Sunday, February 28, 2021

Viola CMO Ericka Pittman Talks Minority Ownership, Barriers in Cannabis Space [EUR Exclusive]

Al Harrington, Ericka Pittman
Al Harrington, Ericka Pittman

*Founded in 2011 by NBA veteran Al Harrington, Viola is one of the nation’s leading producers and licensed wholesalers of premium quality cannabis products. 

The brand is named after and inspired by Al’s grandmother who suffers from glaucoma and diabetes, finding solace in cannabis remedies, according to press release. 

Viola has integrated the latest cutting-edge technology with its own proprietary procedures designed for every stage of the cultivation, extraction and production process. 

We caught up with Viola CMO Ericka Pittman to dish about the company’s community-driven mission, its wide variety of product offerings and how Al is helping minorities affected by the war on drugs.

Pittman also shares advice for Black Americans hoping to become power players in the billion-dollar cannabis space. 

Check out our conversation below.  

OTHER NEWS: Whoopi Goldberg Shuts Down Cannabis Brand After Falling Out with Business Partner

Tell our readers about the Viola brand and the Viola Cares initiative.

Ericka: So before Viola our mission is to connect the world through plants, purpose, and people. So the idea is the plant, it’s first and foremost, we harvest premium cannabis products. Inhalables and ingestibles as well, but mostly concentrates on flowers. And then also our purpose. We’re a purpose driven brand. We focus on social impact, social equity through education, entrepreneurship, expungement, and incubation. And then the people. So we really tap into the lifestyle and the culture of cannabis. It goes beyond the flower in terms of how our consumers engage in this community and this lifestyle. Our tagline is one community at a time, one flower at a time.

What say you to individuals who are interested in getting into this industry, but they feel already defeated by the roadblocks that are fueled by racism?

I think that the African American experience in this country, while it continues to evolve, it is currently not dissimilar to what it has been for the last 60 to 100 years. So I think if we examine the methodology by which we become successful in this country, in any category, any particular opportunity, there is a paradigm that we have to implore in order to overcome some of the systemic hurdles around racism and some of the other barriers to entry that I think are becoming more commonplace in conversation now, and just talking about the things that exist to create barriers and obstacles for African American advancement. And so if we are all aware of those things, and we understand the rules of engagement to date, I don’t think that cannabis is a dissimilar industry.

So to consider bowing out gracefully because it’s difficult or challenging to enter this space successfully as a black person I think would be tremendously disappointing. Certainly we have obstacles that are disproportionate, that are not necessarily fair. And I think that the industry is doing a fantastic job of speaking out vocally and transparently about these hurdles. The key for us now is to continue to push forward as people of color, to try to advance our opportunities, and to speak out loud about companies and partners that are not necessarily doing the work to help usher Blacks into this category. Shame on you as a black person if you use it as a deterrent, the systemic racism and the obstacles that we’ve gone through. But do know that it will be an uphill battle, and with the right education, the right access, and the right timing, you can overcome some of those barriers.

You’re the first Black American female chief marketing officer of a multistate cannabis operation. What does it mean to you to represent in this space, in this industry, that is heavily white male dominated?

It’s an honor. And I think it’s timing. This wasn’t something that I had prescribed for myself. Viola was an amazing opportunity for me just in my career trajectory. I’ve been watching the cannabis industry for the past decade. And I have always been intrigued by the category. And when we think about innovation in this country and economic booms, for me, the green rush seems like the next logical step in just sort of economic advancement within America. And so as we start to think about our economy and where those surges are going to come from, looking at tech over the last 20 years, looking at alternative energy, looking at all these different sectors that are driving revenues, to think about the next big thing, for me, cannabis was a no brainer.

So it was always a category that was interesting, but it was about figuring out the right opportunity for my skill set, for my passion points, and for my experience. And Viola, lo and behold, serendipity came into play and Viola was the perfect opportunity. With that, the opportunity to actually be a first African American female was that much sweeter, but it wasn’t premeditated at all. It’s interesting, I remember reading a stat that said 82% of cannabis executives are white males, and less than 5% of the cannabis community is owned by Black individuals. So that’s just hugely disproportionate. And there are a lot of industries in this country that are reflective of those same stats.

But what’s even more powerful is in corporate America, women of color… there’s not a ton of representation for women of color in corporate America. So for me, this is groundbreaking. This is a new industry. And as we continue to advance conversations around legalizing cannabis at a federal level, it’s important for people of color to quickly become a part of that top layer of conversation and communication so that we can continue to expand access to black people, particularly black women.

viola cannabis
via Twitter

How has the industry been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis?

I always say it’s out of devastation that evolution occurs. Right? I feel like you talk about the phoenix rising from the fire. Like a lot of times when you’re dealing with tremendous challenges and obstacles, super amazing new things happen. New inventions, new opportunities, new ways to communicate. Just looking at some of the media outlets and the way that they’ve been able to take these experiential activations and turn them into virtual experiences has been really fantastic. And I think I speak for most when I say that COVID has thrown us all through a global loop. I don’t think there’s anyone that’s been exempt or that hasn’t been hit from this pandemic. With that said, it’s created a space for creative solutions and innovation.

So for us, I can speak specifically for Viola, we’ve experienced incredible success through virtual programming. So we did a 420 daily initiative in celebration of the cannabis holiday 4/20. And basically every day at 4:20 PM, Al Harrington had one on one interviews with several different celebrities in the marketplace. People like Ced the Entertainer, Lil Baby, Pi, and even more, to discuss the culture of cannabis and celebrating cannabis as we led up to the April 20th date. That particular partnership extended tremendously from an awareness standpoint for us. But we also worked with a lot of our delivery services to figure out how we can help consumers to understand where to purchase us and how easily we access their prescriptions, if you will.

So we all wish things were the way they used to be, but I don’t know that we’re ever going to go back to a time of even 2019. So I think it’s important for us to understand what our consumers really want, what they need most, and where they’re engaging to make these conversions to purchase and to engage brands and products and services.

Speaking of Mr. Harrington, can you talk about his inspiration for wanting to turn 100 Black individuals into millionaires within this industry, and then helping formerly incarcerated individuals with cannabis related crimes transition legally into this business. 

I think one of the most powerful parts of our positioning is that Viola is rooted in purpose. This brand is named after Al’s grandmother. Literally. Viola is his grandmother’s name. She’s who inspired him to launch this business, just from the medicinal effects that the plant has on certain ailments and certain diseases, if you will that is the human condition. So we’re rooted in purpose. And the tragedy is African Americans have disproportionately been affected by decades of the war on drugs, right? I think over 85% of the drug related arrests in African American and Latinx communities are cannabis arrests. Right? Meanwhile, 33 states have approved medicinal use of cannabis. And I believe there are 11 states in this country to date that are recreational and medicinal use.

So here we have a product that is semi legal, but at the same time 85% of the drug related arrests in African American and Latinx communities are cannabis arrests. And less than 5% of African Americans are representative of ownership in the cannabis space. So I think for us, when we talk about purpose, it has to be social equity. It has to be creating a platform to allow African Americans access to this particular category. A great deal of that access comes with education. And I think I heard you say it earlier today, just in terms of what do I have to say to the people that think this is too challenging and they shy away? The reality is we have to educate ourselves. We have to give ourselves an opportunity to learn the nuances of what we’re doing.

This particular category is an evergreen category, meaning it’s a living, breathing of ever evolving thing, right? Because it’s not fully federally legal. So every day the rules and the legislation is changing. And that makes the landscape murky and it makes it a little bit challenging to figure out how best to get in. So what we wanted to create with Viola Cares is an opportunity to create education and equitable offerings, expungement, and incubation programs to result in more than 10,000 jobs, 100 millionaires. We want to create new business owners, expanded industry diversity. We want to increase our representation across the board, through community building, and other training and employment opportunities. So it’s a big initiative, it’s a mammoth task, but we want to put our stake in the ground as being the premier brand that creates access and opportunities for black people in cannabis.

How can marijuana advocates get involved with the Viola Cares initiative?

Absolutely. So we have a website which is called Viola Brands, www.violabrands.com. And then as it relates to volunteering, we don’t have a specific volunteer page. We have opportunities violabrands.com, which is a portal that we house opportunities for employment, education, incubation, volunteering. And we sort through those inquiries to parcel them out to different divisions of the company. Viola Cares launched in February during black history month. And a great deal of folks heard Al mentioned that he is creating an opportunity for 100 people to become millionaires. And that sparked a wildfire viral communication around how can I become one of these millionaires? And the reality is that is a final output that we’re trying to create through a series of different opportunities.

So when we talk about education, entrepreneurship, expungement and incubation, those are our four pillars for Viola Cares. And we are still sourcing through our academic platform where we’re creating opportunities to educate across the spectrum, because people don’t realize that there are more than one way to skin this cat. So there is cultivation, there is processing, there’s distribution, there’s dispensary. There are affiliate business opportunities that are associated with cannabis that don’t require licensing but still have an opportunity in the category to maximize capital. So it’s those specific things in terms of at what point do you think is best for you to enter into the cannabis base?

But then sourcing funding. So lack of funds and capital is one of the biggest barriers to entry in the cannabis business. It’s an expensive business. So how do you create a platform to be able to go out and source investors, teaching individuals how to source capital. Getting people to understand the business through the line from an incubation standpoint. So there are a number of different points of entry that we’re trying to address through the Viola Cares umbrella, but obviously for me, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. We’re working through specific programming to evolve into this comprehensive destination to help black people advance in cannabis.

We started with Root & Rebound, which is a not for profit organization that actually provides legal clinic services and develops system changing policy and advocacy to help to advance people that have been previously affected by the war on drugs. So we’re going to launch a kit called A New Leaf, which is a how-to guide for successful reentry after a cannabis conviction. So people that have been arrested previously or incarcerated previously because of a cannabis conviction, we are creating tools to help to reacclimate them into society, and potentially get into the white market sales of cannabis. 

We’re working on accredited curriculum to help individuals that want to learn more on how to get certification in this marketplace. When you talk about the Whartons of the world and the Harvards of the world, when people have their MBA from Harvard or Wharton, it’s a stamp of a status and approval in terms of expertise. Well, how do we create an institute that certifies people from an education standpoint when they go out to look for jobs in the cannabis space? This Harrington Institute, if you will, can accredit that, that learning process.

And so there’s a number of different ways that we’re looking to advance this cause. It is not a lottery. It is not something that’s going to happen tomorrow, but it is something that we are working towards in the longer term. And we want our constituency to know that this is a real part of our strategy. And as we continue to roll it out, we are inviting as many of us as possible to the party, because there’s enough space for black people to have a voice in an authentic way in this category.

viola cannabis
via Twitter

It’s challenging now for people of color, but 5, 10 years from now we might be quite surprised by the number of minority owned cannabis companies in this country. 

The part that really gets me going is this purpose work, and the mammoth task of creating a lane,  a templated lane to success within the cannabis industry. And for us to be able to create that for black people, it fills my heart with joy. I think that your earlier question about those of us that are defeated by some of the obstacles, I would encourage anyone that’s interested in this category to overcome that thinking, and I understand that it’s challenging. But anything that’s worth having is worth fighting for. And so it’s important to educate ourselves. And no one is going to give it to you. No one gave it to Al Harrington. 

He definitely was an NBA player for 16 years, and he had a lot of access and success, but he had to teach himself about cannabis. I tell people all the time, Al Harrington actually plant plants in the ground in our cultivation. He knows the business through the line. He’s an expert on the business. From cultivation to legislation, he understands the players. He understands the policies. He understands all facets of the business. And this is a gentleman that was a successful athlete that has now transitioned into a business proposition. And he didn’t always know cannabis. He had to learn it. And so anyone that wants to be successful in this category has to follow suit. There’s not going to be a playbook, or you submit your email and suddenly cha-ching, you become one of Al Harrington’s top 100 to become a millionaire. That’s not how this works.

What we want to do is we want to teach people how to fish. We don’t want to give them fish. Right? And you know the proverb, you can teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. You give a man a fish, you feed him for the day. So for us, it’s about creating a legacy in this category and giving people opportunities to learn the business so that they can have generational success and wealth.

For more information on Viola, please visit:violabrands.com

Ny MaGee
Ny MaGee is a screenwriter and freelance reporter from Chicago -- currently living in Los Angeles and covering A-list entertainment for various outlets, including Emmys.com. She has worked for: Miramax, MTV & VH1, The Jim Henson Company, Hallmark Channel, Paramount Pictures, and for iconic indie film producer Roger Corman.

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