There are 165,000-230,000 full- and part-time employees working in the cannabis industry, a number that is projected to increase to 340,000 employees by 2022. If cannabis were to be legalized at the Federal level, an estimated one million new jobs would be created over the next decade. And considering job posts for the industry increased by staggering 445% in 2017, it’s no wonder that cannabis is reportedly the fastest growing job category in the US.
Legal cannabis is unique in that it’s a highly regulated industry that is also very much in its infancy. While anyone experienced in the areas of cultivation, extraction or budtending has a great deal to contribute – and most likely, their pick of the litter when it comes to finding jobs in any legal market – it’s important to remember that the industry is being built from the ground up. That means there’s also a need for accountants, realtors, scientists, HR professionals, web developers, marketers, graphic designers, lawyers, writers, and more. And having direct professional or personal experience with cannabis isn’t even a requirement.
To learn more about what it takes to build a career the cannabis industry and why now is a great time to take the plunge, we spoke to 3 professionals holding down full-time roles in California’s legal market.
WORKING 9 TO 5 (PLUS EVENINGS & WEEKENDS)
“My day-to-day varies very significantly because we are a small self-funded company, and we’re starting to fundraise,” said Chelsea Candelaria, CEO of San Francisco-based cannabis brand SF Roots. “I literally touch every segment of our business at this point. A lot of my time is spent with my distributor doing sales, figuring out our SKUS, planning production schedules for the next few weeks with my Chief Operations Officer and Founder,” explained Candelaria. “In addition to cannabis, we spend a decent amount of time planning the merchandise and the look of the brand going forward.”
Beginning the process of fundraising also adds its fair share of items to her to-do list. “Meeting with consultants to define how we’re going to actually pitch our company, that takes up a significant amount of my time as well,” Candelaria explained, and that doesn’t even begin to cover her evenings and weekends. “We always have events because those things are really important for our brand to get our name out there,” she said. “As a smaller brand and startup, we have to do what we have to do.”
And having a business up and running in a huge emerging market like California’s doesn’t eliminate the need for continuous networking. “We take a lot of time to cultivate relationships with partner organizations,” she said, adding that such relationships “are absolutely crucial to our health and longevity as a company. Meetings all day, every day is the name of the game,” said Candelaria with a laugh.
Vikash Singh, Chief Operations Officer with cannabis product development consulting firm Vialpando LLC, knows all about shifting gears multiple times on a given day. “I’m handling all the business operations,” he explained, “the client management, the deliverables of the projects we’re doing, making sure that the clients are happy and the money’s coming in.” Singh’s oversight of daily operations enables the company’s Founder and CEO to concentrate “on just the science, research development, and essentially spend most of her time in the laboratory where she can develop the products,” he said.
Attorney Hadas Alterman, Esq. uses her solo practice and role as principal legal expert with cannabis consultancy Tulip & Oak to offer operations support of a different kind. “I provide legal services for individuals and businesses in the cannabis industry – getting licensed, getting your HR affairs in order, doing entity formation, setting up the business,” Alterman said of the guidance she provides, which is often just beginning when a client wins a license.
“Once you have your license and are able to operate, how do you do that in a way that’s compliant?” she asked rhetorically, explaining that she makes herself available to clients all along the way, “answering questions about the regulatory framework and whether or not an idea they have is going to be appropriate, or if it’s going to be against the law.”
Each of these professionals has held their position for less than 2 years. So how did they get here?
THE JOURNEY INTO LEGAL CANNABIS
“I had experience from early 2000s in cannabis,” said Singh, who previously managed his own commercial cultivation operation, while also working for alternative energy and digital media startups, and eventually becoming an Account Manager. “I was fortunate enough to be part of many startups where I learned a lot by having to wear multiple hats and having to deal with all the crazy nuances that every startup has to deal with,” he explained, adding that his education went even further once he started serving Fortune 500 clients. “I had a lot of professional development in advertising, marketing and sales, and I got to learn a tremendous amount about deal making, about client management.”
For Singh, transitioning into California’s adult-use market was a simple matter of using his strengths. “All my entrepreneurial and cannabis experience has provided a lot of world knowledge and diversity in training from having worked in various different industries,” he said. “There are little pieces I’ve learned from all of that and I’m able to apply them every day.
Prior to transitioning into cannabis, Candelaria worked for 10 years in environmental management, sustainability and energy consulting. “I started my career at an engineering firm right out of college,” she said, “then I worked at NASA for 3 and a half years and did sustainability work, water management, a bunch of environmental regulatory stuff.” Candelaria had a personal link with cannabis as a medical patient and through her family’s cultivation experience, and that along with her skillset were all she needed to take the plunge.
“With every government agency there are huge bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, cannabis is no different,” said Candelaria. “Those skills were directly transferrable.”
Her first position in the industry was with an extract laboratory as the Customer Success Manager, “the one and only sales relationship builder,” she said. “I was able to do a ton of networking, make a lot of connections while building that customer base and I just jumped in headfirst, did what I could,” Candelaria explained. To say that the role opened a lot of doors is an understatement.
“That’s how I met my Founder. I was trying to sell him some things, he became a customer and now he’s my business partner,” she said.
For Alterman, the decision to pursue cannabis was as much about opportunity as it was about passion. “I graduated from law school and passed the bar in 2016, which is also of course when Prop 64 happened,” she explained. “The timing was right for one thing, and the other thing is I’ve been interested in plant medicine for a really long time.”
Combining an interest in plant medicine with her passion for restorative justice, background in community organizing, and undergraduate education in agriculture and social justice set the foundation for where she is with her career today. “When the opportunity came up to practice law in the cannabis industry, it felt like it made a lot of sense because it touched on my legal interests and also this personal interest I had in plant medicine and healing,” Alterman said. “It’s this interesting culmination of all this stuff that I’ve been curious about.”
The broader impact of cannabis legalization as a social justice issue is on her mind every time she meets with a client. “Part of why I love anything that has to do with making ‘drugs’ legal is because it’s one less thing that people can be needlessly arrested for,” Alterman said.
ADVICE FOR ENTERING THE CANNABIS INDUSTRY
For 3 professionals with very different backgrounds and paths of entry into California’s legal cannabis industry, their advice to others seeking to do the same is surprisingly similar.
“I think one of the most important things the cannabis industry needs is diversity of skillset,” advised Singh. “For people that are coming from outside industries in science, in digital media, in marketing, branding, in operations – all of it’s needed. Find your niche in the cannabis space and exploit it.”
Alterman agreed that understanding where you can best contribute is key. “My number one advice is do what you need to do to get the lay of the land and get oriented, and think about well, what are the problems, what are the things that I can help with?” she recommended.
Candelaria had similar feedback about looking into one’s own professional strengths. “I’m good at relationship management, I’m good at understanding textbook stuff, so doings sales work made sense to me. What do you do currently and how can you leverage that?” she said, reminding us that not everything involved directly touching the plant. “You could work at a tech startup, in ancillary products, packaging, you could work in a warehouse, manufacturer, wherever. Those jobs are highly needed, highly desirable, and 100% out there.”
For Alterman, developing valuable professional relationships is also important. “Have mentors even if they aren’t necessarily attorneys. Have people that you can ask about the state of a particular political situation, or get a second opinion in interpreting a regulation,” she said. “Not just because I think it’s really necessary since all of this is new, but because I think it helps build community, and that’s incredibly important for an individual’s job satisfaction and for cannabis.”
With all of the transition and volatility happening in California’s cannabis industry, Candelaria believes it’s worth it. “It’s very challenging, especially now because it’s the first year within the regulated market and it will be for the next few years as the market evens out, as the regulations become more stable,” she said, “so diving in headfirst is highly recommended.”