Photo courtesy of subjects
Cannabis is notorious for being a less than diverse industry but as it evolves, more brands led by women and people of color are starting to emerge. In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage month, we gathered six founders to talk about their experience in the field. Read on to hear what James Kim (founder of Stiiizy), Christine Yi and Felicity Chen (founders of Potli), Dae Lim and Mia Park (founders of Sundae School), and Stephanie Hua (founder of Mellows) have to say about cultural clashes, familial expectations, and tapping into the power of community.
Let’s start at the beginning: What was your first cannabis experience like?
James Kim, founder of Stiiizy: Being born and raised in California, cannabis culture is pretty big and I've been around it for so long. But it really impacted me when I came back after serving in Iraq in 2008 — I had PTSD and it helped me cope while adjusting back to civilian life.
Stephanie Hua, founder of Mellows: I’m the opposite of growing up in California — coming from a suburb in Northern New Jersey I definitely was not exposed that much to cannabis. My first experience was at your typical house party when I was 16 where I tried a couple puffs but didn't feel anything. Then senior year, I over consumed and it was pretty traumatizing! It wasn’t until I went to Brown that the stoner stigma started to chip away and I saw that people could smoke weed and be very smart at the same time.
Felicity Chen, founder of Potli: My first time was in middle school with my ballet team - yes, I did it competitively! - at a sleepover. We tried to create a makeshift smoking device out of a Coke can and an apple, both of which didn’t work very well.
Christine Yi, founder of Potli: I ate a weed brownie before I went to a Seth Meyers stand up show. I was so high that I laughed at all the wrong, unfunny moments. Afterwards I went to 7-11 to buy a cup of ramen and ended up staring at my selection for 20 minutes because I couldn’t decide on a flavor. My friends thought I went missing and got really scared.
Dae Lim, founder of Sundae School: Mia and I are childhood friends, growing up in Korea where it’s stigmatized. I remember when BIGBANG’s G Dragon and T.O.P. smoked weed and we were both so shocked. We went to separate boarding schools in America and that’s when I tried my first joint by accident — it looked like a rolled cigarette. I wasn’t a cool kid and I didn’t know what weed smells like but when I took a hit, I wound up missing my AP exam the next day.
I didn’t smoke regularly until college at Harvard. I was so cocky about getting into these investment banking internships and when I didn’t, I had a life crisis. A friend sat me down with a gravity bong that had an indica in it. We chatted for 12 hours while smoking and I talked about my interests. How do I map things from here and open up as many options as possible? Our session wasn’t lackadaisical — it felt purposeful.
Mia Park, founder of Sundae School: My story is more dramatic compared to everyone else! I went to a prestigious boarding school in Pennsylvania and during my junior year, when it was the crux of college admission season, we decided to smoke in our room...and we got caught. I was kicked out the next day.
The funny thing is I was so high and I was watching too much CSI at the time so I panicked and swallowed the roach in an attempt to get rid of the evidence. We were a bunch of girls (three of us from Asia) who didn’t know what we were doing unlike our classmates. So instead of hiding the smell, we opened a window which led to us getting caught.
I cried all night in the office and they put me on a plane back to Seoul the next day. I was freaked out about what my parents were going to do but my dad showed up to the airport wearing his shoes on the wrong feet. He was so worried about me that he didn’t even notice. I realized then they were still going to love and support me. I did however, have to promise to never smoke cannabis again. The irony.
Asian parents can be stereotypically conservative and very against cannabis! What do your parents think about your work in the cannabis field? How did you explain it to them?
Felicity: We made our brand for our mothers. My dad started beekeeping for my mom and she took the honey every day for her asthma. I knew she’d never be able to share a joint with me but she'd be able to use infused honey to help with her condition. My parents are supportive because I started my own business — they even help us out during production.
Stephanie: That’s the Chinese way!
Felicity: The turning point was when my mom said, you need to make sure you’re helping people and not harming them. And I’m like, that’s the whole point!
But do your parents share what you do with their friends? That’s the biggest tell because our parents live to brag about their children’s successes.
Felicity: My parents kind of brag about it. They probably won't say cannabis first, but they like to say I have my own business. They’ll gauge the crowd before saying more.
James: I’ve always been rebellious — 80% of my body is covered with tattoos, which isn’t exactly the best thing for Asian families. But they’re very supportive. I don’t hide things from them. I tell them that hopefully you’ll be okay with this and not be embarrassed in front of your church friends. I built a company with over 500 employees so they’re proud to see that.
My mom is very traditional but for some reason, she lets me do whatever I want. You know how it is with sons in our cultures. She’s actually a youth drug counselor and volunteers to teach parents about drug abuse. Her job is teaching immigrant parents the American ways so they’re not as strict. My mom explains to them that cannabis isn’t as bad as the hardcore stuff and to treat it it like alcohol.
Mia: We started Sundae School three years ago but I only came out to my parents from the cannabis closet this winter. I had to flash all the press and money we’ve raised in front of them before telling them it wasn’t just fashion but also cannabis. They’re proud and interested in learning more about the business but the question you asked hit me hard because I don’t think they’ll ever tell their friends about what I do. My grandparents still think I work a consulting job and my parents refer to it as “that business in California”.
Dae: When we got Forbes’ 30 under 30 last year mom started telling her friends about Sundae School. I said, hey mom if you tell your friends and if they look it up, they're going to know that it's a cannabis business. My mom replied, none of them speak English! You made it to a prestigious list, that’s all they need to know!
Christine: Something I've noticed within the Asian American immigrant community is that cannabis is deemed as “bad” because our parents associate it with laziness. But when you realize that to run this business, there's no room to be lazy. You're hustling to build a business legally so the fear and stigma around underachieving is resolved.
Building a cannabis business takes money and connections. It also means proving your legitimacy as a person of color in a white dominated industry. How do you go about it?
James: I was already an entrepreneur with a company that wasn’t cannabis based. I had a high school buddy who was in this space for a long time and he had a network that helped support our growth.
Felicity: My family's been in the food industry for over 40 years so we had a network but we bootstrapped our way through everything. We haven’t raised a lot of money and we’re still fundraising. It’s a lot of trial and error. When we first started I tried to use a credit card and this is a cash business. You ask for forgiveness and learn on the fly — from there we became one of the first businesses in San Francisco to get our license.
Dae: When Mia and I came up with our company and wanted to materialize it, we realized it’s a white male dominated environment. We were lost in the beginning and it really was the Asian American leaders in this field that got us where we are now. James, he’s one of the first people we met and we work with Stiiizy to help guide us. We can’t thank him enough. The tight knit Asian American network in this field, while the breadth is small, the power and the depth has been tremendous.
Mia: It’s also about authenticity. We based Sundae School on the dichotomy between our conservative upbringing and cannabis as a creative agent — it’s about our heritage. It’s beyond the Asian American community as well. Anybody who sees our brand can tell that we’re being honest about where we come from and what we’re going for.
Stephanie: I’ve been really fortunate that our community in San Francisco has been strong and supportive. And I’m sure everyone else can echo this but you can call on this Asian American family. We recognize and prop each other up.
Dae: It’s the early days of this field but we’re here for the fight and the long haul, not just in cannabis but also in America. At the end of the day we’re 5 to 7% of the country’s population and we’re definitely underrepresented in higher level, executive positions. It’s a motivation for us to work harder and get to the next level.
Christine: Being an Asian female has impacted my experience operating in this business the most. It’s very subtle, but I feel like if I'm in a meeting, event, or networking, if I turn down a joint it means something. For a man, it might not mean anything — he might not be in the mood, he’s had enough, whatever. But if I don’t take it, I’m not truly a cannabis user and I’m only here for enterprising reasons. We have to work harder to prove that we’re also stoners.
James: Coming from the military I definitely learned to forge my own path. I live the life, I speak the language, and it’s authentic to me. I didn’t have to prove anything because I’ve been around it for so long.
It’s a weird time to be Asian American right now with the pandemic and the associated anger directed towards us. How do you use your platform to address it?
Dae: The model minority myth is real and obviously, we’re so privileged because no one’s chasing us down with guns. We’re not going to jail for things we haven’t done. We definitely need to acknowledge that privilege but there are also unsaid nuances that are manifesting into something bigger, especially in this political climate.
Christine: We’re donating a portion of our sales towards Covid-19 relief but we’re also providing relief funds for small businesses in Chinatown. It’s a crazy time to be Asian and maybe we don’t feel it as much because of where we live but it’s something I’m cognizant of.
Mia: Speaking of that model minority myth — it's such a double edged sword at the end of the day. Like what Stephanie says about not accepting the joint, it’s as if we’re held to a higher standard. We’re given press coverage of our success but on the flip side, when things go sour the juxtaposition between the two is drastic. And it’s manifesting itself in an ugly way.
Last question, favorite munchies snack?
Stephanie: Ice cream, especially the vanilla flavor from Humphry Slocombe although the ube (Filipino purple yam) one from Trader Joe’s is really good too!
Felicity: Some cut up fruit with the skin removed or ramen, especially the Indomie brand.
Christine: I'm such a monster when I have munchies. My trap is that I want something salty and sweet, so it’s honey butter chips and dried apricots.
Mia: I love eating hot food and I’ll go to Woorijip in New York’s Koreatown and get their soodooboo (spicy tofu stew.)
Dae: I love ramen, Japanese food, and especially taiyaki, which is this croissant-like cake with ice cream inside.