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“Build close relationships” With Len Giancola, Sarabeth Perry and Phway Su Aye

Another key aspect, too, is the sheer challenge of marketing in this space. With the regulatory climate still uncertain, and traditional platforms yet to lay firm rules, it can be especially tough for new brands. For example, there are still many restrictions on paid digital channels. While these restrictions can serve the market well — […]

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Another key aspect, too, is the sheer challenge of marketing in this space. With the regulatory climate still uncertain, and traditional platforms yet to lay firm rules, it can be especially tough for new brands. For example, there are still many restrictions on paid digital channels. While these restrictions can serve the market well — in protecting from egregious claims and controlling general recklessness — it does require companies to be more thoughtful and lean into non-traditional channels. This has ultimately helped us to be more grassroots in our approach, developing even closer relationships with our consumers, but it does make for a tougher environment to begin.

The steps it takes to educate a new consumer is also something we think about often. The reality is that the cannabis market is actually quite ahead of the consumer — for hemp especially. Many companies are capitalizing on the hype to create products that will sell quickly. This might mean marketing a product as specifically for anxiety when there’s little to prove it, or adding other herbs and ingredients to maximize potency, which of course makes it difficult for those using it for a health need to go to their doctor and figure out what’s working. Consumers are still asking basic questions like what is hemp, how is it different, and will it get me high, and there’s still a need for companies to backtrack and get the foundations right first.

As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarabeth Perry and Phway Su Aye

Sarabeth Perry is Michigan-native and a Co-Founder of Bace, a mission-driven hemp brand and cannabis science company helping people have better outcomes using hemp for health. She studied at Carnegie Mellon and received her Masters at Duke in Theology, Medicine, and Culture. She started off her career in healthcare, working at Mount Sinai Hospital within the research division of Palliative Care. She is passionate about modernizing healthcare and building solutions around human problems.

Phway Su Aye is a Co-Founder of Bace. She was born in Myanmar, grew up in New Zealand, and now calls New York home. She studied at Princeton and began her career in investment banking at JP Morgan, before working for the CEO at Sotheby’s, and then its newly-formed advisory group. She then helped grow the US arm of Sequoia-backed technology startup Tessian. She’s passionate about commercial strategy and innovation and applying her learnings from other sectors to the cannabis space.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?

Sarabeth Perry: I think a common theme for today’s entrants into cannabis is that they never would have imagined themselves working in this industry had they not had a personal experience or seen someone close to them benefit from the plant, and I’m no exception! When I moved from SF to NYC 2 years ago, I became interested in using hemp for my anxiety, but It was only when I was working at Mount Sinai, visiting patients’ homes that I realized there was a larger problem in the industry that had yet to be addressed. While there is a growing interest from patients in incorporating cannabis into their healthcare, the healthcare system and the consumer market haven’t caught up to them yet. I care deeply about finding ways to empower people to take greater control of their health in a safe way, and also feel strongly that cannabis shouldn’t be divorced from the healthcare system. When I started to dive deeper into the industry, I began to see a pattern in how people were approaching it for health needs and how it was (and still is) being marketed as a magic pill, cure-all, or vitamin. This does two harms: 1) it hinders hemp and cannabis from being taken seriously, and 2) it confuses consumers who are approaching the category for a more health-specific purpose. We’re on a mission to treat this very special plant with the thoughtfulness it deserves and to responsibly educate people on the facts.

Phway Su Aye: Echoing Sarabeth, if someone had told me a few years ago, I’d be working in cannabis, I probably wouldn’t have believed them! That said, looking back on my early life, I seemed to have touched plant science in a few ways. My father’s an agricultural policy advisor, businessman, and life-long soil scientist. I started off my career in finance focused on agriculture and fertilizers. But, my joining the industry had less to do with agriculture and more to do with my personal interest in holistic health & wellbeing — finding alternative and natural solutions to managing mental & physical health. I started exploring cannabis (specifically hemp) a while back to manage anxiety and hormonal imbalances after a homeopathic doctor firmly recommended it. While I personally had a positive experience with the plant and my mental health became much more balanced using it, I was first taken aback by the sheer amount of bad products and lack of consumer guidance in the space. I felt the companies out there weren’t speaking to everyday people like me, approaching hemp for a real health need, not knowing where to start and who to talk to — and I wanted to personally help solve this and make this category more approachable for those that would really benefit from it. Now my mother, too, turns to hemp for her chronic back pain, as a supplement to chiropractic treatment. It’s fulfilling to see how powerful this plant can be when used responsibly.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Sarabeth Perry and Phway Su Aye: Given how new the cannabis and hemp industry is, we have both been continually surprised by just how much misinformation is out there. One of the most interesting experiences we had early in our journey was when we were conducting street teams — asking consumers in the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn what they knew about hemp and what they wanted to know. We received such mixed reactions! From those that knew of hemp as a food or fabric product, to those that associated it immediately with cannabis and felt visibly uncomfortable speaking to us, to those that were incredibly eager to learn because they themselves or someone they knew had such a positive health experience with it. We learned quickly that building a business is one thing, and that actually being on the ground and meeting customers where they are (in terms of their knowledge, needs, and world views) is another thing altogether, and something that we have to continually keep in mind as we grow. That’s why for us, customer-centricity is core to what we do, by keeping avenues open to hear from consumers about their own realities and adapting our products and educational efforts to support them.

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?

Sarabeth Perry and Phway Su Aye: We’re not sure if we’d call this funny, but it was definitely memorable! At the beginning of our journey with Bace, we would periodically walk around New York to check in on the plethora of CBD product stores that had sprung up in the wake of the “Green Rush”, trying to get a better understanding of what was happening in the category and the types of people that we’re approaching it. Real on-ground research! There was one particular CBD store in Brooklyn that we would go into every time we passed — asking very detailed questions to the store staff as well as customers, and of course, generally quite looking out of place. We definitely got many stern or baffled looks when we would probe about a product’s quality & safety standards and general guidance on how and what to use CBD for. It made us realize again that the issue of misinformation and lack of customer guidance was pervasive across the industry, but particularly so in NYC where cannabis regulations are of course non-existent. We saw, too, that many of the customers just weren’t familiar with the category enough to start asking the harder questions. It made us more driven to do what we’re doing now.

Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?

Sarabeth Perry: Almost every time I talk to someone about what I’m doing there’s a level of education that takes place and it’s a great reality check for how young the market really is. I expected my parents, for one, to be more concerned because they definitely are not familiar with the industry, but they were more just curious…

Phway Su Aye: I think we’ve both been surprised by just how receptive people have been. People are incredibly curious about cannabis and understand it’s an exciting, rapidly-developing industry and like hearing about the young people that are disrupting it. That said, one conversation I’ve had recently is with my 80+-year-old grandmother, who I’ve heard describe my new role to her friends, as “she now sells plants”. Definitely a much simpler way of describing the job!

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?

Sarabeth Perry: So many people! My family plays a really important role in my life, and I rely on each of them in different ways. I have to say that my parents (I’m cheating a bit here) are absolutely the reason I get to do what I’m doing today. My dad’s been in business for his entire career, and to this day quizzes me on mental math problems and talks to me about the ins and outs of his business decisions. He’s taught me a lot about the value of personal relationships, and what going out of your way to help someone can lead to, especially when there’s not a direct benefit. My mom keeps my priorities in check; reminding me to always water my own grass.

Phway Su Aye: I would say, my Dad. He’s always inspired me to live life thoughtfully. But when it comes to business, his philosophy has always been to lead with empathy. I remember on my last trip home to Myanmar, driving through tea fields in the pouring rain and having him pull over unexpectedly and saying, “You know what, let’s go out and walk these fields. I want you to know what it’s like to actually pick tea leaves. It’ll make you appreciate tea more.” This kind of statement just gives you an idea of the kind of person he is — someone who has to “do” to learn and someone who thinks about business and products from their roots — literally the hands that make them. This is something that’s definitely percolated into the way we do things at Bace — starting from ground zero and always keeping that endpoint, whether the farmer or customer top of mind.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Phway Su Aye: Yes! So many exciting projects happening at Bace right now. Of course first up — our launch. We’re preparing for this now and plan to be out in the world in early Q1 with our first line of capsule products. A large part of Q1 will be to continue iterating on both our physical & digital product experience, making sure we’re readily addressing questions and roadblocks customers might have. Beyond this, we’ve been incredibly focused on deepening our relationships within the cannabis world. We spent a better part of a year on the ground speaking to over 30 suppliers to vet for the best of the best and understand the entire supply chain process, while also meeting key stakeholders in the industry. We’ve continued to invest in these relationships to set us up for future product innovations later in 2020.

Sarabeth Perry: We’ve also been simultaneously focused on finding the right partners within the healthcare and research communities. We’ve since begun to form our Clinical Validation Board with several key cannabis sciences and medical advisors (which we’ll be announcing in the new year), and have continued to build relationships with researchers at institutions like Columbia and Duke. For us though, the North Star has always been to enable people to have better outcomes with cannabis, and all of these efforts are incomplete service of this. We plan to continue equipping people with the best products and best resources to navigate this new category.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite the great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to this report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?

Sarabeth Perry: Not hearing enough women’s voices in the industry causes a few problems: one of company ownership and opportunity, and secondly a disconnect between those running companies and the people they are serving. At Bace, we believe that staffing should be as diverse as the consumers we serve and that all companies, both in and outside of cannabis, have the responsibility to reflect the market around them. While this is important from a gender equity perspective, it’s also good for business and understanding your customers. If you take the opportunity to work with people who you’d also be serving as a company, chances are you’ll have a better sense of consumer priorities and see opportunities that otherwise you may have missed. You’ll see that we work with a lot of Johns and Davids, but also Selanis, Laurens, and Adils to name a few.

Phway Su Aye: On a more individual basis, we also think a huge need is making sure younger women have access to female mentors and role models, again in both cannabis and beyond. Whether that be literally having physical touchpoints with other female entrepreneurs and executives, or avenues and support groups for women to come together, there need to be concerted efforts to help young women connect and feel inspired. While this is definitely on companies to create these spaces, older individuals, too, have the responsibility to proactively seek out mentees and be that guiding voice. When I look at my male counterparts and what’s enabled their success, a periodic theme has been the guidance of strong mentors. I think beyond the more obvious access to networking and development opportunities, as a young woman being able to see “yourself” mirrored in those at the decision-making table can be naturally motivating.

You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non-intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each.

Sarabeth Perry: The first thing I’d advise is to be extremely wary of the product partnerships you form. We are lucky that we were able to form a really close relationship with our partner so that they really are more of a partner than a supplier, but it comes down to meeting with a lot of people, and honestly assessing what you won’t compromise on. People will try to convince you that the way they do things is “normal in the industry,” and sometimes you have to walk away from those conversations in order to stay true to your original goal. We had to meet with over 30 product partners at all different stages of production in order to know we were making the right decision, and in some cases, it did end up pushing back certain deadlines we had for ourselves. Insist on meeting the people doing the work, and you’ll be able to pick up things that you can’t get from a phone call or meeting with a business sales rep.

Keeping abreast of regulation is also something that I cannot understate as important. While federal regulation gets a lot of coverage, things change on a day-to-day basis on the state level (and in some states like Massachusetts even the municipal level), and these changes directly affect your ability to do business. Making sure we know the latest not only future-proofs our business but also allows us to have thoughtful conversations with consumers. We consistently wake up to new updates from our lawyer (who are often at the discussion tables) and will spend late nights and mornings perusing them to learn as much as possible. We’re generally excited though at the direction regulation is moving in, and feel 2020 will have some great wins.

Phway Su Aye: Another key aspect, too, is the sheer challenge of marketing in this space. With the regulatory climate still uncertain, and traditional platforms yet to lay firm rules, it can be especially tough for new brands. For example, there are still many restrictions on paid digital channels. While these restrictions can serve the market well — in protecting from egregious claims and controlling general recklessness — it does require companies to be more thoughtful and lean into non-traditional channels. This has ultimately helped us to be more grassroots in our approach, developing even closer relationships with our consumers, but it does make for a tougher environment to begin.

The steps it takes to educate a new consumer is also something we think about often. The reality is that the cannabis market is actually quite ahead of the consumer — for hemp especially. Many companies are capitalizing on the hype to create products that will sell quickly. This might mean marketing a product as specifically for anxiety when there’s little to prove it, or adding other herbs and ingredients to maximize potency, which of course makes it difficult for those using it for a health need to go to their doctor and figure out what’s working. Consumers are still asking basic questions like what is hemp, how is it different, and will it get me high, and there’s still a need for companies to backtrack and get the foundations right first.

Adding to this is just the general pervasiveness of misinformation in the category. Because of the industry’s newness, companies are still operating strongly by their own rules and not hesitate to put out health claims that, in our view, definitely step the line. As a new company, too, seeing this “Green Rush” happen, it can be tempting to also move rapidly and opt for recklessness for quicker wins. This is incredibly dangerous when the products you’re creating are directly affecting people — young and old. We think some companies are definitely making strides to help clear up the facts and represent products honestly, and we’re excited to be part of this!

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?

Sarabeth Perry and Phway Su Aye: The general momentum at which the industry is moving. Because cannabis has been in such a BlackBox for so long, many of the innovations that happened outside of the industry bypassed this particular plant. Now we’re playing catch-up and that pace of innovation is exciting. Another thing too is the sheer amount of research opportunities that this has opened up, both in the US and beyond. The potential of this plant to do good is vast, but we’ll never know how vast until the research happens. Beyond this, too, we’re seeing the general stigma around cannabis really shifting. Cannabis use has been seen in such a specific light, but even in just the past few years alone, it’s becoming much more normalized. People are seeing the plant’s multi-faceted applications and realizing there’s much more to it than its recreational side.

Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?

Sarabeth Perry and Phway Su Aye: The current lack of regulation now, the bold claims being made, and the potential for cannabis to lose its legitimate health value if good players don’t step up to the plate. In terms of improving the industry, the three main things we push for are more research, more regulation, and more responsible companies. It’s on companies like us to take the reins and contribute to the industry as a whole — directing regulation, contributing to research, and helping to arm consumers with the best information possible to make their decisions.

What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?

Sarabeth Perry and Phway Su Aye: Public support for legalization is the highest it’s ever been. There are many arguments we stand by but generally think the most persuasive one is simply the reduction of harm. Cannabis operating in a black market has meant much lower quality controls. This, of course, makes it increasingly challenging for consumers, having to discern for themselves which products they can actually trust. Correct labeling, for example, is still a huge problem in the hemp industry. Legalized cannabis markets have been able to push for much stringent safety and quality measures across the board, helping people have more positive experiences with cannabis. For us at Bace, it’s always been about more good, less harm.

Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?

Sarabeth Perry and Phway Su Aye: It’s hard to compare the trajectory of cigarettes and that of cannabis because we see them as two essentially different products with two different end goals. Cigarettes arguably don’t have a legitimate health use case. In fact, most will agree that they’re incredibly detrimental to health. Whereas with cannabis, there are certainly legitimate health use cases, even if we’re still learning, and there are notably much fewer detriments to health, even when using recreationally. High taxation, of course, makes sense to discourage cigarette smoking, and social marginalization has happened naturally with more public awareness of its health risks. With cannabis though, the research is showing very different things. There’s just not enough evidence pointing to cannabis being harmful and needing similar kinds of restrictions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Phway Su Aye: For me, honestly, the tried and true mantra of “treat others how you want to be treated” has probably been the most impactful. I think people have this impression of business leaders as tough or ruthless, and having to make compromises at the expense of treating others well. I, and I know Sarabeth, too, firmly believe that there are other ways of doing business that put good and ethical decision-making — for customers & employees both — front and center. For Bace, too, we’re a direct-to-consumer company — our sole job is to know our customers well and listen deeply to their needs. Consistently treating them well — with respect and a general empathetic ear — instills trust and loyalty in a way that fulfills us personally, but also supports the long-term goals of our business, especially in a new growing industry where misinformation and bad players are rampant.

Sarabeth Perry: Yes, I completely echo what Phway said. I always come back to the phrase my Dad says, “Nothing is ever as good as it seems, and nothing is ever as bad as it seems”. During this journey, every day can be a rollercoaster if you let it, and it’s really important to keep the original goal of the company in perspective. Of course, we want to celebrate the wins, and more importantly, learn from the losses, but it’s equally as important to keep it all in perspective.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Sarabeth Perry: One of the things that I hope will be a theme in my work is to increase access to quality health interventions. Without the security of your body’s ability to function well, it’s more difficult to find joy in your day to day, strive for goals, etc., and it’s certainly a key part of what we’re trying to accomplish at Bace. Cannabis is at such an interesting time where we truly can start learning about how it works for specific types of people, take those learnings, and standardize them so more people can benefit from it. For me, all that we’re doing with Bace and in cannabis is under the umbrella of this larger personal mission — to help people achieve the health outcomes they need, in the easiest & safest ways possible.

Phway Su Aye: I don’t know what kind of name this movement would fall under, but I think something that inspires generally more conscious living. This philosophy naturally rings through in all we do at Bace — applying the same amount of consciousness and intention to all that we produce and put out in the world — and all that, at least I hope, I personally do. If I could find some way of replicating this kind of rigor on a larger global scale, on the individual, business and societal level, I think the world would be a much less wasteful and superficial and much more fulfilling and honest kind of place where products were created with real needs in mind and people generally needed and wanted less.

Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!

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