In terms of social impact, I wish people told me the truth: as a Black male, people will look for me to have all the answers to solve issues of equity. But I’m only human and I don’t have all the answers. It can be frustrating, but I’ve learned to work harder to manage expectations and create a safe space for open and free dialogue about issues related to race, diversity and enabling more People of Color entrepreneurs to have access to funding and other opportunities in their respective industries.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Austin Stevenson, Chief Innovation Officer, Vertosa.
Austin plays an integral role in the business development of Vertosa, an innovative hemp and cannabis infusion technology company based in Oakland, California. He facilitates partnerships with leading brands to produce top quality cannabinoid-infused cold brew coffee, beer, wine, fresh juice, topicals and more. Prior to joining Vertosa, Austin leveraged his bio-tech experience building the regulatory Hemp/CBD testing program for Eurofins — a world leader in food, environment, and product testing services — where he worked with CVS and Walgreens to test and verify the quality of their retail CBD topicals. He is also a former management associate for Citi, Austin worked to fund minority and women-owned businesses. A St. Louis native, Austin was the first in his family to go college, completing his undergraduate degree at Columbia University and earning a Master of Science in Globalization and International Policy from the University of Bath.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve been in the cannabis industry for nearly six years. Previously I worked in Finance & Tech, and I’ve also been majorly interested in and passionate about innovative products and consumer packaged goods for a long time. I’m the kind of guy who is always into trying new supplements and truly enjoys going to the supermarket to explore any new products they have in the functional space.
It was after a trip to Africa as a part of the M.I.T. Innovation Lab, where I saw people growing green, leafy vegetables in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, that I got really curious about how plants are cultivated indoors. I started doing research and found that the cannabis industry drives much of the growth in technology, advancements in indoor agriculture and vertical farming. That is when I took it upon myself to start getting involved in the space.
I became an advisor to an accelerator in Colorado called CanopyBoulder. As part of that program, I leveraged much of my software and tech experience to advise cannabis startups. In 2016, I became a Fellow at Canopy and I started working with all types of cannabis companies across the supply chain. I ultimately found myself starting multiple companies and then running an analytical chemistry laboratory for a company called Eurofins Scientific, where we built the quality program for testing hemp and CBD products for retailers like CVS and others.
It was during my time at Eurofins that I really got to see the good, the bad and the ugly of infused products. I identified major inconsistency issues for product potency and stability, which I knew needed to be corrected for the industry to progress and succeed long term and of course to build consumer trust. Serendipitously, around the same time an old friend, someone who I respected in the space, my now business partner and Vertosa CEO Ben Larson, reached out to me. He said he has been working with a PhD scientist focused on applying his expertise in surface chemistry to creating emulsion systems to infuse beverages and topicals with cannabis, ensuring precise potency and consistently stable products. This turned out to be Vertosa Founder and CSO Dr. Harold Han — he was correcting the major issues I identified in the infused products industry while working at Eurofins. I knew I had to work with Ben and Harold to help solve these problems in the cannabis infused products supply chain. So in February 2019 I joined Vertosa as a founding team member to commercialize our flagship emulsion systems and establish partnerships with dozens of brands to introduce reliable, quality, stable infused beverages, edibles and topicals to the market. I haven’t looked back since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Since starting at Vertosa in early 2019, we dove right into the beverage industry and I quickly accelerated my network within that space. Last year, we became partners with BevNet and were super immersed in the beverage world, meeting leaders throughout the industry. And one of the most interesting people we met was through a Big Rock-run pop-up in the West Village of New York City. It was there I first met future Vertosa partner Tiffany Yarde, CEO and co-founder of Shoki Beverages, makers of non-alcoholic cocktails and beverage mixers. She is one of the few Black women beverage executives and I loved her energy and passion. She comes from a traditional wine background and once I got to try her product, I knew I wanted to work with her. She mentioned she wanted to develop a THC Shoki Beverage to launch in California, so it was off to the races from there. Vertosa developed a custom emulsion solution to infuse Shoki alcohol-free cocktails with THC and we also connected her with a co-manufacturer, another Person of Color in the space. And because Tiffany is an amazing entrepreneur, she traveled back and forth across the country from New York to California to ensure a successful launch. And she is achieving her goals — Shoki recently won the 2020 WEEDCON Cup for Best-In-Class Edible (Beverage).
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?
Pre-pandemic, Vertosa would host clients and partners for tastings at our office in Oakland. We have a fridge full of cannabis infused samples. It’s a simple but silly mistake for whatever reason we didn’t have all the samples labeled. So one day we were hosting a major client for a CBD tasting — but it ended up being a THC tasting. They were pleasantly surprised however, and it ended up being a very fun, yet unexpected afternoon that ended up in us ordering way too much food for delivery!
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
I’m extremely proud to be part of a company committed to social justice and restorative justice in cannabis. Vertosa strives to make an impact by teaming up with non-profit advocacy organizations within the cannabis community, such as Last Prisoner Project, This Is Our Dream and Cannabis for Black Lives. For This is Our Dream, myself and other Vertosa team members have signed up to be mentors for disproportionately impacted and targeted communities of the war on drugs (i.e. refugees, immigrants, people of color and the LGBTQ+ community) who are interested in entering the cannabis industry. We are also offering educational courses as part of the This is Our Dream Academy. And for Cannabis for Black Lives, Vertosa has committed to donating a percentage of our revenue for the next three quarters to three different organizations and/or initiatives supported by Cannabis for Black Lives. The first of which is Supernova Women, an Oakland California-based non-profit organization with a mission to empower people of color to become self-sufficient shareholders in the cannabis industry.
Vertosa itself is also committed to diversity and inclusion in our hiring — 80 percent of Vertosa’s 19 employees are from diverse backgrounds.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
At a certain cannabis speaking event, I was one of the only handful of People of Color in the room, and the only black male. There was one other black woman, and she was speaking on stage. That turned out to be Evelyn LaChapelle, an activist with the Last Prisoner Project. She told her story about being incarcerated for five years for a non-violent cannabis offence and how she is now advocating for restorative justice. She had such a great energy, so I turned to my business partner, Vertosa CEO Ben Larson, and told him we needed her on the Vertosa team. I walked up to her and asked what she wanted to do in the beverage industry, and she said events. Luckily, because we are in the infused beverage space, events and demo are a core part of our business. The timing was perfect for her to apply her skills to Vertosa while also using her advocacy work and story to amplify her voice and shine a light on the need for restorative justice and equity in the cannabis industry. She is now Vertosa’s Community Engagement Manager, and continues to lead by example and inspire others.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
To address injustice and the lack of equity in the cannabis industry, local action needs to be taken. Grants need to be created at the local level and state levels, as well as through private companies that are well capitalized to fund start-up businesses run by people of color and people impacted by the War on Drugs. Grants are crucial — companies and local governments need to put their money with their mouth is. There are already examples to follow of equity grants. Oakland has done this, as well as private companies like Eaze. Politicians also need to educate themselves to create more access and work to overcome the stigma of cannabis. If alcohol consumption can be normalized, the consumption of cannabis, with its multitude of benefits as shown in decades’ worth of scientific studies, should be normalized. Education and awareness are key.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define leadership as leading by example; a leader is someone who motivates and pushes and pulls a team to a desired goal. The best leaders are great teachers. Not only do you lead by example, you teach others to follow your example.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. In terms of social impact, I wish people told me the truth: as a Black male, people will look for me to have all the answers to solve issues of equity. But I’m only human and I don’t have all the answers. It can be frustrating, but I’ve learned to work harder to manage expectations and create a safe space for open and free dialogue about issues related to race, diversity and enabling more People of Color entrepreneurs to have access to funding and other opportunities in their respective industries.
2.Overcoming political regulation is not a cakewalk. It takes time and there are both micro and macro economic influences at play, in addition to each election cycle.
3. There are a full spectrum of characters looking to create impact, yet also capitalize on that impact
4. The need to have a radar for opportunist capitalists in the cannabis space
5. The need to have a radar for true social impact advocates in the cannabis space and beyond
You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
Collaboration is the new competition and I’d like to unapologetically start a movement that calls out cannabis operators who prioritize profit over people and product. The cannabis industry is as diverse as the country we live. It is full of amazing leaders who are people of color, women, LGBTQ, and other minorities. However, many of the cannabis products on retailers’ shelves today are not made or representative of this diverse community that the space intends to serve. Instead, those who have always benefited from privilege continue to benefit in the burgeoning industry, and the privilege gap will continue to widen unless we create a movement that helps amplify the voices of BIPOC, Women, LGBTQ, and Minority entrepreneurs.
How can this be achieved?
First, we can use consumer advocacy groups to demand current cannabis brands/manufacturers to donate a percentage of revenue to sponsor grants for minority cannabis entrepreneurs. This is something I’m personally supporting as an Advisor for EAZE’s Momentum Program.
Second, we can use local and state regulatory programs to create equity awards and licenses for underserved minority populations. This is another initiative that I am supporting as a Member on the City of Oakland’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
Third, those that ‘have’ must ‘give’. Companies who are profiting off cannabis today must ‘give-back’. If it’s not through grant funding, then by supporting an equity license for a minority to start their own company. Then ‘give’ job training and internship opportunities to all those that have been convicted of a non-violent marijuana crime. Re-entry programs for those whose lives were turned upside from this plant, which is now a multi-billion-dollar industry, is an immediate opportunity to ‘right’ many of the ‘wrongs’. Vertosa is helping these initiatives through our work with the Last Prisoner Project.
In summary, profiteering only exacerbates inequality. Grants, Equity Licenses, and Job Training are requirements to create a more equitable cannabis industry. Professionals in the industry have a responsibility to re-write history by leading by example and creating an inclusive, equitable, and diverse cannabis community. By applying pressure at the national, state, and local levels, we have an opportunity to rise and shine together!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
FromHenry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you imagined.”
Additionally, I’d like to share the quote “Stay Curious” — it’s curiosity that drives imagination and drove me to experience so much in a short period of time. And, “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” This is a quote that resonates with me because I’ve been one of the only Black guys in every room my whole life, but it enabled me to seek out new experiences no matter what and feel fulfilled despite feeling uncomfortable at times. Through being uncomfortable, I have been able to live the life I imagined.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Jay-Z. He has really symbolized living the life he always imagined. He came from Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, made it in New York and then made it everywhere, creating true generational wealth. He is a mastermind with a master plan and embodies creativity, exploration and a fulfilling life, from the music he makes to the support of his wife Beyonce and his entire family.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!