Jeannette Ward Horton is co-founder of NuLeaf Project, an initiative to build wealth and opportunity via the legal cannabis industry for the communities most harmed by the war on drugs, specifically Black, Indigenous, and Latina/o/x communities. She sat down with Wana to discuss the financial barriers many entrepreneurs of color face – and how other cannabis companies can promote meaningful change.

WANA BRANDS: Tell me about your background. How did you come to the cannabis industry? 

JEANNETTE WARD HORTON: I got here, I believe, in 2015, end of 2014. I was working at Coca Cola, and I had worked at Fortune 100 companies my whole career: UPS, Home Depot. I went and I took a job leading marketing and public relations for a cannabis technology company. And I just thought that it was a really exciting opportunity. It very much appealed to me, the idea that we were building an industry from the ground up, that there was clearly a lot of figuring it out as people went. Obviously, this rapid growth is appealing. And then a few other boxes it just checked for me: more mission-driven, believing in the plant and what it can do for people. So that’s why I got here. 

WB: Tell me a about NuLeaf Project specifically and how you came to be a part of that team. 

JWH: When I got to the industry, I was working for the technology company, Akerna. And then I became a board member for the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) its first year, and I co-chaired that organization – really, out of the passion that a lot of people shared, that we didn’t see diversity in the industry and thought that there should be diversity. MCBA was kind of in its infancy, and it played a role in setting the conversation about equity in cannabis – it was very early for this industry, you know, five, six years ago – setting the conversation about equity and cannabis and talking about having a policy standard. What does equitable cannabis policy look like for consumers, for patients, for businesses?  

And NuLeaf Project came from there because, where the rubber hits the road, cannabis equity is at the state level. National policy is an important piece of work, but where entrepreneurs were being made, where the wealth was being created, where the tax investments were at the time not happening, was at the state level. So NuLeaf Project was really a local initiative to say, what does local equity-building look like for cannabis? What does that organization look like? And so that’s how I founded NuLeaf Project. Our mission is to build intergenerational wealth for the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs. And the city of Portland passed a voter initiative where they added a cannabis tax that would include investment in communities most harmed by the War on Drugs, including investments in cannabis entrepreneurs. So we receive city taxes, and that’s a good bulk of our funding and what we use to do loans and grants to cannabis businesses. 95% of the businesses we fund are minority-owned. More than 50% of the businesses we fund are Black-owned. 

WB: That brings me to my next question, which is about the Oregon Cannabis Equity Act. That’s something we’re really excited about at Wana, and something NuLeaf Project is the driving force behind. Can you tell me what it is, first of all, where it is in its life, and how people can get involved with furthering it? 

JWH: Yeah, it’s Bill HB 3112. It was just – they call it “dropped” by Representative Ricki Ruiz, our chief sponsor. And it will begin to make its way through committee, and then a bill becomes a law – cue “Schoolhouse Rock.” [Laughs.] I don’t know the details. But we started off as a group of activists and business owners and community members who said, “We need cannabis equity in Oregon.” And then that evolved into a PAC because it quickly picked up steam. This summer was the passion that was necessary to put a lot of good fuel behind the work that we were doing. It quickly picked up steam and then it evolved into a PAC, a political action committee, that has hired a lobbyist that’s allowing, really, a group of community members and activists to do something important and monumental. It’s difficult to redirect the flow of tax money, but I’m proud of where we are and how many Oregonians are behind this so far, including the cannabis community. 

WBHow can Oregonians access the resources that NuLeaf Project offers? How can people get involved? 

JWH: People can get involved from two different places. You can be an undercapitalized entrepreneur who wants to start a cannabis business and just reach out to us. The way we structure our support for businesses is either through funding or through, right now, one on one support. What does that entrepreneur need, and how do we create a custom plan to meet those needs? Our priority is helping Black, Indigenous, and Latinx entrepreneurs, but the kind of tips and tools we have work for any undercapitalized entrepreneur. If you’re starting with less capital, then we’re a good place for you to go. 
 
And then we fund entrepreneurs. If you need funding, if you’re at a place that you’re ready for a very low-interest loan or you’re interested in talking about raising capital, we are excited to solve that problem for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx entrepreneurs. So that’s the next horizon, is really identifying those incredible companies who are being overlooked by VCs [venture capital] and being told “no” by banks or what have you, and we can be there to provide capital to what are great businesses that are overlooked, underestimated. 

WB: I spoke earlier with Tiffany Reynolds, who owns Soul and Wellness, a cannabis business in Chicago. I asked her what challenges she faced as a Black woman starting a business, and she said financial backing was the number one.  

JWH: Yeah, that’s it. I didn’t get here knowing that funding was the problem. But it really boils down to capital. And then you learn that’s true not just in cannabis, but across any industry – that Black entrepreneurs, Black-owned businesses get less capital. And it’s a problem that can be fixed. 

WBIt’s interesting that you say, “THE problem.” Because I was expecting her to give me a laundry list of intersecting issues, and she really just said, Financial backing, number one.” 

JWH: Yeah, because that’s ultimately how companies run. And there are a number of studies that have determined that, yes, you could argue some intersectional things, like you were saying, but it boils down to capital. It’s the number one determinate between business success or not, is capital. And part of the reason is capital allows you to pivot. You fail, but you’ve got enough capital to pivot. Business is usually a series of failures and stumbling blocks until you have enough capital to carry you over the stumbling blocks. Capital also allows you to hire the expertise you don’t have. It almost solves all the problems. So yeah, it boils down to that, and so that’s what we ended up focusing on as NuLeaf Project. So that’s where we want to be serving the need and meeting the need. We’re growing our loans to other states starting in March, so we’re excited about that. 

But, you know, the other thing – what companies can do who care about this issue – if they care about building economic wealth for the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs, if they care about diversity in the cannabis industry – reach out to us in the same way, because every company can offer different things. If you can contribute financially, that’s the number one thing we need as a small non-profit. But if you can bring other resources and connections, or a mentorship and software that you’ve got, that could be a gamechanger for entrepreneurs. There are other ways to partner. So we ask companies to reach out to us as well and say, “Hey, we wanna help.” And we start a dialogue. 

WBYou mentioned last summer being a real catalyst to get momentum behind the Oregon Cannabis Equity Act. After the protests, after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this summer, suddenly everyone was awake to this problem, it seemed. Companies were saying, “We’re gonna do better, we wanna stand up.” As somebody who works for an organization that is constantly thinking about issues of racial equitydo you feel like this phenomenon is overall a positive? Does it make you hopeful that people are explicitly naming this problem, or has it been frustrating as somebody who’s working with it every day?  

JWH: The first thing I’d say is that I see it as a positive. You know, we are making real change with the Oregon Cannabis Equity Act, and I still see people motivated by an awakening and an understanding and a passion to want to do something. There was certainly some performance, but there will always be some of that. I saw genuine action from big and small companies. And then I would say a “Do” is, do partner with an equity org, an organization that is already doing equity work, rather than taking up the mantle and doing it yourself. Having worked in a big company, there’s always room for CSR, and having CSR departments and strategies and plans, so that’s not what I mean. I mean when it’s time to solve the problem, I’ve seen a lot of companies come up with their own solution and then implement those solutions themselves. And we’re gonna go farther when companies take what they’re best at and then partner with organizations that might already be doing the solution work and have learned and know how to do it faster, so the best of what each organization brings can help us solve problems more quickly. 

WBAnd are you hopeful for the future of the industry? It’s so young, it’s changing every single day. Do you feel like it’s on the right track? Do you have a clear vision for the future? 

JWH: I definitely don’t have a clear vision for the future. I’d be curious if anyone does. I’d like to meet that person with a clear vision, ’cause it could go any which way at this moment in time. I am very hopeful, though. I got here in 2014, which is not that long ago, but in cannabis years it is. And it felt like an industry of activists, and it grew so fast and it started going East, and it still feels like an industry driven more by doing the right thing as an ethos. And so that makes me hopeful. I just have perspective from other industries, and there wasn’t this much commitment to, “And also, do the right thing,” and recognition of the War on Drugs, and not letting anybody forget that. And, you know, the work that Wana is doing – this is proof for me that big brand players continue to stay engaged with this. So yeah, I’m hopeful that dialogues continue and people keep working at this. 

WBDo you have any advice for young professionals who are trying to come in and carve out a space in this new, rapidly growing industry? 

JWH: Where to start? The first thing that came to my mind is: move quickly. Because federal legalization is looming. And we’re in a unique moment in time when big, big companies aren’t playing. Wana’s a big company, but it’s not Johnson & Johnson, it’s not Unilever, it’s not a CPG company of that scale. So there’s a real unique business opportunity, small entrepreneur opportunity, if that’s your passion. It’s like “Dot Com.” There’s one in a lifetime, and cannabis is that opportunity for someone small, someone undercapitalized, someone in a garage, to be the next big name, because of the federal legalization. It’s just a unique regulatory moment. It makes it possible for small entrepreneurs to play. And if this is something you wanna do, my advice to you is, go fast. Go fast. As much as you can devote your time to it, devote all your time to it so that you can make your dream happen. 

WB: Thank you very, very much.  

JWH: Thank you. 

To learn how you or your company can support Jeannette’s work, visit NuLeafProject.org, or consider sponsoring the Oregon Cannabis Equity Act.