Q&A with Hilary Yu: Founder of Our Academy presented by Our Dream
The Cannabis 50 celebrates the organizations, individuals, and companies who are working to build a responsible, sustainable, and equitable future for the cannabis, hemp, and related industries. In addition to the 2021 Cannabis 50 Impact Review, we are also sharing interviews with our honorees to help spread their messages of positivity and growth.
Our Academy was launched by Our Dream in Los Angeles with the sheer purpose of offering resources designed to uplift and empower underrepresented founders in the United States. It is volunteer-run, and its 13-week program encapsulates workshops, mentorships, and valuable networking opportunities with companies, service providers, investors, and social equity programs with the goal of helping BIPOC independent cannabis entrepreneurs thrive. Hilary Yu, the nonprofit’s founder, made time to sit down with us and discuss how Our Academy is making a difference, how we as an industry can demystify social equity, and what’s next on the horizon for cannabis.
MGO: How long have you been involved in the cannabis industry? What inspired you to get involved with cannabis?
Hilary Yu, Executive Director of Our Academy Presented by Our Dream: So far, I’ve worked in cannabis for nearly 5 years, but I spent the first 3-4 years observing as an advisor so I could learn as much as I possibly could about the industry. This helped me build Our Dream. I noticed the lack of brand diversity on the dispensary shelves, which led me to conduct interviews with social equity applicants and founders in a series called “How I Got Here” (HIGH). These stories all shared a few common struggles in the industry: a lack of educational resources, being a part of the community, knowledge sharing among others, and early-stage capital. In 2020, Our Academy was born out of a desire to tackle these challenges head-on and support equity founders in the industry.
In cannabis, we have this unique opportunity to carve out generational wealth opportunities for the communities who have been harmed by cannabis legislation. The dream of creating a collaborative community to support new leaders is what originally inspired me to get started.
MGO: The cannabis industry saw several trends emerge in 2021. What do you think was the biggest one?
Yu: Buying habits are shifting towards representative cannabis brands, over simply choosing the more cost effective option. In California, BIPOC owned and operated brands have started hitting the dispensary shelves and delivery menus and are commanding notable price premiums. This trend is strengthening the value proposition of social equity operators and BIPOC founders in the space, who are more likely to partner with brands that share these values.
This industry really is the first of its kind to be so deeply intertwined with diversity and inclusion from day one, so we can demonstrate to other industries how to better support BIPOC founders. As the industry continues to grow, consumers will only become more knowledgeable about why representation is especially important when it comes to cannabis, and they’ll pay attention to which companies are actively supporting these efforts. I think this trend will continue to snowball in 2022, especially in newly legalized states.
MGO: What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced in the industry in 2021? How did you manage and overcome these issues?
Yu: Figuring out dilutive and non-dilutive financing solutions for our mentees has been a challenge. If your friends and family don’t have capital to spare, how do you raise a friends and family round? We know how little venture funding goes to minorities in cannabis. It’s bleak, so what’re we going to do about it?
We haven’t fully overcome the issue; however, we’ve launched a syndicate of early stage, social impact-minded investors that our mentees can reach out to when they go-to-market or win a license. We also collaborated with JourneyOne Ventures, Life Development Group, and SEOWA to create a “handbook”, which is essentially a white paper to educate more investors on the nuances and opportunities when diligencing social equity licenses.
MGO: What were the biggest highlights and most positive changes for Our Dream/Our Academy in 2021? What about the cannabis industry at large?
Yu: I’ve loved seeing the long-term success of the community we’ve created with the founders now launching their brands in dispensaries, receiving licenses, and working together. Four companies that came through Our Academy recently took in their first angel cheques. And aside from fundraising outcomes, one of our top metrics for success in the program is if the mentors and mentees stay in contact after the program ends. We’re proud that the majority have!
Our Academy had several big highlights from our alumni this year—for example, Morgan Underwood (of Ganja Girl, a mentee) was awarded an events license in Michigan. Neighborhood Essentials (mentee) collaborated with SF Roots (mentor) to launch in California and Michigan. Tess Taylor, a mentee, launched an infused condiment brand called Saucy with Sweet Flower and has quickly grown into 10 retail locations. And that’s just a few of those who participated in the mentorship program and had access to our workshop and materials!
MGO: What should the cannabis industry be focused on in 2022—and beyond—to keep it moving forward in a positive way?
Yu: Investing in and finding creative financing solutions for social equity founders and BIPOC legacy operators should be a priority. They’re some of the hardest working and creative people you’ll ever meet, and their businesses are purpose-driven—it’s their key ingredient, not just an afterthought. These founders have a ton of experience and are often overlooked. They understand consumers better, have a stronger demand because the consumers resonate with them, and they’re able to market their companies in ways that build stronger brand loyalty—something that the rest of the industry is struggling with. By filling the early-stage capital challenges BIPOC founders and legacy operators face, we can ensure generational wealth is created for communities of color who have been disproportionately harmed for decades by unjust cannabis legislation.
MGO: How do you think the cannabis industry will continue to evolve in 2022? What are you personally most excited about?
Yu: Community-driven collaborative capitalism will be a key theme, especially among equity businesses. As the California industry continues to mature, economies of scale are increasingly necessary to remain competitive. While the most common path is to merge or acquire, equity businesses are beginning to recognize that partnerships and pooling arrangements can have the same advantages while allowing them to maintain control of their business.
The shared challenges and incentives of equity businesses create a natural alignment that outpowers the traditional knee-jerk reactions to view everyone else in the space as a competitor. In 2022, I believe this trend toward strength in unity will increase exponentially and protect equity businesses and programs.
MGO: Who else in the cannabis industry inspires you by making a positive impact?
Yu: There are several. Morris Kelly, an equity applicant and founder of SF Roots, San Francisco’s first equity brand currently in 56+ dispensaries in California. Kimberly Dillon, the founder of Frigg and former CMO of Papa & Barkley. Tess Taylor, founder of Saucy. Marie Montmarquet, the legacy operator of MD Numbers, an equity advocate, and an educator through SUCCESS Centers. Kika Keith, a social equity operator and the founder of Gorilla RX Wellness, LA’s first Black woman-owned dispensary.