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Q&A with Tahira Rehmatullah, one of the most powerful women in cannabis

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Tahira Rehmatullah is Managing Director of Hypur Ventures, Partner of Big Tent Ventures and Ceylon Solutions, and member of the board of directors for Akerna Corp. From brand building to hedge funds, Tahira has previously held positions at Marley Natural, Privateer Holdings, City First Enterprises, Perry Capital, and Ernst & Young. She is an investor and advisor to numerous cannabis businesses and entrepreneurs, including the board of The Initiative, and is dedicated to developing female and minority leadership in the industry. Tahira earned her MBA from the Yale School of Management and B.S. in Finance from The Ohio State University. She currently lives in New York City. We had the chance to catch up with Tahira to ask a few questions that have been on our minds.

What prompted you to take the leap into the cannabis industry after completing your MBA at Yale? That takes quite a bit of bravery; I can’t imagine many of your classmates were jumping along with you.

Like many people, my introduction to the cannabis industry was personal. In 2013, my grandfather was suffering from cancer and, in my family’s search for alternative treatments, we kept coming across cannabis. I was in business school at the time, and although I wasn’t looking at cannabis as a career path (who even knew it was a career path then?), I was intrigued by what I kept learning about cannabis, it’s uses as medicine, and how it came to be an illegal substance in the first place. When a cannabis job opportunity landed in my lap toward the end of school, I felt I had to pursue it, even if it meant walking into an “industry” that was considered taboo. It certainly seemed crazy at the time, but I knew it was something I couldn’t pass up, and haven’t looked back since.

Tell us abut your current role at MTech and the career path that got you there.

MTech Acquisition Corp. was a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, that IPO’d in January 2018, for which I served as Chief Financial Officer. MTech merged with MJ Freeway, a leading seed-to-sale technology provider and developer of the cannabis industry’s first enterprise resource planning platform, in June 2019. The new entity, Akerna Corp., is the parent company of MJ Freeway and I now sit on its board of directors.

Congratulations on the launch of MTech/Akerna on Nasdaq. Describe how you felt that day, as one of the first cannabis companies on Nasdaq and the first female-lead.

Thank you! It was pretty surreal. After working on MTech for almost 18 months and hitting so many road blocks, there were times when I didn’t anticipate a deal coming to fruition. Being the first to achieve something like that was not easy, but the team – both MTech and MJ Freeway – persevered and were able to pull it off, hopefully clearing the path for others to follow. Having the opportunity to stand next to people I had worked with in the trenches to close out the Nasdaq trading day on June 20th was one of those bucket list items I didn’t even know was on my list.

What was the most challenging aspect to launching a cannabis company on Nasdaq?

The biggest challenge was navigating the review process with Nasdaq and how to accurately convey MJ Freeway’s ability to power the cannabis industry, yet not actually touch the plant or violate federal law. Because the US regulatory landscape is so fragmented, listing agencies like Nasdaq are still learning how to interpret the industry’s many pieces, and without actually working in the space, its often difficult to understand.

Cannabis has had a very racialized history in the past 90 years that you recognize and are trying to do something to correct. Please tell us about your social justice efforts and why they are important to you.

This industry was built by communities who not only were persecuted for their involvement, but are being left out of the industry entirely now that it’s “mainstream”. It was something that struck me when I first started digging into the history of cannabis 6 years ago and continues to be at the forefront of why I care about this industry. My efforts to curb some of these injustices vary from advising minority and female owned businesses to working with The Initiative, an accelerator program, business bootcamp and funding resource for female founded cannabis businesses, to serving on the board of the Last Prisoner Project, which focuses on criminal justice reform programs. And, of course, talking about it whenever someone gives me the chance!

Women are underrepresented in leadership positions and as founders in the cannabis industry. Realistically, what do you think we can do to change this? What levers can we pull to both attract and retain women, and create a diverse and inclusive industry?

Attracting women to the industry is not the issue. For me, the issue always comes back to access – you either have it or you don’t. I think the market has shifted in a direction where a more select audience has “access” to the broader cannabis industry, which is detrimental to diversity of thought and creating equitable environments for businesses and communities to operate in, and further widens the gap between those who have created the industry through advocacy and focusing on patient rights vs. those who are approaching it from a pure capitalist perspective. It is critical for us to create access for minorities and women when it comes to senior level jobs and funding. Companies and leaders must commit to diverse hiring practices and a willingness to reach outside of their networks to find amazing talent that is ready to jump in.

It’s of course incumbent on people like me, investors and operators who have a stake in the industry, to push for inclusion and ensure we aren’t reinforcing prohibitive practices of other industries. We know we must bridge the gap in hiring practices, funding, resources, etc. In all honesty, I often struggle with not feeling empowered enough to make decisions that will enact the changes we absolutely need. But just because there aren’t easy fixes shouldn’t deter us from continually having these conversations. If anything, more conversations could help drive change in the right direction.

Women have a notoriously challenging time getting the kind of VC or private equity funding that men get access to. What do you think can be done to change this?

Creating channels of support for women who are preparing to fundraise is incredibly important as, historically, women have less experience pitching and often undersell their ideas. Several funds have developed in cannabis and beyond to support female entrepreneurs and provide mentors, as well as accelerator programs to prepare them for what’s to come. Utilizing these resources is a first step, and drawing on your network to reach into the various venture capital funds should not be overlooked.

What do you love most about your job?

Every day is different and there’s always something new to learn. Because I am involved with a few different organizations, my time is spent across multiple disciplines, like reviewing investment opportunities, advising teams on brand buildouts, or working on new business ideas. This has helped keep my days from being anything but boring.

What excites you most about the future of cannabis?

We’ve only just scratched the surface of what cannabis is capable of and how it can impact humanity. Although it is increasingly accepted throughout the U.S. and Canada, we are lagging in research and understanding efficacy. I am excited to support more researched focused initiatives that lead to true science and data around how cannabis can be utilized and hope that the market will focus on more long-term growth vs. short-term gains.

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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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