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Q&A with Serena Donovan, Founder and CEO of Because You Cann

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Serena is the CEO and Sole Owner of Because You Cann Inc. the 2nd  Health Canada licensed Micro Cultivation facility in Alberta and 25th in Canada and is also serving a term as an elected official for Vulcan County. She and her husband are proud farmers in Mossleigh, Alberta. They have five children between the two to them and four grandchildren.

Serena became intrigued with cannabis after seeing the positive properties the cannabis plant had in her life as a medical patient and decided her love for the plant could also be a way to diversify the family farm. Her daughter has remained in rural Alberta to “grow” with her and she is pleased to offer employment to 13 local residents in the area. Alpha Woman was lucky enough to get some of Serena’s time to ask some important questions.

Tell how you ended up starting a cannabis cultivation in Alberta – what is the origin story?

In my high school yearbook I would be voted most unlikely to be in the weed business. I grew up in the small community of Saltair, on Vancouver Island. I played on the beach and in the bush. I should be the epitome of a “pothead” – my sister is, but I am not. She is the adventurous one, I am the square. I am afraid of everything and was terrified, actually terrified of the “drug”.

I have suffered with migraines my whole life, but into my 40’s they started getting worse. I was working as a County Councilor, running the family home, helping on the family farm and suffering 16 days a month with migraines. I have tried every narcotic combination and migraine prevention medication on the traditional medical market. I was becoming very discouraged, and then my doctor suggested an anti-depressant. I left that appointment and threw the prescription in the garbage and never saw her again.

I knew that traditional medicine wasn’t going to be able to help me, so I found an alternative. I booked an appointment at Harvest Medicine in Calgary. I checked in with the receptionist, self-conscious and worried someone I knew was going to see me at the “weed” doctor. I felt extreme shame and embarrassment. I didn’t even tell my husband what I was doing. I was prescribed cannabis and put in my first order for my “medicine”. CBD changed my life within a few months I began to see cannabis as a healer not a “drug”.

I took the Cannabis Marketing and Plant Production & Facility Management course at Mount Royal University’s Cannabis Education Program. I loved diving into the Cannabis Regulations and designing a brand and a campaign. I decided I needed to be part of this emerging industry so I started my business plan. I decided I would start small and increase from there if there was a market for expansion. Now, two years later I have a micro cultivation facility and I am navigating the industry.

What are the top 3 challenges you’ve faced launching your cultivation business?

Our cultivation challenges started when the clones I purchased/received were not healthy when they arrived. We turned the cultivation challenges into learning opportunities.  We learned how to be nurses to our sick plants. We learned to think on our feet because each day the plants were telling us different things. We learned to be scientists, reading and tracking environmental conditions and how they affected the plants. We learned how to say good-bye to 250 beautiful ladies (plants) because they had turned hermaphrodite in week 3 of flower and were going to seed.

We learned it was okay to cry at work because we are devasted over a crop loss, afraid of the next steps, worried about remaining sustainable and bursting with pride after passing all testing requirements on our first harvest. We learned that as women, no matter the industry, we would be true to ourselves and if expressing emotion was going to be viewed as a weakness, we would make it a strength.  Cultivation is NOT easy, and we are reminded of that every day!

Selling product is the next logical challenge for a grower. The wholesale market fell drastically from the time I started this business to the time I was ready to sell my first crop. Being able to adapt with the financial burdens and pressures has been an evolving journey for myself and Because You Cann.  The lack of funding or access to funding for the cannabis industry is an enormous challenge.

Every business experiences the start-up challenges of staffing, sourcing materials & supplies, record keeping, monthly reporting etc., but then in the cannabis space you add the strict Health Canada guidelines without having a resource person you can talk to.  Learning how to muddle my way through the areas of a start-up has been a huge challenge for me as a business owner. I’ll be the first person to admit I have had daily struggles, but after taking some time to reflect and with my husband forcing me to implement much needed selfcare, I came back to my team and told them that we had to figure it out. I have come to a place where I view challenges as a way to problem solve the issue and make it a part of the process for my business’s resiliency.

What are the top 3 challenges you are facing now that you’re operating the business and getting product to market?

As a cultivator, we will never be done with cultivation challenges. We work with plants: living, breathing, green beast ladies who somedays love their life and some days do not! We live in a very dry area of Canada so humidity will be a constant issue whether it’s too high because it rained or it’s too low because it’s been -20C for a week.

It’s our first year in the facility and we are learning how the building responds to weather changes and how it affects our grow rooms. Our plants are doing marvelously right now, looking so beautiful, but we have learned not to get too comfortable because tomorrow we will be hit with yet another curve ball.

Farming is not an easy industry and then you add cannabis to the crop rotation, and it gets very complicated very quickly. It’s so exciting getting our first products on the market, but while we celebrate, we sit on product until we see how the first product sells; it’s very scary for a grower. My plants keep growing, so finding a way to sell product is a constant reality. I don’t know a business out there that can survive without revenue, but I have learned being married to a farmer, that farming is farming, and the revenue is never consistent. I turn these challenges inwards and it forces me to be a selfish/responsible business owner and make decisions that are best for my business.

Marketing our product is fun but also a challenge. There are many regulations around marketing so being creative is number one. People react positively to the Because You Cann name, and that does some of the marketing for me. I try to engage with as many people as I can, hoping to reduce the stigma around cannabis use and empowering women not to feel or hang on to the shame I did when I started consuming.

Congratulations on getting your first products to market through Delta 9! Tell us about that partnership – and other partnerships that you have struck – and they have helped your business rollout.

My relationship with Delta 9 started with my purchase of Delta 9 grow pods. I retrofitted a building on our farm and within 9 months had built my facility, was licensed and growing. Delta 9 has signed upwards of 10 micro cultivation partners across Canada and has offered help with the application process. Being the first and only 100% woman owned partner to sign the Strategic Co-operative Agreement with Delta 9 has been exciting and something I am very proud of.

There were 2-3 of us that got our licenses around the same time and we are all trying to figure out how this partnership will roll out. Being the first in anything is always awesome but being the guinea pig has its challenges. I feel the next partners to obtain licensing will experience a smoother road to market, that means progress is being made, which is good for everyone involved.

As a business owner, I owe it to myself to be constantly listening and willing to adapt to the changes and challenges that come my way. Maybe the future holds expansion, maybe it holds processing in-house so I can get my product to market quickly. Maybe we’ll create a collective of micro licensees to get our product to market as a group, keeping the money in our pockets, not giving our profits to the layers of middlemen involved.  Farming is hard work, and we all need to be working together, not seeing others as competition.

As a woman leader and entrepreneur in a very male-dominated space, what advice would you give other women entrepreneurs trying to enter the cannabis cultivation space?

I am honoured to be considered a woman leader and entrepreneur in the cannabis industry. Women in leadership roles often face many challenges. I have daily struggles and when I find the solution, I focus on my rewards. I have been able to build a company from literally nothing. I have 13 employees, three of which are gentlemen, one of which is my husband.  They each play a very important role on my team, and not one of those gentlemen will ever say they work harder than my daughter or myself.  I am proud to be a woman owned and operated company, offering employment to 10 beautiful ladies that would not have a job in this community without Because You Cann. I pride myself on building a team that works well together, pulls their weight, and is respectful of each other. I love my plants but I really love my team.

I would encourage women entrepreneurs who are interested in the cannabis industry to be themselves. My whole life I have been shy, reserved and fearful. I am the person that walks into a room of 100 strangers and leaves knowing 1-2 of them. I prefer to sit and watch the room. I am not comfortable being in the center. To be a leader you don’t have to be bold and confident, you just have to strive to be those things. My advice:

  1. Reach out to others and ask lots of questions.
  2. Be prepared for some tough days, tomorrow will be better.
  3. You can do anything you put your mind to!
  4. If you haven’t put your literal blood, sweat and tears into it you might actually be doing it wrong (haha), it’s not supposed to be easy.
  5. Reach out, let’s talk and keep me posted on your journey and let me know when it’s time to celebrate, because I’m here to cheer the loudest.

What kind of cannabis are you striving to grow in your micro-cultivation?

I am striving to grow a signature strain from in-house genetics. It worries me to have to many strains on the floor at the same time. I feel perfecting one to two strains, to provide consistent availability is the best I can do as a producer, for my consumer.

The current focus in the industry is the highest THC content, which I feel is a disservice to the plant and a huge challenge for producers. I personally don’t look for high THC, I look for terpenes and the effects I experience. There is great cannabis in the 15-19% THC level that can and should be getting the attention it deserves. I hit the 22% THC mark with the Cherry Punch that is being released next week and I am very proud of that product, but I will be just as proud of a product with great terpenes and a lower THC content.

I hope to see the focus turn away from highest THC, to quality, consistent product that consumers can be brand dedicated to.  I hope the consumer is ready to support the micro cultivators and that the demand will result in my sustainability long term.

How has the launch and growth of your business impacted your local community?

The local community has been very welcoming to my business. My husband went to all the neighbors and asked if they had any concerns with my business. We choose to take the proactive approach, opening up the avenues for communication and the ability to ask questions and come for tours. No one likes to be told, “This is what’s happening in your community”, they like to be asked.

People have toured the site for various reasons, interested in building their own site, pure curiosity, and to see rooms of growing weed. Whatever the reason, I take pride in the facility I built and when people see what we actually do, the level of cleanliness, the level of protocol and regulation we adhere to, people are shocked and amazed.

Serena and Julia

Some of your children have become involved in your business; can you tell us a bit more about that?

When we first started, I had both my daughters working with me. My youngest daughter has moved to the city to pursue her education and I hope one day that she’ll return to the family business. I look after the paperwork and regulatory side of the business and my oldest daughter, Julia, is my head grower.  Julia runs the production floor. She knows what’s going on in each grow room from clone domes to harvested product, and leads the production team looking after the plants, hand watering every day and organizing the plant work throughout the grow cycle.

We have been fortunate to find team members to support and supplement our lack of growing experience, which we are both very thankful for.  Julia’s passion and love for our plants is unexplainable and I’m honored as a mom, business owner and fellow female to observe her flourish.  I can rely on her levelheaded approach to the day-to-day tasks that must be completed.  She has taught me how to be assertive, to be confident but not cocky, to take a break before I crumble and to be proud because we are kicking ass!

My heart bursts with pride to have her working alongside me, building this business. In the next few years, I’ll be passing the reigns over to her. I look forward to the day she is being asked for interviews on being the next female CEO & Master Grower at Because You Cann at such a young age.

How has founding a business impacted your own personal growth?

I have social anxiety, general anxiety and have suffered with crippling depression throughout my life. Many of my life experiences have been wonderful but many have not been easy.  I learned through this journey that all my life experiences have made me who I am today, strong enough to start this journey and finish it.

I’ll be honest; my personal growth through this journey is something I wasn’t prepared for.  Throughout this process, I had many days when I was overwhelmed, exhausted and broken, wanting to walk away. Then out of the miserable days came days of pure joy.  I try to be kind to myself on the tough days because generally a few days later I can be proud of myself for the way I dealt with the current issue.

I had everything stacked against me when I started this business, no growing experience, no funding, and no education but yet here I am.  I have learned that I hold the key to my success, no one else is holding my key or holding me back. I have learned that I am strong, bold, organized, detailed, assertive, smart and confident and that is ok to be proud of myself.  I am very thankful for the gifts cannabis has given to my overall mental and physical health.

How do you keep fit mentally and physically?

My physical body aches every day after being on my feet working in the grow. My mental health fluctuates as much as my physical health.  I have a hard time shutting my brain off. When I leave the facility in the evening, I try to leave work at work. It’s a constant battle for me to balance time to check out, and time to take control.  I look forward each day to curl up on my chaise, wrapped in a blanket with my husband, relaxing because I know everything at the facility is ok.

Where is your most favourite place on earth and why?

It sounds silly maybe, but I love being in my grow rooms, watching my plants grow and being surprised at their growth over a few days. I love being in my nursery, cloning plants and getting those babies ready for their next stage in my facility.  I used to love getting away to tropical destinations to soak up the sun and take advantage of the humidity to reduce my wrinkles; now I have 11 grow rooms that I can retreat to for those things! In all seriousness, I am proud of my facility and although it’s exhausting some days, it really is my favorite place to be.

What excites you most about the next 5 years as your company and the industry shapes and grows?

I look forward to being a resource for other entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry. I am always looking for ways to expand my footprint and partnerships.  When I told almost anyone in the cannabis industry from licensed producers to vendors, that my application was in queue waiting for approval, they would actually gloss over. Because of my previous experience I would all but cease to exist. Until I had a license I was a nobody; suddenly I had credibility but still had to prove myself. I hated being treated like I was invisible and insignificant, so my door is always open.

I have toured local families that are interested in the cannabis industry. I am willing to take a call from people who have questions. I offer my facility, my experiences and my struggles to anyone who is interested in getting into the cannabis space or is simply curious.  I offer truth and transparency about my journey.  My only experience in the cannabis industry is my medical/recreational experiences and my business.

I did not come into this business with years of legacy growing under my belt. I have been unable to keep house plants alive, but somehow through pure determination I seem to have accomplished the impossible. For some in the industry, I lose credibility because I have not been a legacy grower and for others, I gain respect because I am getting it figured out.  If any of those experiences will help anyone from struggling in ways I did, I’m here.

I am proud to be in the cannabis industry and to be a farmer. Farmers feed the world. If I can feed just one person by increasing their understanding and acceptance of cannabis, that would be a great day. I am extremely excited about passing the reigns over to my daughter Julia, who will continue to take this business forward in a positive and meaningful manner.

And lastly, when will we see your products around the country? Can’t wait to try!

Awwww, thanks, I’m honoured. We are getting ready to launch our first products in Delta 9 Cannabis stores located in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. I’m excited to see my products, my label, my brand in my local stores. I may be a small-town girl, but I have huge dreams and I hope this is just the beginning. I’m excited to see the brand awareness expand and to hear it is wanted across the country……that is amazing!

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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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