Your position doesn’t matter! It’s a fact that to be a CEO, you must be very driven and sometimes, that drive can come off as being haughty. When we do that, we neglect the people in our organization that we may deem to be “worker bees”. We must never treat anyone like that. The janitor all the way to my executive officer can have ideas and input that could propel your business into the stratosphere. I believe that sometimes we forget that. I try to always ask my soldiers their thoughts, because they may have a different perspective from my own based on their own lived experiences. That is a wealth of knowledge. I try to use that same practice in my company. I have no respective person. Any advice can help. We should never think of ourselves as better than someone else and neglect the knowledge they can bestow.
As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Allen Graham Jr.
Allen Graham Jr. is the CEO and founder of FIJI. He is a native of North Carolina and grew up in a military family. He founded FIJI to not just sell flowers but to make a difference in the realm of “green” commerce. He has a passion for making people better than they are, and firmly believes that pushing a planet-friendly brand is beneficial for the world. He also believes in family and military culture. He took it upon himself to fill his company with veterans because they always accomplish the mission. In this case, the mission is to provide the best strains available to his patrons.
Allen attended Syracuse University, Kingston upon Thames Conservatory, and Campbell University for a music performance degree. Allen also has a Master’s Degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Currently, he serves as a Captain in the United States Army Reserves and serves his country diligently. He also parents as a single father to Allen Graham III.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
To be honest, it was a mixture of wanting to go against the grain of society and finding a pathway to help those that need more help than myself. I understand that this is a boilerplate answer, but let me expound. In the Army, we are taught that CBD and THC are a detriment to the force and can harm our discipline and way of thinking. I, however, know that these products can calm folks with anxiety and give people a sense of relaxation that they may not get by taking pills every day. I wanted to show other military veterans that it’s ok to advocate something that is taboo, as long as it’s done in the confines of the law. In addition, I know that this is an emerging market, and it will be another way that large corporations corner it and take opportunities away from future entrepreneurs, especially African American and Latino ones. I felt that this venture would be a great way to utilize our revenue to impact the lives of homeless veterans, and at the same time, provide a template on how to open up your own dispensary as a minority. There is no true roadmap to success. I believe FIJI can provide that roadmap. At least in the realm of opening a dispensary.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Deployment and leaving my family made this venture difficult to pursue. I still miss my son and I know he is doing well with his grandparents. But it is still tough. Luckily, my mother and father, LTC (R) Oney Graham and CSM (R) Allen Graham Sr., are both veterans and understand how hard deployments can be. What was great is to have a support system of other veterans that had the same vision as me to help homeless veterans. Getting over the initial hurdle of balancing my missions and my business was a difficult circumstance as well. I usually work from 0830 in the morning till 1830 in the evening every day. After that, then I have to manage FTOL. When I leave work, I get pounded with correspondence and have to sift through all the questions and provide succinct guidance to my staff. By the way, half of my staff are civilians in a different time zone. We are all over the country. So, the time difference has been hard as well. However, the silver lining is that if I can do this with these obstacles, so can anyone else. PERGE! Is our watchword at FIJI. FIJI got its name from my fraternity Phi Gamma Delta, and we took this watchword because it means “always moving forward”. We couple this phrase with our Army Values, and it makes life easier. It’s our compass during hard times. Luckily, I am no longer a lieutenant and don’t get lost as easily as I used to.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My parents were the main factor in continuing forward, and my training as an officer. My father always told me to never give up. He taught me, that as a black man in America, life would be difficult, but it could be even harder running a business in a white man’s world. These thoughts permeate my mind before I take on any task. It is no question that I have to perform better than my white peers in the Army. That is evidenced by the racial climate we have right now in America. In business, it can be even harder. Sometimes, folks don’t take you seriously. But then I think back to my parents and what they taught me. I think back to my time in Drum Corps with the Boston Crusaders and how we would tell each other to “always get better”. I think back to performing my recitals and how one missed note was never good enough. Perseverance is the key to being successful. Kat Williams said it best — just keep trying it and trying it and trying it until something falls through and works. That’s what I did.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are great. We are on a mental high because we just had a fabulous event in Sarasota Florida, and we almost sold out in a short amount of time. The team is very flexible and agile. They were able to get this event squared away, even though we couldn’t all attend. Being deployed tends to put a hindrance on things. We are using our different strengths to power through to the next event. I think being able to speak frankly with my staff has really made things easier to succeed. People talk a lot about emotional intelligence, and I have learned a lot about that as an I/O Psychologist. However, I also think that sometimes being frank with my staff is key. The funny thing is, them being military helps with being blunt. I don’t yell. Folks that yell at their staff are fools. We are selling CBD/THC and electric vehicles…this isn’t combat. The easier it is to tell my staff the problem and then solve it together, the easier it is to forego a lot of foolish meetings and get down to the problem and solution set. I am quick when I pursue something and my staff understands that “Allen may be outside of his mind with these timelines”. However, we started in December of 2020 and we are already turning a profit. Agility and being able to adapt has made my staff second to none. I just watch and give intent…they have been the reason why success has been so easy to reach.
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?
The funniest mistake I think it was the cigarette carton debacle. We had a great idea of making Delta-8 Pre-Rolls and putting them in sick-looking boxes. The design had drip marks all over it and I was excited because I thought it would be a cool idea to have people switch from regular smoking to smoking CBD instead. Smoking is bad, but at least it’s not tobacco. We sourced the product from an obscure company in Pakistan I believe and that was a huge mistake. We only get American-made products now because of this foolishness. When we were negotiating about the box design, my executive officer sent a photo of a cigarette box for their dimensions. When we got the package, it was three times the size of a regular cigarette box. It could hold 60 cigarettes. Who is going to buy a package with that many Delta 8 pre-rolled? That would have been very expensive. Our XO tried to lay the cigarettes down in the box horizontally, but that just made it look crazy. I don’t know what we are going to do with the boxes, but it spurred us to just start selling the pre-rolls as singles and it worked out to be profitable. I should have known better as to trust but not verify. I won’t make that mistake again.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Being veteran and black-owned make us unique as it is. Only 1% of dispensaries are owned by African Americans, which is pretty ridiculous. The veteran piece is different too, but I think the biggest difference is our mix of marijuana derivative products, and our electric motorcycle focus as well. People get confused because they don’t necessarily go together, but I beg to differ. I am all about products that don’t hurt the environment. I want FTOL to offer customers the right avenue of approach to buying products that lets them know they aren’t damaging the Earth. With that in mind, we decided to partner up with another veteran engineer at Fort Bragg to sell electric motorcycles. The rise of electric vehicles is inevitable. Now we can share both products that are passions of mine. It makes me very excited to say the least.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I would say that the best advice I could give would be to schedule in free time. As you can imagine, I do not get much free time at all, however, when I get my weekends from work, I turn my phone off and just relax. Mental health is an important part of any working hard CEO or entrepreneur. If you cannot mentally function, the easier your decisions will be poorly formed and implemented.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I would have to say I am mostly grateful to my father. My father has been the main reason why anything I have done has turned out successful. I did not always listen to everything my father told me. In fact, he was not very supportive at first when I told him I would pursue this venture. However, he has always given me the best God-driven advice anyone can have. He has always been by my side…at every band rehearsal, soccer event, lacrosse game, and important military functions or promotions. My mother was just as impactful, but my father would never waiver in his support. Even at the ripe age of 82…he still supports me, and I love him for it.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Over time, I have tried to impact the lives of others in a positive way. As a psychologist, I have been able to help those that needed mental support. In the Army, I have been able to impact soldier’s lives and help them become the NCOs that they wanted to be. In this business, I think I have yet to be able to do what I truly am passionate about, and that is get veterans off the streets. My company devotes 5% of all profits to helping homeless veterans. I want that to be a mainstay in my business and we want to utilize these funds to start an acclimatization program to get a homeless veteran from the street, into a home, and back to work, according to their physical and psychological abilities. Talking to other colleagues, I have heard that helping one person at a time is fantastical. I would like to prove them wrong.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Take a finance class. I think that starting a company is ALOT of finance. Luckily, I have staff members that excel in this realm.
- Never hire family and friends. I had a previous business and made that mistake and it blew up in my face. I think that ensuring you have a proper hiring process, even at the beginning is paramount to success.
- Gut feelings are not always the best feelings. I believe that numbers should drive most decisions you make in business. It is true that at times we want to do something because we feel it’s right. However, making those types of decisions without numbers to support those decisions can have large blowbacks. I remember when I picked my first CMO, I made the mistake of going with my gut, instead of giving them a trial period to square themselves away. We were stagnant in marketing for a long time because of that decision. Now, I use my sales numbers to really show if marketing is successful, rather than just “thinking on my feet”. I used to make gut decisions as a platoon leader when I was stationed in Korea. Sometimes the decision worked out, but oftentimes it did not. Luckily, I had competent NCOs to keep me straight. But now, numbers, numbers, numbers is the way I like to ensure the proper decisions are being made and on a consistent basis.
- Your position doesn’t matter! It’s a fact that to be a CEO, you must be very driven and sometimes, that drive can come off as being haughty. When we do that, we neglect the people in our organization that we may deem to be “worker bees”. We must never treat anyone like that. The janitor all the way to my executive officer can have ideas and input that could propel your business into the stratosphere. I believe that sometimes we forget that. I try to always ask my soldiers their thoughts, because they may have a different perspective from my own based on their own lived experiences. That is a wealth of knowledge. I try to use that same practice in my company. I have no respective person. Any advice can help. We should never think of ourselves as better than someone else and neglect the knowledge they can bestow.
- Never bring a problem without a solution. I believe that there is a solution to each and every problem that can present itself in business. Sometimes, it seems like we are in a situation that there is no way to get out of it. This can happen to anyone. But a positive outlook on your situation is key to getting through it. I remember I had one of my first jumps while I was in the 82nd Airborne. I was new to the division and I just wanted to prove I belonged there. When I jumped, my parachute was tangled. I panicked. I felt that there was no way to get out of this and the only option was to pull my reserve. While I swayed in the air panicking, I started to kick my feet and realize that it would allow me to twist in a circle and untwist my lines. I could have given up and not thought things through and resorted to the easy path of pulling my reserve. Think of your reserve as your safety net in life, whatever it may be. However, sometimes that safety net is actually a crutch in disguise. Try to take the hard way and figure out a solution that is unorthodox, but backed up by your past experience and the experiences of your fellow colleagues. When we do that, we can manufacture solutions that will astound everyone, especially yourself. Oh, and yes I landed safely from that jump. ALL THE WAY!
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
I always advocate some type of therapy. Many believe that therapy can be a waste of time, but I find that mental health can make or break a company. Forming an LLC is extremely hard work, and most times, you have to do it by yourself with little support. I have someone in my life that I like to call to talk about my mental health when I feel like I am getting burned out or anxious. If I don’t, then I end up making horrible decisions and rash ones at that. Seek out a therapist. You don’t need to be in mental anguish to utilize one. If anything, it will keep your mental process healthy before it can degenerate. I know there have been times running FIJI that I wanted to give up because I was worried about my staff not functioning the way I wanted, or my time feeling like it was being wasted with no results. Being deployed didn’t help the situation either. However, after speaking to my helping hand, I was able to regenerate, and put things into perspective and strive to continue to propel myself forward.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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.
Maybe folks may call me a bit of a communist, but I would make a conglomeration of all veteran-owned businesses that had to agree to provide a percentage of their profits into a pot of money. There would be recruits from these organizations solely hired to find homeless veterans and get them rehabilitated over time through a program run by psychologists and occupational therapists. Every cent spent would be public knowledge so outside organizations could give input on how to make things better. I feel like having vets on the streets should be a crime. It is also ridiculous that our government allows it to happen, with all the money we provide to defense on endless war. I believe that having an outside organization like this could be a great impact. Hopefully, FIJI can spur that charge! PERGE!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!