accountants or have any knowledge from dealing with them with your taxes every year, they’re reading these huge books because something has changed. If they don’t stay on top of it, they are out of business because they can really screw you up if they don’t know what rules have changed or are different from what they were the previous year.

And that’s what you see in the cannabis industry. The worst part of the cannabis industry’s changing rules and regulations is that the employees don’t always know what’s going on. And it’s very typical in government organizations where you have people at the top who are making decisions, and by the time it gets to the person that’s expected to relay that to the end-user or the customer or the clients, it’s confusing, it’s convoluted—it’s not exact.

So I’ve had a lot of trouble just dealing with the average person. Typically, I speak to a manager. I’ve had my accounts and licenses and things that were extremely vital to the success of my business compromised because someone on the back end didn’t keep up with what they were supposed to be doing. So I definitely believe that my background has prepared me for my success in the cannabis industry.

Photo Courtesy of Marlo Richardson

VM: Wow, I have done over 250 interviews, and nobody has articulated that one point you just made about the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. And that whole dynamic of the regulatory structure and accounting and everything is likely why it’s easier for these white men already in the corporate sector to take all the money they already have and get involved in cannabis. And that creates a barrier for everybody else.

MR: Oh, absolutely, absolutely, and there’s a lot of companies, when you talk about social equity programs, that pride themselves on helping social equity applicants get their foot in the door. For the most part, I want to believe they’re really doing that social equity applicant justice. Still, from what I’ve seen, when the law only requires that a social equity applicant receives 51%. They’re talking ownership of the business—I myself am a social equity applicant and am very well versed in what’s supposed to happen—what I’ve seen happen and what I’ve had offered to me is another company will come to help you get into the cannabis industry supposedly. They’ll give you 51% of ownership in the business. Then they will have their attorneys write up a contract that eliminates you from having any say-so in the business, any oversight, or any management, and then they start charging all of these fees.

“Oh, we’re gonna employ our people, it’s gonna cost this amount, that amount,” and by the time the social applicant actually sees a dollar, they’re getting probably 2% of what’s supposed to be 51%. So when you’re looking at it from a monetary standpoint, they’re really losing, but they don’t know any better or have any other options. So this is a very unfortunate situation, but you are absolutely right; there are people who have the corporate background, have the money, and were able to hop right in and excel.

VM: You are the founder and CEO of four Cannabis businesses. What can you tell us about them? Can you describe them one by one and what products or services they offer?

MR: Absolutely, the primary business is Greenwood and Company, and that company basically serves as the license holder for all of my entities. I have indoor cultivation where we have approximately 200 lights. We do our own clones, we have our own mother plants, and we produce exotic cannabis and, for the most part, pretty high-end cannabis flower.

I have a manufacturing company. We do not actually own any machinery to create any type of distillates or live resin, but it allows me to infuse pre-rolls and make beverages, which is part of some of the other brands I do.

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I also have a cannabis distribution company that allows me to brand and package all of the cannabis that I have, whether it’s flower, pre-rolls, infused pre-rolls, or beverages. And creating the brands is kind of an ancillary business that I’ve been able to create with other people because I have the vertically integrated companies to be able to provide them with flower, provide them with any type of cannabis product that they want to brand. I allow them to have their own company where they aren’t touching the actual plant, and I facilitate any and all packaging and allow them to market and sell. Then we would distribute it to either the end-user or retail outlet.

The fourth company is a cannabis delivery company. We’re licensed to deliver straight to consumers. So if I’m packaging my own brands, I can deliver them direct-to-consumer or through the distribution. I can then take them to a retail outlet.

VM: What advice might you have for people of color, and especially other women of color who are considering entering the cannabis industry? What would you want them to be aware of while entering the industry?

MR: I would say work with people who really have your best interests at heart, not people who are just out for money or ownership, per se. There are enough people interested in getting into the cannabis industry, and I think a person interested really has a lot of homework to do. There’s a lot of regulatory knowledge that a person has to have before trying to get in because it’s expensive. And they don’t give you refunds. I applied for a license in another county, and they made it very clear up front, and I’ll be honest with you, I thought I’d be a shoo-in because it was based on experience and running cannabis companies.

And I felt like I had enough experience and could articulate that in an application where a board of people would say, oh, OK, she’s doing A, B, and C, and she would be a good fit here. Not only did I not get that license, but they rated my application so low. I felt like that might have been one of those barriers to entry. Maybe they looked me up and said, “we don’t want her here.” I was unable to recover any of the money I put into applying for that license. It cost me over $20,000. So you definitely want to know what you’re doing and, if necessary, work with someone who has succeeded in getting licenses before you put your money and heart into getting into the cannabis industry.

VM: Many states, including California, have instituted social equity programs to correct racial and other inequities and assist women and people of color to participate in the cannabis industry in managerial and ownership positions. I think you already said those programs are not working as well as they could. In your mind, what could they state do differently? How could those programs do a better job at social equity?

MR: I think if they really want to help applicants and get them into the cannabis industry and assist them with any type of criminal background or War on Drugs history that they may have had in the past, they need to put their money where their mouth is. There’s no way you can have an effective social equity program when the minute a social equity applicant submits their documents, they are given a $24,000 invoice. What person do you know who’s been incarcerated or truly affected by the War on Drugs that can pay a $24,000 bill within ten days? It’s just not practical, but that’s what they have. And that’s what they’re offering regarding social equity.

And then they sometimes offer these incubator programs where investors get to meet potential social equity applicants, and again, you get into these situations where you’ve got these large corporations that promise you the world, and they’re going to cover all the expenses. And yes, they’ll do that. They’ll cover all the expenses and give you a title, but that’s not ownership. The way that these social equity programs are designed right now, they’re giving you a job. I don’t think that’s really in the benefit of a social equity applicant if you are looking at something that can give you some kind of ownership or help create generational wealth after you’ve been wronged by any sort of cannabis offense.

VM: And, of course, communities of color have been disproportionately targeted, racially profiled, and incarcerated in the history of prohibition. And we have very poor to no reentry assistance in general, let alone get into the cannabis industry. There needs to be funding, training, and placement. And those disproportionately impacted should be prioritized somehow. Do you agree?

MR: Oh, absolutely. When I applied, I was supposed to be a priority. It took me over a year. It’s just not effective, but again, you have low-level employees responsible for moving this process along. And it’s a check for them. It’s not set up by people who really care to ensure these programs are successful. They don’t really care.

VM: Marlo, you add such a great perspective. While we still have a few moments left, what final thoughts would you like to leave us with?

MR: I just want to say that this is probably one of the best opportunities I have ever had in my life. I have fallen completely in love with the cannabis industry. The people I get to work with and the ability to learn and teach people. Everything about the plant has just been an incredible experience. I learned how to de-leaf the other day. I’m not sure if you know what that means (laughs), but we’re three weeks away from pulling down one of our first indoor grows, so we have flower coming. And just seeing the process of making sure that it’s quality product, making sure that it’s properly tested. I want to let people know how important it is to use licensed companies and buy their cannabis products from reputable retailers.

I have a couple of brands. Just Mary is my personal brand. It’s a flower line. We sell ounces by the can. We have Tremendo, which is a higher-end brand that is all exotic quality pre-rolls, vape pens, and flower. We also have a couple of beverages that are going to be coming out, one by Treehouse Blends, my partner Tim Brown from Florida. He’s got a great tea-based infused beverage that’s absolutely amazing. We have another one called Home School. It’s more of an upscale product. My goal is to create these products here in California, and hopefully, they do so well that other distributors in other states are dying to bring them to you.

Marlo Richardson has spent nearly two decades of her professional career managing at the executive level in the areas of entertainment, law, public/media relations, social media management, marketing, advertising, and crisis management; Creating and overseeing media content in Television & Film, large-scale events, clients, and building relationships with stakeholders in the entertainment industry and government. Marlo was a 2015 Gubernatorial Appointee by California Governor Jerry Brown, chairing a State of California Enforcement section of over 250 sworn and civilian personnel. And she was recently selected to serve on the California State Bar board governing Ethics and Professional Conduct.