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Vivianne Wilson, founder of GreenPort Cannabis

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Vivianne Wilson is the founder of GreenPort Cannabis in Toronto and is the first Black woman who is an independent owner and operator of a licensed Canadian cannabis retail business. Alpha Woman had the chance to ask some questions about her journey as a woman of colour in the cannabis industry, and her challenges opening up an independent cannabis retail outlet in Toronto.

Tell us a bit about your childhood growing up in Jamaica and then in Toronto. How did this experience lay the foundation for who you are – and for Greenport?

In Jamaica, I was raised in a community where everyone knew each other and looked out for one another. Respect for the community and our connection to the fruits of nature brought daily lessons. Some of my best childhood memories included climbing trees and picking fruits to eat. There is nothing that tastes better than a naturally rippened fruit picked with your own hands. My childhood in Toronto was different in the sense that I had to create my own community and that mainly happened only in a school setting. I was also taught that my skin colour carried more negative connotations than I had realized. Also, the negative stereotypes of young black girls and Jamaicans were widely perpetuated.

I am so sorry to read that your beloved grandmother passed away at the beginning of the pandemic. Please tell us about “you alright then” and what that phrase means to you.

“You alright then” means – go for it cause you can do it. My grandmother did not see this cannabis industry as a world where her grandchild couldn’t also take a seat at the table. As long as my actions were not criminal as per the law, she supported my interaction with the plant. I would like to add that though my grandmother was a staunch Baptist, she also knew and had a deep connection to plant medicine.

Vivianne Wilson

Being a woman leader in cannabis – and in your case, the only woman of colour to launch and run a cannabis company in Canada – requires a huge amount of bravery, grit and resilience among many other things. What in your personal life enabled you to be such a brave and resilient woman?

I had reached a point in my life where I wanted to be at my best in all senses of the word. I knew that in order to achieve this pursuit I had to create the opportunities that would enable me to be myself without having to ‘shrink’ to make others feel comfortable. The fact that the cannabis industry was new and I would have an opportunity to grow within a brand new industry, while making an impact, presented the perfect mix of opportunities. I went for it by taking the time to learn the rules and how to play within them, but more importantly, always seeking ways to improve them.

Talk to us about how cannabis has been a tool to target racialized communities and how we can potentially move forward.

Cannabis was a tool used to target racialized communities because it was easy to create false narratives about this mis-understood plant and build fear about specific groups of people who had a history of usage or connection with the plant. There are a considerable number of studies conducted about the ills of this plant prior to it becoming illegal. None of the research found any reason to make this plant illegal. What was learnt was that the users and growers of this plant were from specific communities and so systematic policies were created to target these groups. As a matter of fact, these racially systematic policies were the creators of the illegal industry which has claimed many lives through violence or imprisonment.

In order to move forward, we need to go backwards. Decision makers in the cannabis industry should represent the Canadian population and more specifically the groups most impacted by the war on drugs. Government officials need to admit their role in perpetuating the false narratives and the damage done by their action or the lack thereof. Acknowledgement without action is futile. As such, funds from the industry should go to ‘repair’ the damage.

Imagine how appalling it is that LPs are losing billions of dollars from cannabis and Justin Trudeau wants people, in prison serving time for simple possession, to pay for their own defense to be released. What the government is essentially doing is allowing these corporations to get a head start and then by the time they include any remediation in the Cannabis Act or the regulations – those impacted by the war on drugs and specifically racialized groups will be playing catch-up as usual.

As an entrepreneur in cannabis, a woman and a Black woman, I have no doubt you have met and surmounted some pretty daunting challenges getting GreenPort off the ground. Not to mention COVID. Tell us about your top 3 greatest challenges you have faced while launching and operating your business?

All of my greatest challenges (not just 3 😊) were government and policy related. The most infuriating was having to spend a significant amount of money sitting empty waiting to be licensed by the AGCO. When I started this process, I had budgeted expenses related to commercial rent, design and developing the store. Knowing that myself and other small operators were being made to wait behind large corporations being given an unfair advantage or were being allowed to create a monopoly was unbelievable.

Considering that this was the cannabis industry, and the history of this plant – this reality was appalling. Even when I brought this unfair process to the attention of the AGCO, they simply could not understand the damage that they would be creating in the industry. Again, this goes towards the lack of representation at the decision-making tables. As I see other businesses around me having to close their doors temporarily and others permanently because of the unfair way that the covid-19 rules are being rolled out, I’m again reminded of how these processes puts some groups at an advantage and others at a disadvantage. I’m thankful that GreenPort is still here and that we’re able to serve the community that we are building.

What are your top 3 successes with regards to launching GreenPort – what are you most proud of?

I’m proud that we were able to create a diverse team of creative and talented people. This was actually the easiest part of the entire process. I’m also proud of our unifying messaging on how well it resonates with people. This is what being my best self is about. Being part of a movement that champions for community and unifies. I’m also proud of the other organizations or businesses that have reached out to me to collaborate. These groups are also championing community and inclusivity and that makes this all worthwhile.

GreenPort Interior

What is unique about GreenPort in the cannabis retail space?

GreenPort is a community. My team works to ensure that everyone feels welcomed. Education about the plant, it’s history and celebrating the people that first introduced this plant is being executed in the most authentic way possible at GreenPort.

You also have a federal license to sell medical cannabis, will you be developing something around that?

I’ll keep you posted with that. We are working on this initiative behind the scenes.

How do you keep fit mentally and physically?

I get plenty of sleep when I’m not working. I find that this is the best way to cleanse and replenish my mind. I also try to do things that force me to forget that I’m an adult with responsibilities😊 – like having fun with the young ones in my family.

Do you have any words of wisdom for other women of colour who are thinking of joining or launching a business in the cannabis industry?

Listen to my grandma’s words of wisdom – you alright then. This industry is daunting and financially restrictive to get in. Even if you don’t want to interact with the plant, I recommend exploring other ancillary opportunities that are available using current skillsets.

My other advice would be to take advantage of the network of women currently in the space as a source of knowledge and strength. I made a promise that I would make time for anyone that needed my help or had questions and so far I have kept that promise. I know what it was like trying to figure it out alone and now that I gained some knowledge, I think it’s my responsibility to share whenever I can.

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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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