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Industry Innovators

Cameron Forni: How to Build a Billion-Dollar Cannabis Empire

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Cameron Forni
PHOTO | Select Oil
Rocket Seeds

Cameron Forni knows a thing or two about building a billion dollar cannabis company. The CEO of Cura and founder of Select Oil has always been an innovative thinker. In 2015, he identified and developed the need for an organic cotton wick vape pen, providing a healthier consumption method. From there, he set his mission to be the leading provider of cannabis oil to both consumers and premium brands in legal markets, both in the U.S. and internationally.

We spoke to Forni about his entrepreneurial journey, Cura’s record-breaking success in the cannabis industry, and his predictions for the future of cannabis.

Cannabis Aficionado: Tell us a little bit about your journey through entrepreneurship and how you ended up in the cannabis world.

Cameron Forni: I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire life and have had many incredible mentors. Entrepreneurship was in my blood; I did everything from selling flowers on the side of the street in Milwaukie, Oregon as young as four-years-old, to managing a car detailing business in high school, to building an event company in college. I have always been interested in business and entrepreneurship.

Right out of college, my goal was to create jobs, not to take a job. I started my journey in entrepreneurship when I co-founded TextNoMore, an app designed to reward drivers avoiding texting while driving. From there, I co-founded TryEco LLC, which holds a patent on a starch-based, biodegradable super-absorbent polymer used primarily in agricultural applications. I always had a focus on building businesses that helped people live better lives and achieve more and that’s what led me to cannabis.

With both a medical card and a caregiver card on hand, I started looking at what the future of cannabis would be. I knew that combustion wouldn’t be a long-term option for most cannabis consumers, so I started focusing on safety and vaporization. I started taking apart every vaporizer pen in the market and learned that silica fiberglass was commonly found in most cartridges, so I built a new cartridge, innovated with organic cotton and unique absorption systems.

That’s when Select was born. It’s been quite the journey!

Over the last 18 months, Cura has seen record-breaking success in the industry. You became the first cannabis company to appear in INC. magazine’s annual top 50 companies in 2018. Now, your billion-dollar deal with Curaleaf Holdings is said to be the largest ever among American companies. How does it feel to be behind one of the industry’s golden unicorns?

Wow, what an incredibly cool question to hear. It’s often difficult for me to pause and reflect, so thank you! I’m thankful for the team who has helped build this incredible company with me every day. When you are relentlessly working and traveling (on pace for 300 flights this year alone) because you are so obsessed about something, it’s hard to turn it off. It’s been more than four years of hard work, but in cannabis years, they say that for every one year you multiply by seven because it’s moving so fast!

Sometimes it’s really hard to step back and look at what the work has become. People think that achieving milestones like the Inc. 500 placement or our billion-dollar acquisition must be all we think about, but it’s not always straight forward. We face federal regulatory approval, state licensing approval, audits and regulatory change in each state so often that it’s difficult to master balancing it all. That’s why you need an incredible team.

Cameron Forni (left) started his entrepreneurial path at a young age.

Cura is widely respected in the industry for innovative extraction techniques and its focus on setting high standards for quality products. How has it evolved from its beginnings into the industry leader it is today?

First of all, it’s always been about building the best team possible and taking care of people along the way.

Our evolution over a short period of time is due to our constant focus on innovation, setting best practices and our never-ending pursuit of better.

Senate Bill 582 will allow Oregon to import and export cannabis products across state lines — but only if the federal government changes its policies. What are your thoughts on this?

The main hurdle is the federal Controlled Substances Act which bans interstate shipments of cannabis. That would have to change. Otherwise, the states that attempt to implement this are subject to crackdown by the Federal Government. There is much work to be done here before this becomes a reality.

Which international markets do you think are really leading the charge right now?

The industry is in the first of a nine-inning ball game. With now 11 states with adult use policies, 33 states with medical cannabis laws and 62 percent of Americans in favor of legalizing cannabis (according to PEW), I expect the industry to have massive growth and significant consolidation.

Canada is the leader from the standpoint of the financial market because it came in early, established policies and amassed significant capital to deploy into international markets. However, the leaders in medical cannabis and cannabis research is still Israel who has been making significant investments into research and development in cannabis science.

Will vape pens replace flower? Why or why not?

There’s a nostalgia and ritual to consuming joints and using flower. With baby boomers and longtime cannabis users that will undoubtedly continue. However, U.S. consumer preferences always gear more towards convenience. The closer we can create the experience of vaporizing unique cannabis terpene and oil formulations, the closer we can get to replicating the experience to that of flower. Long term you will see vaporization pass combustion of flower and in the end, it’s safer.

What new challenges will the industry face going forward?

Banking, taxation, legislation and real estate have always been the major challenges facing cannabis operators. We are the most heavily taxed industries in the world. We are also one of the most heavily tracked — meaning track and traced — industries in the world. In every legal state we use RFID chips on each product case that goes to stores in order to track the product from seed to sale.

Last but not least, cannabis companies achieving profitability is becoming critical to survival in this space. With large gluts of products in states like Oregon, it makes it very hard to run a profitable business under incredibly high taxation.

What trends are shaping cannabis in 2019?

I expect unique terpene profiles and oil formulations to become more popular. Additionally, innovative, discreet and more elevated devices will be the main drivers for 2019.

What demographic do you see having the most growth?

We’re seeing more and more young professionals 25-35 come on board to cannabis at a quick rate. Millennials are seeking cannabis options that suit their own personal needs and they’re becoming more willing to share their interest in cannabis publicly.

What are your one year, five year, and 10-year predictions for the cannabis industry?

1 year: More states will continue to come on board and legalize adult-use cannabis. With that, we’ll also see an uptick in normalization around the country.

5 year: Ideally, the STATES Act will pass, providing more people with access to cannabis, jobs and business opportunities around the country.

10 year: Cannabis is treated by society and regulated by the government like alcohol and will become mainstream.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?

The biggest piece of advice I’d offer to new cannabis entrepreneurs would be to surround yourself with people who fill in your weaknesses early on.

It’s important to be agile and never get stuck to a plan. The plan is always changing because the regulatory environment is always changing. You can’t work in this industry without being agile and nimble with decision-making.

Finally, what are the three things people don’t know about being a cannabis entrepreneur?

  1. Time commitment: If you want to be successful in this business be prepared to give up your social life. I find myself traveling 48 weeks a year. Having a very understanding partner is critical as well!
  2. The regulatory environment WILL shift beneath your feet. Expect to order one million boxes of packaging and 2 weeks later that package is obsolete in one of the states you operate in because they need a new sticker
  3. Cost and funding: Traditional capital is not readily available to the cannabis entrepreneur, you need to make sure your business can survive and thrive. It’s very expensive to handle all the taxes and fees that accompany a cannabis business. For example, in California we face 44% supply chain tax, 12% excise tax, 11% sales tax, 5% gross revenue tax, 35% 280E tax, along with licensing fees and higher-than-normal rates for real estate… just because we’re a cannabis company.

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Industry Innovators

Bill Shevlin: Cultivating Carbon-Neutral Cannabis at 3 Bros Grow

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Bill Shevlin 3 Bros
Bill Shevlin | PHOTOS 3 Bros Grow

It’s no secret that indoor cannabis cultivation techniques leave a substantial carbon footprint. The immense amounts of water and energy required will make the model unsustainable if it continues unchallenged. Fortunately, by implementing cutting-edge technology and the best production practices, it is possible to grow top-shelf cannabis in a way that’s sustainable for both businesses and the environment. That’s the vision of 3 Bros Grow, a vertically integrated cannabis company in Santa Cruz, California, dedicated to growing the very best cannabis using environmentally friendly processes.

Cannabis Aficionado spoke to CEO Bill Shevlin about the 3 Bros Grow mission, their revolutionary cultivation practices and the importance of giving back to the community.

Cannabis Aficionado: Tell us about your journey through entrepreneurship and how you found your way to cannabis.

Bill Shevlin: I grew up in the Santa Cruz area, and if you grew up in this part of the country, cannabis was always around. When I was in high school, I took an outdoor ed program and learned how to read topography maps. My friends and I picked some locations that were back in the woods, in the canyons, planted there and grew. After school, I ended up getting into real estate development and management. For the last 15 years, I have advised technology and vertical ag companies while working in large-scale commercial construction and renewable energy.

In 2017, I started looking at energy usage in the cannabis and hemp space, as I knew cannabis was super energy-intensive. I worked with a few different companies in the industry — some were small, some were large — and I saw all sorts of issues from the infrastructure requirements but also on the corporate side. Due to my background in vertical ag, I knew you could cultivate and deliver food crops into local markets sustainably.  I knew there was value in being able to do the same thing in cannabis.

I met the founders of 3 Bros Grow — Tyler Smith, ‘CEBrO’; Mark Taylor, COO, and Russell Smith, CMO — at the end of 2019, and formally joined them as CEO in January of 2020. They have a really cool mission to be a sustainable company from day one and had some interesting things they were doing.

Grease Monkey

Tell me more about the 3 Bros Grow mission.

We believe it is our responsibility to offer only the highest quality cannabis products at an approachable price and in a sustainable manner. Cannabis is medicine, but we plan to use it to heal more than just people. From climate-positive business practices to community care initiatives, we strive to assist in the healing of our planet.  Unfortunately, the cannabis industry is far from green. There is a lot of waste and a lot of pollution. 3 Bros is committed to leaving this planet more beautiful than when we arrived and vow to put forward our greatest effort in sustainable and community-centred operations. That’s where my background in renewable energy comes into play.

Why is creating a zero-carbon footprint cultivation model so important to 3 Bros Grow?

From day one, 3 Bros Grow has been about sustainability — the founders were pushing the sustainability message in cannabis even before I was around. They grew up in the surf industry and were professional surfers, so they’re very conscious of the environment. When I joined, it was really because we were having conversations around using renewable energy and sustainable energy for indoor cannabis, which is really energy-intensive. Sustainability has always been part of the core culture of 3 Bros Grow. We’re doing some really cutting-edge stuff around sustainability.

What are the sustainable ‘green’ initiatives at your new facility?

We’re creating a climate-positive impact at our revolutionary new vertically integrated facility in Santa Cruz. It allows us to offer truly green practices across cultivation, manufacturing, processing, and distribution.

Our COO, Mark, figured out a way to not use any outside water in his cultivation operations. The 3 Bros proprietary systems and technologies don’t use any outside water for cultivation, which creates a lower cost of operation, and it also has a positive impact on the environment. If you look at what the industry standards are, for water there is, unfortunately, a lot of waste. It’s a problem that needs to be fixed, and we are fixing it.

We’re also implementing a carbon-negative microgrid that generates power onsite, allowing us to lower the cost of operation, and create a climate-positive impact. Again, cannabis is an energy-intensive industry. So even though a lot of people associate it with being “natural” and “clean,” the reality is that there are a lot of fossil fuels that are used to grow most commercially available cannabis.

Thirdly, using our proprietary Direct Air Capture technology allows us to sequester CO2 in our cultivation and manufacturing processes, which we’ll inject back into our grow environment. So, we’re actually pulling CO2 out of the air at a larger scale than we normally would, because we’re not supplementing with standard C02. We’re just supplementing with CO2 that we’ve captured from the air.

Mark Taylor in the 3 Bros grow room

The facility is being brought online in phases and will have a cultivation capacity of 10,000 pounds of top-shelf indoor cannabis. The interesting thing is that our environmental impact is positive, costs of operations are lower and our efficiencies are higher. Lowering the cost of operations is critical but doing them in an environmentally friendly way is even more critical. It really is the best of both worlds.

I believe sustainability should be taking place across all aspects of cannabis. In California, the Bureau of Cannabis Control requires certified hauliers to remove any cannabis waste — like stems and miscellaneous biomass — in a locked drum or container. It’s fairly expensive and very wasteful. We want to be able to take our waste and turn it back into something useful, not just bury it in the ground because the BCC considers it a hazard. So, we’re in the processes of obtaining authorization from the local county government to be able to take our waste and send it to our nursery site. This zero-waste program essentially creates a circular economy, not to mention a healthier soil program for our own growing.

We work with a company who has a soils program, the founder used to be with the Rodale Institute.  They are creating a compost program and implementing regenerative agriculture practices, which has multiple benefits: the crops produce more; the soils are healthier; the local climate is healthier, and those products are typically consumed in the local market and can fetch a higher price point.

Sustainable cannabis growing is all about reducing the negative impact on the environment. 3 Bros Grow demonstrates that sustainability in vertical agriculture can be achieved, that is profitable, and it is good for the planet and good for people.

How does the packaging that’s required for the sale of regulated products work into your sustainability model?

All 3 Bros Grow products are packaged using the most sustainable and environmentally conscious packaging available, like soy-based inks, recycled ocean-based plastics and bio-based plastic or hemp-based plastics. We’re talking to companies that are emerging that are using hemp fibers in this space.

I hate plastic. The amount of excess plastic and packaging used in the cannabis industry is a nightmare. The world’s starting to realize that plastic is going to kill us, and we’ve got to be able to find alternative packaging materials to be able to do it.

I think that as an industry, we need to insure everyone uses sustainable solutions. Right now, it is a little bit more expensive to use sustainable packaging. But in our opinion, it’s worth it to not pollute the planet and delay that cost into some future generation. Plus, I think we should be supporting our own industry to help it evolve — even if it costs a little bit more in the packaging up front for hemp fiber and plastic to come to market. From my perspective, it’s the right thing to do. 

What are the benefits of sustainable growing techniques?

You create a healthier, cleaner and consistent product. You also lower or remove your carbon footprint. And you lower your costs of operation. All three of these are important from a business perspective. You always have to have the lowest cost of business operations possible, so you can have a margin and continue to grow, expand and do what you need to in the marketplace. But from an environmental perspective, you have to do what’s right up front and every day.  

Can you tell me about your community programs, like the compassionate program 3 Bros Grow started during the pandemic?

We want to support the community that’s supported us. Any company can make money, but it is important to give to the community that supports us. We take a portion of our proceeds during a month and give that to a local nonprofit.

When COVID-19 came around, we decided to start a compassion program for people who were struggling. We reached out to a lot of the vendors we work with and we had an overwhelming response; they donated products to us, and we donated it to our less-fortunate customers. Not just cannabis products — we donated large amounts of food to the community, too. We did the same thing when the fires came; we reached out to a lot of our vendors and created a compassion program.

3 Bros grow is committed to supporting the community.

We also support minority-owned companies and local brands that are trying to get in the market. We’ll bring their product in, give them some shelf space, get them some attention through our social media platforms and, most importantly, try to give them additional margin on their products. We truly believe that it’s not just about growing our business – it’s about supporting the industry. It’s about making the industry better.

In your opinion, what’s the most important thing that needs to be addressed when talking about cannabis?

Educating people that cannabis is not a harmful thing – it’s really a helpful thing. I have friends who are veterans who treat themselves for PTSD with cannabis. I have friends who are senior citizens that treat themselves with cannabis for pain. I have friends who treat themselves for anxiety. I have friends that have weaned themselves off major opiates and other addictions by using cannabis and other cannabinoid products.

Cannabis is a crop you can grow in a really sustainable manner and deliver it into local markets where it creates local jobs. It helps people. It’s a healthy product. That Reefer Madness type of mentality has really been politically driven in the past and comes from corporations and the government — they want to keep this plant out of the people’s hands, unfortunately.

How do you think the cannabis industry as a whole can be better?

One thing the industry doesn’t do very effectively as a collective group is get together to push legislation that actually supports our industry. As a united industry, we should be reaching out to the political parties, to demand the legislation that we need that will allow us to continue to thrive and scale. There are still too many people who are focused on their own operations and aren’t spending time thinking about the big picture.

Cities, Counties and States want the sales tax revenues, but they don’t want to create the banking and infrastructure support that’s required for the industry to evolve. You can’t bleed tax money from the cannabis industry but also not have the legislation that supports it. It’s counterintuitive and counterproductive.

The cannabis industry pays a lot in tax, and at the same time think about the job creation that it brings to the community. It’s huge. Somewhere between 250-350,000 jobs have been created in the last few years. The only other industry that’s been on par with that has been the renewable energy industry. But unlike other verticals, we’re not supported, and we don’t have a united voice from the political perspective that will push the legislation that should be in place.

The amount of compliance we have to go through on the banking side means spending several thousand dollars a month in banking fees, cash pickup fees, and everything else. We’re fortunate that we actually have a bank account. Just recently, we’ve been able to start taking electronic payments. But in order to do that, we get charged a 3.5 percent transaction fee that we have to pass on to the consumer. In any other industry, you’d have a normal credit card system that would be half a percent, or one percent — maybe 50 cents. But there’s hardly anyone in electronic payments that wants to deal with you. We’re in the middle of expansion, so we’re talking to multiple different finance groups and capital groups. If this were any other industry, we could go out and get a regular credit line, pay a couple of percent and get a credit line of a couple of million dollars, no problem. In this industry, that doesn’t exist.

What’s next for 3 Bros Grow?

We’re continuing to expand. We’re doing some collaborations with some large brands. We just signed an agreement with Sherbinski to cultivate and manufacture some product for them using our environmental approach.  We are working with a couple of their genetics and bringing them to the products to the market that shows the climate-positive impact. We’re also working with some other brands to make create new products that come into the market in a sustainable manner.

Finally, what are three things it takes to be a cannabis entrepreneur?

You have to be able to tolerate pain; you have to be able to jump through hoops, and you have to be compassionate and, in our opinion, serve the community.

If you’re in Santa Cruz, be sure to swing by the 3 Bros Grow dispensary.

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Industry Innovators

Gav Lawson: How THTC Helped Make Hemp Hip

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Gav Lawson THTC
PHOTOS | Courtesy of THTC

The Hemp Trading Company, aka THTC, has revolutionized eco-friendly fashion.

The London-based company brought hemp to the high street two decades ago with the launch of the brand’s sustainable clothing line comprised of garments made from hemp, organic cotton, and other sustainable materials.

THTC merges music, art, and activism. The clothing line features T-shirts designed by artists such as Mau Mau, whose urban artwork is known for its cultural commentary.

The company grew from a college-run business to the award-winning global brand it is today. Musicians and celebrities like Woody Harrelson, Redman, Method Man, members of UB40, Ed Sheeran and world Beatbox champion Alexinho are just a few of the personalities known to have supported THTC.

Some of the THTC’s earliest and most popular prints include: “George Bush & Son Family Butchers (Est. 1989)” – originally released in 2001 – and “Weapon of Choice,” a T-shirt worn by artists and activists for over 16 years.

Not all designs are politically explicit; other prints showcase collaborations — like “King David” and “Born Free” — between THTC and organizations including the World Land Trust, Born Free Foundation, and The Refugee Community Kitchen.

THTC’s founder, Gav Lawson, talks exclusively to us about building the award-winning eco-fashion line, and the company’s newest collections.

The Beginnings of Something Sustainable

L-R: Woody Harreslon, THTC founders Gav and Drew Lawson.

Lawson founded the ethically driven streetwear brand alongside his brother, Drew, and friend Daniel Sodergren in 1999 while they attended universities in Hull and Bristol respectively. Together they formed the campus hemp awareness societies called Hempology, which became the basis for THTC.

“It took a few years for the brand to gain traction,” said Lawson, who is now the sole owner. “I didn’t know if the company would take off. We were so ahead of our time; ethical or organic clothing was not really a thing in the 90s.”

Almost four years ago, Lawson was joined by digital marketing expert Ashwin Bolar, who has vastly helped transform the company’s online strategy and boost their social media presence.

“Ashwin has been a great help to THTC,” said Lawson. “He is a very talented digital marketer and brings a lot to the table. Since he joined, our number of Facebook followers has more than doubled to almost 55,000. He also creates THTC’s graphics.”

THTC made its move into the mainstream when it became the first ethically minded clothing brand to be carried in Virgin Megastores.

“That was big for us,” Lawson said, “It had always been our aim to bring hemp to the high street and Richard Branson gave us that first opportunity.”

TK Maxx (the U.K. version of TJ Maxx) also started to carry THTC garments in more than 80 of its retail shops.

“THTC became one of their most popular t-shirt brands and we were the first hemp product to be stocked in their stores,” Lawson said.

“Ethical Consumer Magazine” ranks THTC as the U.K.’s most ethical independent menswear brand. British newspaper the Observer’s annual Ethical Awards also recognized the company as runner up for “Best Fashion Product” in 2004. In addition to its many accolades, Lawson earned a PEA award – the UK’s “biggest green awards” – for his achievements.

THTC recently paired up with Colorado-based Hoodlab Store, who is now the brand’s official U.S. distributor.

Finding THTC Brand Champions

Method Man and Redman wearing THTC tees.

When asked why THTC found success as an eco-fashion brand when others did not, Lawson credited it to years of networking, brand champions, and his small staff.

He spent more than a decade promoting his brand on the club scene, giving away T-shirts, and sharing his passion and vision for THTC. Through this experience, he said, he found champions of the brand, or people who wear THTC products “[…] because they are proud to.”

“People are often too busy in their own lives to worry about trying to save the world,” Lawson said. “They don’t know where to start, or that wearing one t-shirt made from organic hemp compared to conventionally grown cotton can save up to 2,500 liters of fresh water.”

THTC customers feel empowered just by wearing a T-shirt, a term he described as “armchair activism.”

“It becomes infectious,” Lawson said.

Making Sustainability Stylish

Josh Whitehouse (musician from ‘More Like Trees’ and actor from ‘Poldark’) in “Evil Mac” tee.

THTC revolutionized sustainable fashion by taking it from boring to trendy.

“Most environmentally friendly brands lead with their environmental credentials,” Lawson said. “We wanted THTC to be design-led, so we focused on creating strong designs and a cool brand that people would be proud to wear, whether they are environmentally minded or not.

Men in the U.K. are one of the hardest demographics to sell ethical fashion to, said Lawson; “generally speaking, they couldn’t give a damn about saving the planet.”

That’s why the company focuses on marketing itself as a fashion label before being a political one, Lawson explained. “We try to be the first ethical purchase for people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily think about sustainability.”

Rising From the Ashes

MC GQ.

One of the biggest struggles in the company’s history came shortly after the economic crisis in 2008. A few years later, in 2013, a fire occurred at THTC’s screen-printing facility that destroyed their screen-printing machine and 12 years worth of screens, costing them thousands. As a result, Lawson put on an event at South London-based venue, Electric Brixton called “Re-Grow.”

The event featured a very impressive line-up comprising of many of THTC’s supporting musicians who came along and performed for free, said Lawson.

“I was overwhelmed by the goodwill from the people,” he said.

Another challenge, and a point of pride for Lawson, is keeping THTC products affordable.

“I’ve always kept prices as low as I can — the cost of producing sustainable, truly ethical fashion is astronomical compared to cheap, throwaway cotton,” he said. While shops like Primark (equivalent to a Forever 21 in the U.S.) “pay peanuts for a t-shirt, we’re paying around £8 [more than $10],” Lawson explained. “We screen print all of our designs in London, usually with water-based and discharge printing processes.

The price of hemp, and other eco-friendly fabrics are already expensive enough, he said, “We try to make our products as affordable as possible.”

Transparency Through the Production Line

Lawson and the THTC factory workers.

Lawson recently visited China, documenting his visit to the two facilities that produce their hemp clothing. THTC is currently editing a mini-documentary about the experience which is being produced by THTC’s video creator Spelt Productions.

The moment people hear about production in China, “They assume you’re working with sweatshops,” said Lawson. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The factories producing THTC garments are small, with between 12-20 staff. They are not exposed to harsh chemicals due to the nature of the products made, and a shared commitment to sustainability. They work from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. and take regular holidays.

Lawson is quick to remind others that poor working environments occur everywhere. It is countries like China, he asserted, that need ethical production facilities more than anywhere.

“Plus,” he said, “hemp has been in Chinese culture for thousands of years. They’re way ahead of the game in terms of how the fabric is manufactured.”

For those reasons, he is proud of how and where THTC clothes are made.

Lawson is focused on transparency and sustainability throughout the entire production line. The company has produced ranges with upcycling businesses such as My Only One, and Good One, turning old garments into new styles.

Future THTC Fashions

THTC just released their spring collection this April, which includes new prints such as “System of a Mau,”  “The Missing Peace” and “Get Back to Your Own Country,” as well as reprinting 16 past favorite designs such as “Get Rich or Try Sharing”, “Just A Ride” and “Plastic Fish.”

THTC is preparing to launch a line of THTC accessories that includes socks, underwear, wallets, belts, flexible ball caps, and more.

In the near future, Lawson also hopes to expand into the white label market, and create prints for dispensaries or other companies who are seeking sustainable merchandise.

To keep up to date with THTC’s new drops and news, give them a follow on Facebook and Instagram.

Visit their website and enter CANNABIS-AFICIONADO-15 for a 15 percent discount on everything in the THTC range excluding charitable collaboration designs.

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Industry Innovators

Casey Georgeson: Setting a Higher Standard for Clean, Green Beauty

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Casey Georgeson

Casey Georgeson is the CEO and Founder of Saint Jane, a luxurious, 100% clean CBD beauty collection that has taken the CBD beauty category by storm since its launch in January 2019.

You could say entrepreneurialism is in her DNA. Coming from the Ernest and Julio Gallo wine family dynasty, Georgeson has spent her career developing beauty brands for Sephora, including Marc Jacobs, Disney for Sephora as well as the hugely successful wine brand, Cupcake Vineyards.

Georgeson is passionate about the powerful benefits of CBD and whole plant science. I spoke to her about her journey to becoming a cannabis entrepreneur, the importance of transparency and the story behind Saint Jane.

CA: Tell me about your journey through entrepreneurship and how you found your way to cannabis.

Casey Georgeson: My family has a history of entrepreneurship. My great-grandmother was a mail-order bride from Italy (yes that was a real thing!) who came over in the 1900s. She and my great-grandfather grew grapes in the San Joaquin Valley with their seven children. At the end of The Prohibition, still in the Great Depression, she saw an opportunity to use their vineyards for winemaking. She took out a $10,000 loan, using the farm as collateral. She gave $5,000 to her sons, the Franzia brothers, to start a winery; and $5,000 to her son-in-law, Ernest Gallo, to start a winery with his brother, Julio.

Essentially, a 4’10” mail-order bride started two of the largest wine companies out there. That story always resonated with me and even though I never had the chance to meet her — I’ve always admired the confidence it must have taken to do that as a woman in the 1930s. My uncle was also an entrepreneur and I learned a great deal from him throughout the years, watching him create a business.

I started my career as a producer for CNN and got into the wine industry as a brand creator where I developed a brand called Cupcake Vineyards. I went to business school at Stanford and interned at Sephora. It was there that I had this extraordinary training in the beauty industry and in product development and formulations. Once I graduated, I worked at Kendo, Sephora’s brand incubator. My role was to sit as the liaison between the brands we partnered with — Marc Jacobs, Elizabeth and James, Disney, Hello Kitty, Kat Von D— and articulate their vision in the world of beauty and that would ultimately lead to the building of their brands.

I had been creating brands for many years and thought I want to create my own brand at some point. It might be beauty. It might be wine. I just knew I wanted to do something on my own, but it had to be a really big idea.

When I discovered CBD in 2017, I first began really thinking about creating my own brand. It all started when I read a PopSugar article on CBD. The headline was, NATURE’S XANAX MEETS ADVIL. I was like, what is this natural miracle molecule? I immediately went to the dispensary and said to the budtender, “Show me everything you have that’s high CBD, low THC.” They showed me all these products that were really crunchy and hippie. Some formulated for the skin, some ingestible. This was in 2017.

Next to all these products that the budtender put out, was a list of all the things CBD was purported to do. You know that list, it’s very impressive and kind of shakes you to your core. Inflammation. Pain. Sleep. Anxiety. Gut health. Sleep. I thought, ‘If CBD does even one of these things, it is truly one of the most powerful skincare ingredients of our time.’ For topical use, most of the products dealt with pain management and were paired with MCT oil, because it was the easiest and it’s what was most commonly used for ingestibles. But, at the time, nobody was formulating with true skincare ingredients that would be at the level of something you would find at a luxury retailer.

That’s when I saw the opportunity. I would pair CBD with other really potent botanicals, that support the CBD mission for the skin, I knew it was an incredible idea. I went deep into learning about CBD and botanicals and Saint Jane was born.

What a journey! Can you tell me a little about the name Saint Jane?

Saint Jane has two meanings.

One, it’s the innocent side of Mary Jane, because CBD will not get you high.

Two, Saint Jane was an actual person in 1500s France. She was anointed into sainthood for healing people. Specifically, healing women, which society would otherwise never touch: the old, the very sick, unwed mothers. She dedicated her whole life to healing. Her story has been very inspiring to us because our products focus on nurturing, healing and we have a very authentic female empowerment story, as well. I have three daughters and the company is comprised of all women.

It’s truly a gift to have Saint Jane’s legacy as a foundation for the brand. Our approach is healing-centric and the way we’ve expressed that through the brand feels very authentic.

How amazing that you can pay homage to somebody who otherwise would’ve been forgotten in the mists of time, that’s beautiful.

The idea of reimagining this woman who was so important to society and culture for her to devotion to helping people, through this modern lens, is really inspiring. I had 16 years of Catholic school, yet I’m not religious. But this has inspired a renewed faith for me… in our own mission for women as Saint Jane.

What makes Saint Jane different from other CBD skincare products on the market?

I think the biggest difference is the way we’ve crafted the products. It’s about the whole plant story and other botanicals that we pair with CBD. It’s not just CBD for the sake of it. We thoughtfully match CBD with botanicals that support the cannabinoid’s mission of calming, soothing and nurturing the skin.  The botanicals work in concert.

We’re also passionate about full-spectrum CBD — the whole plant extract — because we believe in the entourage effect. Rich endocannabinoid receptors in the skin benefit from those minor cannabinoids found in full-spectrum products.

We also believe in higher concentrations of CBD. When we started, there were a lot of debates around topicals and dosages. It felt so instinctual to me that a higher concentration would be most efficacious for the skin. My background in beauty taught me about performance and the end benefit. If your product works, you’re going to have people come back to you. I believe that our results-driven formulas really express that.

We’re also 100% clean. Our philosophy around clean is also non-negotiable. My second daughter was born very small, underweight. It’s called ‘Small for Gestational Age’ (SGA). We were terrified by that because my older daughter had been born at a normal weight. Juliet was shockingly tiny. We kept trying to figure out why and one of my doctors asked if I had been exposed to any chemicals while pregnant.  At the time, I was developing fragrances, nail polishes. So, I flashback to those windowless offices where I was developing those products and I couldn’t tell anyone I was pregnant yet — it was my first trimester. In the end, we’ll never know; it was inconclusive if there was a correlation. But since then, clean has been non-negotiable and if I was going to create my own product line and collection, it needed to be as clean as it gets. My daughter is amazing and thriving today, but I never would want someone else to go through that. Clean is essential to our ethos.

Transparency and testing are the last ones. Trust is important to us. It took me a long time to get comfortable with the vendors and suppliers that I chose when I started Saint Jane. Back before the Farm Bill, it was really like the Wild West. I didn’t know who to trust as I was getting these packages of white powder delivered to my home. Or these full-spectrum extracts in syringes. I went through my own vetting process with vendors. My mission was to find the best of the best. I retested everything myself with third-party vendors and was shocked to see what I received was often different from what the paperwork stated.

That integrity of testing has stayed integral to the brand since we launched. We test four times during the supply chain to make sure everything is matching up and that we can stand behind everything were putting out there. Every batch is different and we have to stay true to that dedication to the integrity behind it.

Saint Jane has just been stocked by Sephora stores. Congratulations on such an amazing achievement. Can you tell me about that process?

Sephora has been an amazing partner, they’ve been incredibly insightful about our brand, they see our potential, so it’s been really rewarding to work with them. Being in Sephora stores is a huge validation. We’re still so small, still so indie and we are just getting started. Even though I had Sephora experience, I didn’t think they’d take a little brand like ours within our first year. It’s very full circle for me and we’re so grateful for their partnership.

The retailers we work with have been incredibly supportive across the board, too. As a CBD brand, we can’t operate like other normal indie skincare brands with Facebook, Instagram and Google advertising, so our retailers have been our storytellers. They’ve been our platform for brand awareness. We feel so grateful.

You recently announced Dr. June Chin has joined the team as your Chief Medical Advisor. Can you tell me about what that means for Saint Jane?

Dr. Chin is a recognized name in the cannabis space. She’s a longtime advocate of CBD and its healing potential — and not just in skincare. Because we pride ourselves on clean clinical-grade formulas, it made sense to partner with a doctor who shares our passion. She’s just been next level on understanding the power of the plant and has a background in plant-based medicine. CBD is one of the many plant-based ingredients that she’s passionate about. It’s been extraordinary to see the product through her eyes and getting it right as we don’t want to take a misstep on information. We want to make sure we’re architecting the narrative of CBD’s efficacy in the right way.

Who is Saint Jane aimed and why?

I would say we hope to reach people who want to transform their skin, with the powerful benefits of CBD. People are becoming more and more aware of CBD’s potential and we have an extensive range of customers who use it and are loyal to us. Luxury Beauty Serum is our hero product and it’s focused on skin condition and treatment. It has 20 botanicals that all focus on reducing irritation, balancing and detoxifying the skin. We have customers in their twenties through to their seventies who are all using our products and seeing results.

If you’re having a bad moment with your skin, it can impact on your confidence. It must be amazing to have made something that has an impact on someone’s life.

Hearing from customers has been the most rewarding thing since starting the brand. I talk about it a lot with my team. That’s why we’re doing it, to help people. And that’s the legacy of Saint Jane that we’re trying to honor.

What’s next for Saint Jane?

We have so many things coming up on the horizon. I have more ideas than I’m allowed by my team to bring to market. It’s really about staying focused and disciplined on what we bring to market, to make sure that everything we introduce meets our standards.

How do you think the cannabis industry as a whole can be better?

For one, there is a lot of product out there that is not being produced and marketed responsibly. The products that work and are responsibly crafted are going to rise to the top and gain customer loyalty. I think as an industry we are architecting transparency and how brands communicate integrity. As an industry, we need to make sure we can have standards that ensure quality, education, transparency and as much consistency as we can with a highly botanical product. I want founders, I want companies, other brands to rise to the occasion, to honor the potential of CBD.

As the saying goes, “the rising tide will lift all ships” and that’s what I believe will happen.

What trend do you predict for the CBD and cannabis skincare market in the next five years?

My biggest hope is that CBD is regarded as a skincare ingredient like Vitamin C or Peptides. That’s number one. It deserves a place in that roster.

Number two, there are so many benefits to the minor cannabinoids found in the plant, like CBG and CBN. I think we’re just getting started in terms of understanding the benefits found in the entire plant. As a brand, we’re looking deeply into that. There are benefits that have not been fully explored yet. It’s exciting and in the next year, the next five, we’re going to learn a lot about the minor nutrients in the whole plant.

People like you are setting the standard of this next generation of cannabis products.

Thank you, we’re trying. And, we are willing to put in the work to accomplish this.

What do you wish you knew when you started out in cannabis entrepreneurship?

I think there’s entrepreneurship and then there’s cannabis entrepreneurship. I would say with entrepreneurship, you have to be so comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. Becoming a founder is committing to a lot, essentially a new life.  You’ve got to be ready to ride the rollercoaster, get used to not sleeping. The cannabis side is its own endless roadblocks, with payment processing issues, advertising headwinds, which I didn’t expect. I wish I’d know some of the challenges we were going to be up against.

Any pearls of wisdom that you’d like to bestow to other women who want to enter the cannabis industry?

Do it. Do it! Do it! Do it! There’s a fabulous group of women as leaders in the cannabis industry. There’s a real sense of community and I think that is unique. It’s very unique in beauty, certainly – which as an industry is comprised of mostly men. There’s so much opportunity out there. It is like post-Prohibition. Think about how many wine brands, alcohol brands, spirits, beer, have launched since prohibition. This is a new time, a new era. I think CBD benefits women so deeply. There’s something about the molecule and women that’s so powerful. It’s a very unique combination. I would say yes….  if you see an opportunity, go for it!

Finally, what are three things it takes to be a cannabis entrepreneur?

Patience. Agility. Integrity. I would say these are the top three. It has to go deeper than just being a market opportunity or a buzzword.  In cannabis, you have to be doing it for the right reasons in order to break through and to endure the saturation that’s coming.

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