You’ve seen the headlines. You’ve seen the numbers.
In the two and a half years of legal marijuana sales, it is already a billion dollar-per-year industry in Colorado alone with projections estimating national growth to $7.1 billion in 2016. The industry’s workforce numbers are spiking too, with cannabis-related companies now employing an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 full- and part-time workers, according to a recent report.
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The employment data “shows that this industry is becoming an economic engine for the country,” said Marijuana Business Daily’s Chris Walsh told CBS News. “We’re really just scratching the surface in terms of jobs in this industry.”
When Jake Bhattacharya quit his information technology job to open a cannabis business in California, he told our colleagues at the Orange County Register the decision was simple: “The fastest-growing industry in America is marijuana. Period.”
Marijuana is now so entrenched in American commerce that the still-new industry is luring power players and executives away from some of the most influential technology companies and lifestyle brands.
So who exactly is at the helm in these new cannabis companies? Here, in no particular order, is a partial round-up of marijuana executives and influencers who came from the unlikeliest of monolithic companies — think Google, Apple, Microsoft and others — and traded that corporate life for the booming business of cannabis. Yeah, we’re well aware there is only one woman on this list; That came as a surprise to us, too, considering the seeming explosion of female entrepreneurs in the space and their involvement in organizations like Women Grow.
Have someone you’d like us to consider adding to the next round-up? Email us or leave a comment below.
Who I am: Eric Eslao
Founder and CEO, Défoncé Chocolatier
Where I came from: After six years as a senior producer at Apple in worldwide marketing for iTunes, Eslao left the company earlier this year to launch what just might be the most beautifully designed line of cannabis-infused chocolate bars we’ve seen yet. Available in select California dispensaries, Défoncé has teamed up with San Francisco celebrity chef Matt Masera to expand the line with an end goal of eventually introducing the confections into restaurants.
Why I’m working in cannabis: “I absolutely loved working at Apple, but I’m an entrepreneur at heart and I felt I could make a bigger impact by starting my own company,” Eslao told The Cannabist. “I founded Défoncé because my passions for both chocolate artisanship and cannabis connoisseurship found a home in one pursuit — the creation of a single-origin, craft, cannabis-infused chocolate. Défoncé Chocolatier has rapidly grown to the point where I had to commit to the company full-time.”
Who I am: Alan Gertner
Co-founder, Tokyo Smoke
Where I came from: The 31-year-old Toronto native was a globetrotting corporate strategist at Google for six years. During an Internet development trip in Ghana in 2015, Gertner had an epiphany thanks to a tour guide who told him, “You either work on something you love, or work because it supports the people you love.” He quit his “dream job” to start Tokyo Smoke with the help of his father Lorne Gertner — co-founder of the first publicly traded cannabis company in Canada, Cannasat Therapeutics. Bringing together Gertner’s three passions — cannabis, coffee and clothing — Tokyo Smoke’s downtown coffee bar and showroom stocks custom apparel and paraphernalia. Additional locations in Seattle and Los Angeles along with a line of proprietary strains are also in the works.
Why I’m working in cannabis: “Leaving the corporate world was about finding something to work on that was more important than me,” Gertner told The Cannabist. “I connected with the cannabis movement, and believe that bringing elegance, thoughtfulness and normalization to it can change our world.” Gertner also wrote in The Globe & Mail, “I believe cannabis is the next Internet — an immense and untrammelled new market opportunity — and Tokyo Smoke is gearing up to take advantage of it. At least 10 percent of North Americans consume cannabis on a regular basis and consumer product brands have yet to enter this enticing, mainstream, rapidly legalizing space.”
Who we are: Peter Bain, Jonathan Bernbaum and Tania Goulart
VP of marketing, director of international sales and marketing operations manager (respectively), Pax Labs.
Where we came from: Pax, the “it” brand of loose-leaf vaporizers, tapped a trio of rising stars from GoPro to fill a slew of upper management positions in late 2015. Since then, Pax Labs has integrated their vast mobile technology experience in marketing the best-selling Pax 2 and developing its newest product, slated for a launch later this year.
Why we’re working in cannabis:
Bain: “My passion is helping build companies that drive change in some massive social and cultural experience, and the quickly changing landscape of cannabis is creating this at Pax,” he told The Cannabist. “I personally feel strongly about helping to mainstream and normalize the conversation about cannabis, and working with vapor products allows me to do that. Pax as a company is so well-positioned with some of the most talented engineers I’ve worked with, we have first-class customer service and an innovative approach to marketing.”
Bernbaum: “A company like Pax has brought significant innovation to the category of paraphernalia products, and I feel strongly that the same level of innovation needs to be implemented in not just what we sell, but how we sell,” he told The Cannabist. “It’s clear that the modern-day cannabis consumer covers a wide variety of individuals — many of whom will never set foot in a traditional head shop retailer. So there’s a massive opportunity with retailers outside of the traditional landscape.”
Goulart: “I was interested in the challenge of working in this emerging industry, especially with an industry leader who is at the forefront of innovating technology, design and consumer satisfaction,” she told The Cannabist. “Our engineers are beyond genius, and when you have groundbreaking products from a genius team, you’ve got gold. The ability to finally provide long-time smokers a vapor option that satisfies had never been accomplished prior to Pax products, so I really believe in our brand and what it stands for.”
Who I am: Lance Galey
Chief technology officer, MassRoots
Where I came from: After heading infrastructure development as a vice president at Salesforce (and doing similar work for Disney and Amazon prior), Galey was the chief cloud architect at Autodesk before joining the cannabis social media network MassRoots in May.
Why I’m working in cannabis: “There is a massive market opportunity in cannabis right now,” he told The Cannabist. “The long game has already started, and there is enough fear around the industry that tells me this is actually the very moment to be here.”
Who I am: Paul Campbell
Where I came from: As the global social media campaigns lead for Microsoft, Campbell’s credentials have helped evolve cannabis website Leafly way beyond strain reviews. It’s how the Seattle-based site got its start in 2010 and is now the largest cannabis website in the world.
Why I’m working in cannabis: “A few years ago, the chance to join the cannabis industry came my way, and I was immediately fascinated,” he told The Cannabist. “I largely missed the tech boom, so for me the opportunity to shape and build an industry from the ground up was incredibly exciting. My experience at Microsoft gave me valuable experience in both business and technology, and now at Leafly, innovation is at the core of everything we do. We’re moving at an unbelievable pace to create new ways for people to learn about cannabis and share their experiences.”
Who I am: James Kennedy
Where I came from: As the innovative brain behind one of the industry’s leading topical lines, Kennedy’s elevated aesthetic, beautiful branding and dedication to all-natural ingredients now makes total sense. With four years at Aveda in product development, he worked on everything from store design to runway shows with a focus on consumer packaging. He left the company in 2008 for a year of intensive training and mentorship with Aveda’s founder Horst Rechelbacher before starting Apothecanna in Denver in 2009.
Why I’m working in cannabis: “Horst was the pioneer of the natural beauty product movement back in the ’70s,” Kennedy told The Cannabist. “My time with him is when I really started to develop an interest in product formulation. He taught me about plant synergies and creating harmonic balances and was also very influential in helping me to understand the importance of fair trade-sourcing agreements and why it’s important to have a ridiculously high bar for quality control. The values I learned from him stay very true to how Apothecanna operates today.”
Who I am: Mark Williams
Where I came from: With 25 years in Silicon Valley — including more than five years at Apple, where he managed a UX design team for Mac OSX — Williams met his match (Firefly co-founder and fellow start-up star Sasha Robinson) at Burning Man in 2007. As Business Insider reported in 2014, “They’d both built things, and they had that hacker mindset where you look at a problem and assume you can solve it. Together, they resolved to invent a vaporizer of their own, one that would do for smoking what the iPod did for music. It would be the perfect meeting of form and function, a sleek, intuitive device that would make vaping ‘as quick as lighting up.'”
Why I’m working in cannabis: “I left Apple (in 2011) because I thought I could make something that could create a huge improvement in people’s lives,” he told The Cannabist. “Entering the cannabis industry was never the intention. We thought we could make a really great vaporizer that could deliver something way better than anyone has ever had before, no matter what people choose to put into it. On a more personal level, I had learned all the lessons that were available to me in the corporate world and was ready to grow and be challenged to do new things and take on new capabilities outside of the prior technical focus.”
Who I am: Ross Bradshaw
Director of operations, Healthy Headie Lifestyle
Where I came from: During his three years as an internal auditor at headphone-and-speaker giant Bose, Bradshaw started working on a new cannabis business idea during nights and weekends. When he was accepted to Canopy Boulder’s first class in March of 2015, he made the official jump from the company to start the website, which provides a curated online shopping experience for smoking accessories.
Why I’m working in cannabis: “I wanted to be part of history,” he told The Cannabist. “I know we hear it all the time, but this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a revolution. I wanted to chart my own course and make a name for myself. What’s more exciting than the cannabis industry right now?”