A serial entrepreneur and community advocate, Vetra Stephens is a Michigan powerhouse as co-founder and CEO of 1st Quality Medz medical and recreational dispensary, 2000+ plant cultivation facility, and new processing center. She’s the first business owner to bring recreational sales to Wayne County, and the first woman to bring recreational sales to the state of Michigan. She’s also launching the first Black female-owned product line in the state of Michigan, “The V Affect.”
Vetra joined Wana Brands to discuss her hopes for the future of the industry – and how a mission of community uplift has informed every aspect of her business practices.
WB: Tell me about your background and how you came to the cannabis industry.
VS: My partner and I ran an advertising and marketing firm, and we had several large contracts with the city of Detroit and Wayne County. And unfortunately, both of us had some medical issues. Myself with lupus, and I had just had a terrible flare and was dealing with some serious issues. And my partner was battling Stage 4 cancer. And the two of us, we came about RSO, Rick Simpson Oil, and that kind of changed our direction 100%. After trying Rick Simpson Oil and being in pain and understanding the differences between what we thought cannabis meant and what it really did mean, after doing some careful research, it just kind of changed the direction. I’ve always been interested in helping the general public and community service and doing things on my own outside of business, but once I was introduced to Rick Simpson Oil and understanding that plant and all of the wonderful properties from it, then I just felt, here’s how I can incorporate the two and help people like me in the business sector, and regular people, understand that it’s a way to be out of pain and still function. It’s a way to be stress-free. So once I understood that, I just felt like it was a mission to get this across to the average person.
WB: That’s an amazing story, a really personal story. And I think a lot of people have that experience of really being saved in some way by cannabis. That’s what’s so cool about this industry, is that it’s kind of mission-driven.
WB: So tell me about 1st Quality Medz. Why did you open it? How did that process work, particularly being the first recreational dispensary in Wayne County, Michigan?
VS: Well, we searched around to the different cities, and we wanted to find a city that was impacted, a city that was suffering, and we found this city [River Rouge, MI] and did some research. We knew this city had a lot of different stores, mom-and-pop shops that had all taken a major hit because the bridge went down – the traffic used to flow from the major city of Detroit into this small town, and this town did thrive at some point. But because of that bridge being taken out, all of those storefronts were lost, all of those businesses were gone, and we just kind of recognized that the Mayor was doing everything he possibly could to try to keep it alive and keep the pulsebeat of the city. So we drove around and looked for areas that we would like to bring business to, and this was the perfect spot for us. We found an empty lot. I drew the building on a napkin as we drove by. We stopped at a lot, and I did the measurements and sketched out what the place would look like if it were here, and it looks exactly like what was on the paper.
WB: Wow, so it sort of came out of a desire to uplift this town that was struggling?
VS: Yeah, it was two-fold. One, we wanted to bring a cannabis business to an area and bring people to that area to grow the city. And the second part was to be able to bring a licensed facility with licensed, safe product, where every day people can come. And the business looks just like a doctor’s office, very pleasant. We always get compliments with our budtenders being so personable and educated about the products. We wanted to be able to have that nice feel of, you can walk in just like you would if you were going to the grocery store, talk to one of the ladies just like you would if you were walking into a bank, feel good about being able to purchase our product and know that it’s healthy and safe, feel good about building relationships with the people that are here. Someone can come in and say, “Hey, I’m about to have a surgery,” or, “I’m going out of town. My daughter’s having my grandchild.” And we take note of that, so when they come in the next time: “How’s the baby? How was that surgery? Did you get what you needed?” So that they know that we’re here for them. We’re here for the community.
WB: That’s my favorite thing about going into a good dispensary, how warm everyone is. What an important part of a community they have become so quickly.
VS: Exactly, so now you get to change the mindset of people who thought like I did at one point. You don’t have to suffer from the pain, or you don’t have to sleep all day because you’ve taken a medication that has knocked you out.
WB: You’ve spoken to how a sense of community uplift is really important to you. How does social equity figure into that?
VS: Well, the first thing is, a lot of people in this industry are interested in knowing how to understand this business from one extreme to the next. So we started a campaign called, “Ask Vetra,” where the general public can come up with questions, from “How do you process product,” all the way to, “How would I start a business and get into this industry if I wanted to?” That’s some of the ways that I reach out to those people. I mean, they started some social equity programs for the state of Michigan, but there’s not a lot of information that people can readily get to. They don’t know how to. I like to be able to bridge that gap between that person that wants to know so that it’s fair across the board. You want to know the information, let me tell you where you can get that information. Or let me answer some of those questions for you.
WB: You know, obviously you get these questions for a reason. There are a lot of barriers and challenges if you don’t come from a certain background – in getting financial backing, in getting access to information. Do you feel like as a Black woman, you encountered challenges when opening a business that you might not have otherwise?
VS: Well, I’d have to say being a woman in this space is challenging alone. However, being a Black woman in this space, I think that’s where it added a little bit of pressure. Because my goal was to make sure that I found the information out that I needed to find out and just tried to be in a position to lead and not let anyone down.
WB: I think that’s something that’s even coming up in the national conversation, with the recent runoff election in Georgia. Everybody’s saying, “Black women saved democracy,” and certainly Stacey Abrams and other Black woman organizers changed the outcome of that election. But that’s so much pressure to put on those women!
VS: It is. It’s a lot of pressure. Being a woman in this space is one thing. A lot of times this is a male-dominant space, and then being a Black woman in that space, it can be very challenging because people are expecting you to handle things, quote-unquote, “like a woman.” Or, “Can you handle them like a man?” And I said to myself, I can still be firm and feminine at the same time.
WB: Right. You handle them like a boss.
VS: Like a boss.
WB: This year, we’ve seen a lot of businesses and corporations seemingly wake up in new ways to the problem of institutionalized racism. And we’ve seen a lot of new, public-facing commitments to do better and be a part of change. As a business owner yourself, and as a Black business owner, when you see that phenomenon, is that something that makes you feel hopeful? Is that something that makes you feel a little bit frustrated or skeptical? And are there ways that brands can authentically participate in change?
VS: I would say it makes me feel hopeful of the future in this industry. I guess I feel like, due to social media, a lot of people, their eyes are opening to what’s happening. Before, a lot of people didn’t know what was happening across the aisle. “In my neighborhood, this doesn’t happen. In your neighborhood that doesn’t happen.” A lot of times, people didn’t see. You didn’t know what to change if you didn’t know what you were looking for. So I’m feeling hopeful because I’m thinking that it’s being put out on the frontline to say, “This is what it is, and here’s evidence of what it is, so that you can assess it accordingly.” I think people, if they’re jumping on the bandwagon, then that’s great. Because that means you’re going to research. That means you’re going to dig into this to find out as much as you need to find out. Find out what you can find out about it so that you can be helpful in fixing the problem. Maybe it wasn’t your intentions to do something great with it. Maybe you were doing it for the wrong reasons. But I think after you step your foot into it, then that can change very easily.
WB: That’s a really interesting perspective, and a really generous and hopeful perspective, I think, that once the door is open people can actually make the change.
VS: That’s right.
WB: And are you hopeful for the future of the industry, not just from a social equity perspective? It’s changing really fast. Are you excited about the direction it’s going?
VS: Yeah, I mean, I’m hopeful for the future, yes. I just hope it doesn’t get too saturated, so they can still make sure that the products continue to be safe. I believe in the regulations, but I just think It needs to be a happy medium – not too much, not too little. If it’s regulated properly, I think that we can look at something to be around forever. If it’s not managed correctly, if it’s oversaturated, we could kill this thing before it grows the legs that we want it to grow.
WB: Do you have any advice for other professionals who are looking to break into the industry – particularly Black entrepreneurs, but anyone?
VS: Well, I share my advice on a regular basis. And one thing I always say is, research is key, period. Research is key. If you’re interested into entering into the cannabis industry, then make sure you have the passion in the product, and you’re not just simply searching for a pot of gold. Because there’s a lot of work to do here, and if you have no purpose, then you won’t prosper.
WB: I’m hearing that a lot, “passion.” And it’s, again, the thing that’s so exciting about this industry, everybody who really makes it has to be passionate.
VS: Right, ‘cause there’s a lot of work. If you don’t love what you’re doing, if you weren’t doing this for a purpose, then you should be…
[A manager interrupts to ask Vetra a question… the interview continues several moments later.]
VS: We have someone outside that wants to do some filming about a segment in Detroit or something like that.
WB: Oh, my goodness. You’re popular.
V: [Laughs.] You know, I’m trying to stay involved in all of these things, I really am. I’m trying to stay involved in the changes that’s being made from the top all the way down to the customer coming in and looking at the cost of the product, so that I know exactly how this needs to be shaped, so when I speak, you wanna hear what I have to say, because it makes sense. So that’s the reason why – I mean, I have not only a provisioning center, but I also have a cultivation as well, so we grow the flower from seed to sell. I’m adamant about making sure that our product is like it needs to be. The state is gonna make sure that it’s like it needs to be. But it’s more than just growing that plant, it’s the structure of all of this around us and making sure all of it makes sense. I just try to stay involved in every aspect that I can, on the negotiating time, on the vendor side, listening to my fellow cannabis companies and businesses and hearing what they’re crying out about and going to Lansing and fighting the fight about some of the changes that need to be made, and just being that happy medium for everyone so that this doesn’t die.
WB: That’s, again, a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility, but I also think the way you make the business what you want it to be is…
VS: You have to stay involved in everything. You can’t just count the money.
WB: Well, that’s a great segue into my last question. What can people expect from 1st Quality Medz? How can they experience it?
VS: 1st Quality Medz is in River Rouge. 286 Birch Street, River Rouge, Michigan. It sits right on a corner, it’s a nice-looking building. When you come in, the ladies are very helpful and excited. For Black History Month, we’ve taken our products that we’ve grown from seed and brought into our facility, we’ve taken that product and brought the price down. We recognize that the economy has taken a hit due to COVID-19. We recognize that and we want to give back. We want to make sure that the public can afford the product. There’s only so much I can do for the product that we’ve gotten through vendors because of overhead, but there’s definitely something I can do for the product that I’ve grown. So we brought our house flower down, and it’s premium brand flower. We brought it down to the lowest cost that you can possibly get anywhere around. We’re doing $8.99 a gram in flower, and through Black History Month, we’re doing $3 pre-rolls.
VS: Yes, we are. And we’re doing this to give back to the public. It’s one thing to say you’re going to do something. It’s another to actually do it. I have meetings with my media team, I have meetings with my marketing team and my managers at the facilities, and I tell them, “You don’t just say something, you do it.” If you’re for the community, you have to show you’re for the community. And how can you do that? So we do put into – you know, we do a lot of things with the Mayor, because we like kids and we can’t in this industry support kids. So we can support the Mayor who supports kids. [Laughs.] We have programs going for the elderly, we have programs going for the veterans, so we constantly are reaching back to make sure that we are here to help. There’s a lot of big chains coming all around us, and the reason that we thrive is because of the customer base. We are loved by the customer. And it seems like it doesn’t matter how big they become around us. Our loyalty is our loyalty because of who we really are.
WB: And it seems like it all started with that really authentic commitment to building up a community.
VS: That’s right.
WB: You’re such a joy to talk to, thank you. Is there anything else you’d like to mention that we didn’t touch on?
VS: Well, I would like to add, I’m coming out with a product line called the V-Affect, and we’ll be doing cartridges. And the V-Affect will speak to a lot of that we talked about here today, helping the public and just, what was the V-Affect, how did it affect you? We’ll be coming out with our cartridges in the next month or so.
WB: That’s amazing. Thank you so, so much. I really appreciate your time.
VS: Thank you!