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Q&A with Cassandra Farrington, co-founder and CEO of MJBizDaily

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Cassandra Farrington heads up the cannabis industry leading daily news website Marijuana Business Daily and its family of content resources for the B2B cannabis marketplace, including the internationally recognized family of MJBizCon conferences. Previously a vice president at Citi, she earned her MBA from the University of Texas, McCombs School of Business. Alpha Woman had the chance to catch up with her in Toronto at MJBizConInt’l.

AW: Tell us about your career before launching MJBiz in 2012.

Before I launched MJBiz my business partner and I had already founded a niche business to business media company in 2009 that had been growing for a couple of years. Prior to launching this entrepreneurial venture I worked at Citigroup, in Citibank and Citi Mortgage in an operational capacity. I managed headcounts and seats and physical aspects such as plants and desks and hardware – all the back operations stuff that makes large organizations such as this run efficiently.

AW: What compelled you to go into the cannabis space so early on, back in 2012?

We were already up and running with our niche business-to-business media company and had experience in developing content subscriptions products. We might have had only 1,000 subscribers to our niche products, but each of them was paying $1,000 a year for example, which is a great little business model. We started MJBiz because we saw it as a niche business-to-business opportunity that was not being effectively served by the information that was out there. In fact, we saw it as something that was uniquely suited to what we could offer.

We specialize in how-to information, so when we thought about what was emerging with cannabis businesses here in Colorado where I live, it occurred to us that this was a really interesting niche of people who had been running businesses all their lives, but most often in a non-compliant manner. For example, many had never kept accounting records, had never paid taxes etc., so there was a lot of traditional business knowledge that we knew we could help this emerging industry get their arms around.

AW: What were your biggest challenges trying to grow a business in the cannabis industry, which has different challenges than you must have encountered with the other niche b2b products you launched?

In the first few years we found that the industry was mainly populated with social entrepreneurs. These folks wanted to have successful businesses, but their primary motivation was definitely not to get filthy rich. Rather, it was to achieve the social goal of legalizing cannabis in order to help patients, and to correct for social injustices that had been happening for decades.

You don’t spend long in the cannabis industry without buying into this mission. It’s very infectious when you start understanding the scope of what happened over the last several decades in the drug wars, and the reparation that is needed.

And while we honour those motivations – which a lot of people in the cannabis industry still have – you still have to run a business successfully, no matter how noble your motivations.  So helping people make that transition into a professional, legal, legitimate framework were challenges that were quite different from the other industries we built products for.

AW: Contrast that with 2019. What are the top 3 things that keep you awake at night?

Growth. The industry is growing and changing so quickly and therefore so is our own company. Managing a business that is scaling quickly requires significant human resources. The whole process of onboarding new teams quickly and effectively has been the biggest challenge by far of the past few years.

AW: Have you developed a defined culture within your company?

We’re an organization committed to helping our teams do the best they can at their jobs, just as we commit to helping our clients do the same. We realize that people want to like what they do, and with whom they do it. Also, people want to feel like they are making a valuable contribution to a bigger goal and are advancing their own careers.

AW: Maintaining this corporate culture is often the most difficult thing to achieve as a company scales. Do you have any strategies to continue to ferment this culture as you grow rapidly?

I don’t think there’s really a secret sauce. It’s about keeping those values front of mind, and talking about them frequently, especially amongst the leadership team. As we bring on new people our onboarding process is designed so that new individuals are trained in our core values so that they can truly internalize the vision and essence of the company and then live those values each day when they come to work.

AW: Are you focusing on helping solve any big issues within the cannabis industry at MJBiz?

We are focused on helping the cannabis industry professionalize, advance and grow into its maximum potential. We’re a business media organization therefore our mission is to help our audience do what they do with the best tools and resources possible. We do that through bringing the right people together at events, and providing them with top-quality information in the most relevant formats at the right time and place.

AW: What are you most proud of with regards to what you have built at MJ Biz?

The role that MJBizDaily has played in bringing the cannabis industry to where it is today. We are by no means the only reason that the industry has evolved at such a rapid pace, however I do believe that we have been a foundational pillar in helping people grow their businesses through connecting them with the right people, at the right time. This has helped the industry grow overall and of this I am very proud.

AW: According to a recent report MJBiz just released there a few states – Maryland being one of them- where women are on par with men in leadership positions in the cannabis industry. To what do you attribute this situation in Maryland and what can we do to see similar change elsewhere?

This is something the industry continues to struggle with, and the answer is quite complex. On the one hand, the industry is in an interesting and somewhat unique spot in that the growth is so rapid that everyone is looking desperately for talent. In the rush to hire, people are less able to remain biased as it pertains to gender, colour or background, because the talent pool is small.

On the other hand, one of the key elements about Maryland is that they have codified social reform and social justice into their laws. They have focused not only on social reform but also on racial diversity in the cannabis industry. This is also happening in numerous other places in the U.S., and is one of the key reasons why New York was not able to move forward with passing a recreational cannabis law. They could not get agreement around the social justice aspects of the law. The people who were advocating for social reform were not willing to move the bill forward without having that included.

Layer on top of that, we are also seeing the world change profoundly in how people perceive and values inclusion and diversity in the workplace.

AW: Do you have any thoughts on bravery and how, as woman, we can cultivate it to further our careers?

I often feel that women don’t perceive the amazing things we do as being brave; it’s simply getting on with our lives. We don’t stand up and brag about our accomplishments, it often feels like we’re just doing our jobs. I’ve done everything I need to do to ensure my business is successful so that I can take care of all the people who have trusted their careers and a significant portion of their lives to helping me grow my business. This accountability to my team is what keeps me going every single day.

AW: What is the most important lesson you have learned as an entrepreneur?

There’s a list about as long as my arm but the biggest lesson is that business is truly all about people, both inside and outside of the organization. Being a successful entrepreneur is about understanding people’s motivations and meeting them where they are and in a way that helps you achieve your goals as well.

AW: What women do you admire and why?

That’s also a very long list, but I would say my mom.  She was a working mom throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and only retired about 10 years ago. My dad was in the military but despite this she continued to have a full career even with all of the moves that are part of the lives of military wives, and 6 kids as well! She was always an inspiration to me in the sense that you don’t whine about how the world is different for women, you just go out and show that you’re just as good as everybody else and good things are going to happen for you.

I absolutely recognize and honour that many women who came before me paved the way for the world that I operate in. It’s now my responsibility to do the same, and to pass along a better world to my own daughter.

AW: What do you consider to be your biggest life achievement?

This job, and what we have built at MJBiz. Helping launch the cannabis industry and grow it into the billion-dollar marketplace that it is today has been one of the biggest honours of my entire life. We truly are changing the world in a material way.

AW: What is next for MJBiz?

The thing with the cannabis industry is nobody really knows what’s next. Something could happen with the federal government tomorrow that changes the game, or the international market could shift and turn, goodness knows there are so many moving parts. Our goal is to continue to be the calm place – the eye of the hurricane – the place where people can come and get an understanding the various components of the industry so they can make informed plans for their businesses, no matter where the industry goes.

AW: Any prognostications on when and if cannabis will be federally legalized in the US?

I think it will be a major issue for the 2020 US election. What that precipitates, I don’t know. It will depend on where the electorate chips fall, on all levels, not just the Presidency, but who controls the Senate and the House of Representatives. If the cannabis legalization and banking bills made it to either of the Houses of Congress, they would pass with solid majorities. I even believe President Trump would sign it if it made it to his desk. I also believe that any Democratic President would sign it. The challenge is that those bills are not making it to the floor because of specific individuals who are gumming up the legislative works for their own political reasons.

 

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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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