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Zamina Walji: You can’t write a playbook on cannabis if you don’t love it

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Zamina Walji heads up Global Retail and Consumer Markets at Aurora after spending years as a consultant at Deloitte and PwC. Walji worked with the government liquor boards (OCS, BCLDB, AGLC etc.) and a number of the licensed cannabis producers and ancillary service providers while at PwC.

Her new role at Aurora is a good fit because it’s constantly challenging, but the decision to make the leap from PwC to a new industry wasn’t taken lightly. “Moving from a very stable company such as PwC was a big decision for me. As a mother and a wife, I really questioned whether or not I should stay in a company that I knew would be a predictable career journey, but what I love about this job is that every hour I am making decisions no one has ever made, and challenging myself to think outside the box.”

Creating New Best Practices

At the moment, Aurora has one branded store in The West Edmonton Mall, and has officially partnered with Alcanna, High Tide and Choom as their strategic retail partners for other markets. According to Walji, the lack of an existing playbook or resources are the biggest challenges in her job. “For example, in stores we will not be able to communicate the therapeutic benefits of our strains, but we will be able to communicate our brand.”

Creating a whole new set of best practices in an environment where communicating product features and benefits is verboten makes for an interesting challenge for someone in Walji’s position. “My entire career has been built on following best practices. Part of the challenge we’re seeing played out now is that there are no global best practices for what we’re building. For example, when I did my onboarding at Aurora, I learned that 94% of the research on cannabis is about the negative aspects of cannabis. We’re now seeing research coming out that’s focusing on the benefits of cannabis, which will help support the changed approach. The exciting thing about this new industry is that Canada is at the forefront of building global best practices for the cannabis industry.”

Female Leadership

With only 8 female CEO’s and 92 male amongst Licensed Producers in Canada, women are alarmingly underrepresented in leadership positions in this new industry. Walji would like to see more women embracing the cannabis industry, and working on their confidence to get hired. “I have heard that when women see a job description they think ‘I have 70% of these qualifications’ and they don’t apply for the job, versus a man who will see the same job description and will think to himself ‘oh yes, 70% is enough’, and then apply. If you want to work in this industry, you need to immerse yourself in it and be passionate and knowledgeable. You need this level of passion for cannabis because you’re building and innovating. You can’t write a playbook on cannabis if you don’t love it.”  

What drives Walji is her passion to help bring an ancient medicine back to those who need it. “When I learned about cannabis and how it’s been hidden for so long, even though it can cure or help alleviate so many symptoms, I became totally fascinated. I feel like I have a duty to help bring that message to market. I’m interested to see how big pharma companies deal with it and I’m interested to see how much it impacts pharma. To be on ground zero is fascinating.“

Building an Inclusive and Diverse Workforce

Senior jobs of course can be very demanding, with long hours and time spent on the road. This can be a challenging proposition for people who are also balancing the weight of raising a family. Fortunately, Walji has a very supportive partner. Lately he has been picking up more of the housework as Walji has been adjusting to the cannabis space. “My husband and I live by our calendars which includes pick-ups and drop-offs. We alternate workout days, try to do all our business trips in 36 to 48 hours and jam a lot of our social plans into the weekdays so that we can spend time as a family on the weekends. I am also lucky to have my mom close by who is our saviour and my daughters’ best friend”

Some companies are committed to building a diverse and inclusive workforce, but to do so they need to create a culture which is friendly to all kinds of family situations. “We’re building a diverse workforce at Aurora and because we’ve done so many acquisitions there are a lot of people with different backgrounds, viewpoints and expertise. This ability to be open about my commitment to my family is another thing that attracted me to the cannabis industry. I just assumed that being an industry of the 21st century, those unwritten rules about how males and females should behave wouldn’t exist in this industry. I came into it like that and it’s certainly been my experience so far here at Aurora.”

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Leslie Andrachuk

As a bilingual pioneer in global digital publishing and marketing, Leslie is happiest when creating new things and inspiring her teams. She is passionate about changing biases that hold women back from realizing their true power and is grateful that at this point in her career she has the skills to make real change.

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