Skill Acquisition First. — I cannot remember when I heard it or from whom, but that became my “mantra” as a teenager and it followed me through my 20s and most of my 30s. I always loved learning and saw the world as a place of abundance, so it was difficult for me as an adolescent to hear from so many adults that I needed to choose a single career and specialize. That seemed to counter what appealed to me the most — novelty and learning. Plus, I was good at lots of things and got bored easily.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ernest Toney.
Ernest Toney is the founder of BIPOCANN, a company that connects BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) business owners and professionals to the legal cannabis industry. Through his BIPOC Cannabis Network, Ernest aims to make the legal cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for visible minorities, using technology, recruitment programs, and partnerships that promote economic growth. Prior to BIPOCANN, Ernest managed global marketing initiatives for Marijuana Business Daily — the leading business news information resource and producer of the industry’s largest suite of B2B tradeshows, MJBizCon — where he expanded the company’s global readership and physical presence in four continents.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I moved to Denver, Colorado in 2011 prior to the passage of Colorado Amendment 64, which led to the state legalizing adult-use (or recreational) cannabis in 2014. It was a unique time to be at ground zero and experience the multitude of ways the new industry changed the state’s economics — from increased tourism, to a booming housing market (and the gentrification that followed), to entrepreneurial developments, to endless media and political coverage on the pros and cons of the newly legal cannabis marketplace.
My interest in working in cannabis became more serious in 2016. I was a new father and wanted to work in an industry that had more earning potential and fewer weekends away from home than what the sports world could promise. The fastest-growing industry in the state was appealing. It was paving the way for new economic growth opportunities for thousands in Colorado, as many professionals found ways to bring new life to their careers by starting over or getting in on the ground floor of an emerging legal marketplace with multi-billion dollar earning potential. And as racial justice issues became more prevalent in mainstream national media, the critiques of the booming cannabis industry’s lack of visible minority representation in business also became a focal point in endemic media coverage.
I felt that my experiences in marketing and event operations were transferable skills to the industry. I felt that my experiences navigating the corporate world as black man in management could help with the industry’s poor representation problem. And I felt that my perspective of seeing how cannabis drug enforcement affected communities of color, could be used for good (my father worked at a correctional facility in a poor rural Virginia town for most of my childhood, and for years many of the residents in our entirely black neighborhood were arrested and incarcerated for cannabis possession and use).
After two years of networking and persistence, I accepted a position at Marijuana Business Daily to support new business initiatives for the media and events giant. Shortly after starting, the company made a strategic shift to expand its offerings and presence in global markets. That changed the scope of my work, giving me opportunities to manage the company’s international marketing and partnership efforts.
As my partnership work began to align more closely with associations that supported efforts like cannabis criminal record expungement, social equity, and minority business and professional development, national civil unrest over police violence towards black people hit a fever pitch in 2020. Those pressures, amidst a global pandemic, social quarantining, a divisive political landscape, and economic uncertainty left me emotionally and physically drained. Despite having success at MJBizDaily, I was becoming checked out at work and felt compelled to find more direct ways to bring people together through my daily actions. I wanted to keep working in the cannabis industry and began thinking about ways to use my insights and strengths to make that happen. After much reflection and several idea iterations, I founded BIPOCANN — which literally represents a building a stronger integration of BIPOC in the legal cannabis industry (BIPOC + Cannabis = BIPOCANN).
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
As mentioned, BIPOC are underrepresented in the legal cannabis industry. MJBizDaily recently estimated that approximately 95% of legal cannabis industry businesses (in Colorado alone) are owned and managed by white professionals. When you consider that more than 40,000 people in the United States are behind bars for cannabis related crimes, the majority being people of color, you begin to see a more complete picture of the disparities in the industry. People of color have been 3x more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for use and possession of the plant. They’re also the least represented in business ownership, the executive suites, and with regards to access to capital in the legal cannabis industry — a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States, despite marijuana still being illegal at the federal level.
I think it is important for BIPOC professionals like me to be seen, heard, and more represented in the booming legal cannabis industry. On the heels of the increased calls for social justice in the US and in the cannabis industry this spring, many companies posted messages on social media about their solidarity and acknowledged the hypocritical nature of how the cannabis industry has left many people of color behind bars and outside of the legal corporate and profit centers. The elevated awareness seemed to quickly come and go, bringing more confusion about the specific actions the supporting companies would take to live up to their commitments to solidarity and equity. So, the elephant in the room was acknowledged, but was the acknowledgment important enough to make structural changes to company business models? What about hiring practices, media coverage, diversifying vendor or supply chain contracts, or hiring minority executives in other positions besides the token diversity and social responsibility leadership roles?
I saw a huge educational and awareness gap that was pervasive in an industry with poor minority representation. I knew that one option was to stay in my comfortable, salaried position with a market leader, give ideas that would be vetted or compromised, and bide my time for a promotion. Another option was to search elsewhere, fill one of the many of the new diversity roles that were springing up, and land an elevated position with more influence and decision-making authority. But neither of those options felt “right” and neither would likely make a major impact on the demographic makeup of minority leadership or business ownership in cannabis. So, I reasoned that the best way to “walk the walk” would be to literally start my own business and make a core focus on increasing minority representation and economic growth in the industry.
As someone who has established credibility and respect over time through actions, built a strong personal and professional network, and who has avoided making strong public stances, I understood that making an unexpected bold statement…on an important issue…in a timely manner…in a high-growth industry, would garner a response. I made the bet that I will bring more visibility and change to the access and economic growth disparities for BIPOC in cannabis by stepping out on my own instead of working within the confines of an established system.
The disruption began with the decision to act differently through innovation. If the business can achieve its mission, the disruptions will be a success.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I initially registered the company in the state of Colorado as BIPOCANNABIS LLC, believing that brand name would be more resonant and obvious to my core audience — BIPOC in the cannabis industry. A week later I began searching for a financial institution for business checking and savings accounts, then realized the mistake. My excitement to start a new venture made me blind to something that I already knew…few financial institutions approve business accounts for companies that directly or indirectly support the cannabis industry, and I just made my chances at getting approved even harder by having the word ‘cannabis’ in the registered business name. That prompted me to rethink the brand identity and business name. A few days and an extra 150 dollars later, I changed the business entity name to BIPOCANN LLC. That turned out to be a good decision, as it made the difficult process of establishing business banking a success.
I learned that the barriers of entry to do business in the legal cannabis industry are difficult at every turn. I am connected enough in the industry to know where to go to get business banking. I had the privilege to be able to drive 30 miles away to one of the closest cannabis-friendly financial institutions and spend two hours on a weekday being questioned about my business, its legitimacy, and purpose. I have a clean record, no cannabis-related charges, and the insight that the financial institution would have a hard time saying no to me — all things equal — when they’ve said “yes” to similar business owners who met the same criteria. My access and outcome is not the reality for everyone wanting to start an ancillary business to support the legal cannabis industry.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
James Baker, my high school track coach. He pushed me to believe in my capabilities, which allowed me to achieve successes I thought were out of reach. He held me more accountable than any other coach, mentor, or supervisor in the past 20+ years. More importantly, he taught me to be meticulous in figuring out how to achieve goals, solve problems, and to not make excuses.
Here is a story that began in 1998, a week prior to my high school district championship track & field meet. Coach Baker said that I was ranked #1 in the mile run, with a target time of 4:59 — four seconds faster than what I had run all season, and one spot above a competitor who bested me during our only meeting earlier that spring. I remember being surprised by the rank and target time and said something to him like, “Why do you have me at sub-5 minutes? I’ve never run that fast before.” His reply was, “Oh, you will.”
While he led the physical training that week to prepare me for race day, I was tasked with the mental work of visualizing how to do two things which I had never done — run a mile in less than 5 minutes and defeat the only competitor who had beaten me that season. With those challenges presented, I spent the week relentlessly dissecting how to achieve the macro goals through micro adjustments. That prompted me to reflect on my past races, the strategies I used, what went wrong during my first encounter against the competitor and identify the necessary changes to produce winning results. I knew that I would lose again if the race came down to a sprint at the end, so I had to win by an unrecoverable margin before the last lap. That required an unconventional approach to how I typically raced to maximize the gap between me and my closest competitor. When I reported my plan of attack mid-week, it was simple — sprint the turns, recover on the straightaways, repeat. I believed this approach would shave at least 1 second off my time each lap and disrupt my opponents’ strategies by intentionally making the race faster than what they expected. On race day, my mental plan synced with my legs as I executed the race that I had visualized. By the last lap I had a three second lead over the next competitor and was on pace to run a sub 5-minute mile. At that point, I knew the time goal was my only remaining obstacle. The adrenaline kicked in and I crossed the finish line in 4:57 — first place and two seconds faster than the time target.
The way I prepared for and executed that race shaped my approach to competitive situations over the past 20 years in athletics and business. Coach Baker helped me win many races, but his lessons taught me how to build self-confidence, articulate a vision, create a plan, reflect on failing performance, be humble, identify opportunities to pivot, fine tune processes, and follow through. From a leadership perspective, he taught me that good leaders equip their teams with the tools and resources for success, believe in the abilities of their subordinates, enable their participation in decision-making processes, trust them, then get out of the way.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I am not an expert on industry disruption. However, I enjoyed watching and studying how contrarian approaches to conventional wisdom have the potential to create new norms and economic opportunities in various industries. During my youth, I was a huge fan of baseball and spent weeks of my life studying statistics and believed the conventional methods of the time for determining a player’s impact were the best ones. By the time I finished college, there was an entirely new methodology that provided a better way to determine individual performance via advanced statistical analysis. That disruption produced a democratization effect that allowed some early adopters in smaller markets with smaller payrolls (e.g. Oakland) to be more successful — win more games (which correlated with higher revenue) for cheaper (lower player salaries) than their competitors. The adoption of this disruptive approach was met with criticism by the old guard at first, but has since become the standard, creating new norms, new productivity measures, and tons of jobs for statistical analysts in fantasy and real-life professionals in baseball. While disruptive innovation created many new opportunities, I suppose the not-so-positive impacts, in this example, affected the professionals who did not pivot quickly enough or at all. I imagine there were plenty of analysts, scouts, and executives who were displaced by the innovators as the fruits of their labor became less impactful. And there must have been at least a few teams who missed opportunities to secure low-cost, high producing and revenue-boosting talent, by not adapting to the disruptive technology.
I believe there will always be pros and cons to disruption in an industry; what’s harder to predict are the unforeseen consequences that emerge from it. As mentioned earlier, the boom in Colorado shortly after legal cannabis was a reality correlated with a period of increased tourism, migration, and job opportunities in the state. It also made home ownership harder to attain, factored in displacing some communities (gentrification), and contributed to higher traffic (more congestion, more construction, and poorer air quality).
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
Skill Acquisition First.
I cannot remember when I heard it or from whom, but that became my “mantra” as a teenager and it followed me through my 20s and most of my 30s. I always loved learning and saw the world as a place of abundance, so it was difficult for me as an adolescent to hear from so many adults that I needed to choose a single career and specialize. That seemed to counter what appealed to me the most — novelty and learning. Plus, I was good at lots of things and got bored easily.
I remember learning about compounding interest around age 18. I thought the concept was cool and used to think about how regular deposits in interesting-bearing accounts over time should yield positive returns. Got it — but it seemed to me that people who already had a lot of money and time would get the greatest returns. I had plenty of time, but no money at all. So I started thinking if I had other resources that could compound over time to produce returns, and thought that maybe my interests in learning and abilities to acquire and master new skills through practice and refinement could work that way too. In my 20s, I watched my peers who specialized earned more than I did at a younger age, but figured as long as I’m acquiring new and relevant skills, I’ll remain marketable, adaptable, have a stronger holistic business acumen, and potentially earn more over time.
Playing the long game started to work out for me about six years ago. By that time, I survived a recession, managed a failed small business, learned HTML, worked in the nonprofit and corporate settings, in recruiting, management, marketing, sales, publishing, and tech. During one job change, my income increased by 40% after learning how use my skillset diversity to meet exactly what the employer was looking for.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
The work I accomplished for the leading business media and events brand in the legal cannabis industry gave me the benefit of understanding the global landscape of the cannabis industry. That gives me credibility and leverage that others just entering the space do not have — it is an advantage. My ability to make connections and quickly discover synergies is another advantage.
But none of that matters if I am unable to solve someone’s business problem. I have found that my opportunities to help others increase as I become more open to and get better at solving problems. To increase those opportunities (leads), you need to have a mix of direct and indirect strategies. I think of indirect strategies as ways to pique interest and bring someone to me through another person or channel. That includes word-of-mouth, search engine and keyword optimization, press releases, media coverage, and interviews (like this, which promote authority and the ever-so-important website backlink). I think of direct strategies as the actions taken directly by me to elicit a desired conversion or that generate more indirect reactions — activities like making new LinkedIn connections and following up directly to discuss a new idea, creating and publishing content that interests my target audiences, asking current connections and customers for an introduction or referral, or promoting a new product or event launch.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Prior to joining the cannabis industry, I spent half a decade working in sports governance for USA Ultimate, the National Governing Body for the sport of ultimate (frisbee) in the United States. It was a dream job that afforded opportunities to define policies, scale national programs, and travel internationally.
The synergies between ultimate and cannabis have been clear to me for some time — I see two communities with counter-culture roots that have spent recent years trying to challenge antiquated stigmas about their worlds through highly visible marketing strategies focusing on professionalism. Knowing that the sport has a strong presence in many of the same countries where medical and recreational cannabis markets exist (e.g. Canada, Colombia, Germany, Israel, the United States, and more) is also hard to ignore.
I am uniquely positioned to connect these disparate communities, having worked at the epicenter of the ultimate world and for the cannabis industry’s leading B2B media and events brand. I already have half a dozen ideas on how to do this, and see ultimate’s push for inclusion in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles (the largest city in the largest U.S. cannabis market) as a major opportunity to connect the industries and drive revenues through sponsorships and mutually beneficial collaborative partnerships.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
What Do You Do With an Idea?A best-selling children’s book by Kobi Yamada.
The story is about one unique idea and a child who brings it to life. As the child’s confidence grows, so does the idea. I got the book years ago to read it to my infant son, well before he understood any of the words. In the past five years, I probably read the book over a hundred times. It has been a quick, touching, and important reminder that every innovation that became a reality began with an idea — and probably one that seemed as odd, unwelcome, or funny as the one the child in the book brought to life. It has been a great resource for me during those times when the enthusiasm I have for an idea encounters the critiques, impracticalities, and perceived limitations from others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Own your mistakes.
I am not perfect. I make mistakes because I am human. It is ok to say that “I was wrong” or “I am sorry” or “I made a mistake.” Sometimes those moments of vulnerability and sincerity can be the greatest ways to build trust, respect, and influence. A year ago, I made a mistake at work. I assumed that a large magazine shipment to a conference in Canada had been made after requesting the order, despite it being an atypical ask of the point person. The order was not fulfilled, the magazines didn’t arrive, and a sponsor was upset.
During the company’s post-event meeting with management and leadership, I could feel the tension in the room when it came time to talk about the failed magazine shipment. When it was my time to speak, I said “It’s my fault. I take responsibility for the mistake and will apologize to the sponsor. It won’t happen again.”
That ownership eliminated any finger-pointing or blame games. I owned the mistake and admitted to it publicly in front of my peers, supervisor, vice presidents, and the company CEO. The following week, my supervisor told me the CEO appreciated my public acceptance and ownership of the mistake. That one moment showed that I was equally willing to accept my accolades and failures.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think our country needs a movement that focuses on improving the quality of life and economic well-being for its citizens. We are hurting right now. We need empathy, effective listening strategies, and critical thinking to be taught more broadly.
How can our readers follow you online?