Amber Senter, Andrea Unsworth, Nina Parks and Tsion "Sunshine" Lencho are women of color who work in the legal cannabis industry in Oakland, Calif. Even in 2017, that's unusual.
As the city's weed industry grows, the players who are most likely to jump in on the "green rush" have two things in common: They are overwhelmingly white, and have access to lots of money.
So together, Senter, Unsworth, Parks and Lencho decided to change that.
In 2015, they started an organization called Supernova Women, which offers free educational seminars to locals who are interested in the weed business. They talk about how they managed to break into the industry, as well as some of the pitfalls.
And, in the spirit of consciousness-raising, they've created a safe space where prospective entrepreneurs can talk about what it feels like to be the only person of color in a mostly white space.
"Supernovas are a quiet force in the universe," Senter says. "Things gravitate towards supernovas, and we saw all of us coming together as just being this huge force that could not be ignored. Because the issues that we were facing could not be ignored."
For our podcast episode this week, we spoke with Amber Senter and Andrea Unsworth about Supernova Women and about the challenges they've faced in an industry run predominantly by white people. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the barriers of entry for people of color trying to operate a successful weed business?
Senter: Our skin color, obviously, because people don't have to give us anything because of that. I mean, not only am I black, but I'm also a woman. Two levels of barriers there. Convincing someone to give you $250,000 so you can start a business, that's challenging in itself. Even with all the experience that might be bringing to the table, you're still going to get doubted.
Whereas if I were a white man, coming up with some corny idea — people are just throwing money at them. You know? And then there's other people who have proven product, made a million dollars in sales on their own, and are having problems raising $100,000, because they're people of color, women of color in the industry. We deal with the same barriers that would exist in any industry, and then it's compounded because we're talking about a federally illegal substance.
You say it can be really hard, as a manufacturer, to go into a dispensary and talk to the buyer, because the buyer is a often a white guy. Can you break down that dynamic?
Senter: First of all, when you're walking up to the dispensary, the people of color that are working in the dispensary are either going to be the security crew or the bud tenders, but none of the management. No one that's making any decisions. But that's how the whole industry currently is. Me, as a manufacturer looking for investment — there's no people of color investors. I mean they're out there, but they're hard to find.
Unsworth: At the end of the day, we've been locking up people of color for 30 years, who have been selling cannabis. Now that it's legal, they say, "Great, it's legal, but you have to have a million dollars to start."
Well, how can you have a million dollars if, for the past 30 years, you and all your relatives have been getting locked up and trying to spend that money on bail money? And raising your family without a father, without an uncle, without a son? Those are the realities.
This whole thing of starting on a level playing field is ridiculous. [Nearly] 80 percent of the lock-ups are people of color. You're locking up all of these people who are trying to be entrepreneurs, but now that it's legal, you're allowed to say, "Oh, you can come into our industry, but you can't have a criminal record. You can have a million dollars, but it can't be from cannabis, it has to be from your 401(k), or investments, or from your daddy."
I mean, who are these people? These are not people of color.
On the site for Supernova Women, it says you want to foster a space for hard conversations. What type of hard conversations are y'all having?
Senter: I'm a manufacturer. We make cannabis products that we turn around and sell to dispensaries. And often times going into the dispensary, I have to deal with people that do not look like me. Typically white males. And I've got to convince them to first hear me out, and then try my product and then, if they think the product is good enough, to get it on their shelves.
With the cultural differences and everything, these things are a fine dance, and a lot of people feel uncomfortable when you bring up these kinds of situations and things that we deal with. And I'm saying a lot of people — it's white folks. You know, they don't want to hear these things. So we create a safe space where we can discuss these issues and real-life things that we deal with daily.
Unsworth: And I would say that those are the type of conversations that prompted things like the Oakland Equity Program, because that was not even on the table when we were first talking about cannabis.
At least we need to recognize that there has been an unfair — an unjust war — on people of color that has had an impact over the past 20 to 30 years, that has kept them out of the cannabis industry that is now burgeoning. And so if we're going to have folks coming into the cannabis industry, we have to at least acknowledge that there has been demonstrable damage done to a lot of these communities that would love to be entrepreneurs that should have been some of the first in line.
Because they've had innovative products and they've had the network, and they've had the skill to distribute cannabis for years, but were maybe locked up or put behind bars or just, you know, didn't have enough.