An Interview With Phil La Duke
This type of job is not something you can step away from after 5 pm or when you’re on vacation. You have to be ready to embrace checking email on the weekend and while on vacation. You also have to think about being in cell range. You have to be ready to make quick decisions at the drop of a hat when a problem arises no matter where you are, what day it is, or what time it is.
As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gillian Levy. Gillian the Co-Founder & CEO at Humboldt Apothecary, is passionate about crafting the highest quality cannabis-based tinctures and topicals, offering safe, effective solutions to target a wide variety of conditions and support general health and wellness. Together with her business partner Susan Cleverdon, she formulates unique botanical blends, combining cannabis and complementary herbs to create products with maximum therapeutic benefits. Committed to using the highest quality, and most environmentally sustainable ingredients including Humboldt County sun-grown cannabis, the company supports small farmers and organic practices. As a Botanist, Herbalist, business owner, and mom to two teens, Gillian believes strongly that entrepreneurship and business growth can go hand-in-hand with environmental stewardship and responsibility.
Thank you so much for joining us Gillian! What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?
We are a relatively small company, so my business partner Susan Cleverdon and I wear many hats. In some respects we share some of the traditional CEO duties. I like the diversity of the roles in my position, which keeps things interesting, but am most drawn to the development of short and long-term strategies and leading the company forward. Getting really clear on what’s non-negotiable as we grow has been key in staying true to our mission of creating high quality products designed for healing and wellness. When it’s time to make a big decision or to grow to the next step I like the process of always going back to basics and asking, is this move in line with our core values? As a craft brand, at the end of the day, we hang our hats on the quality of our products. I have enjoyed the process of creating the basic scaffolding, or framework that everything is built on, and I find it gratifying to go back to that whenever a big decision seems overwhelming.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A CEO is responsible for creating and implementing the company’s vision, setting strategic goals, and working to achieve those goals in measurable ways. This means being the keeper of the yardstick, which can sometimes feel like a heavy responsibility. A CEO must show leadership and ultimately bears the responsibility for the success of the company, while other executive roles are generally delegated more discrete tasks that support the company’s goals, such as implementing workflow, keeping the financials organized, or overseeing day-to-day operations at the production facility. A CEO keeps the big picture in mind every day, and must have the ability to step back and see the big picture with some measure of objectivity.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I like leading a team, and I enjoy everything that goes into high-level decision making. I’m a strategy person. I like to work that puzzle.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
Being responsible for making the important decisions can be burdensome, because ultimately you’re responsible for the well-being of the company. I feel a big responsibility to my business partner and to all of our employees.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Having a network of colleagues and professionals that you can align yourself with is a real benefit in business. I think women executives face more challenges in this regard, as they are not always privy to the same abundance of resources in this area.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting stories are those that our customers send us via testimonials. We started out as a medical use company, so the stories of healing and recovery are really meaningful and important to us. One of our customers who was recovering from a stroke wrote to us and shared that our products were the only thing she had found that helped to calm her stuttering as she strived to improve her speech. We had another customer that took our tincture for the first time and swears within hours he threw down his cane and started jumping up and down, after being completely immobilized due to injuries from a serious motorcycle accident. These are the kinds of stories that inspire us to keep working hard and moving forward. Knowing that our products can have such a dramatic, positive effect on someone’s quality of life is incredibly gratifying.
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 name we gave our company when we first started out was too similar to another business. This was completely unintentional and we didn’t even notice it, until the other business brought up the issue on social media thinking we were some large corporation trying to steal their identity. This was pretty funny, as we were a small start up at the time. We made a quick pivot and changed our name, and then made sure to extend an olive branch to the other company. Lesson learned. Do your due diligence. Every detail matters.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When you hold an executive level position at a relatively small company, the job description is a bit more diverse than at a larger company. At the beginning, when we were first starting out I thought I’d always be responsible for a little bit of everything, but have transitioned in recent years to a more traditional executive role focusing on the big picture. I see now that this is a necessary shift to make to drive the company forward as you grow.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
An executive needs to be a natural leader and they need to be ok with the level of responsibility the job entails. Some people are good at strategy, and they’re good at analysing the market and making data-driven decisions, but if knowing they are ultimately responsible for the health of the company and the well-being of it’s employees will keep them up at night then being an executive is not for them. If you have a more specialized skill set and you are not really a generalist or big picture thinker being an executive might not be a good fit.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Surround yourself with not just talented, responsible people but people you trust. It is impossible to be the best at everything, and it’s also impossible to keep tabs on everyone all the time. You need to know that the people working for and with you can be trusted 100%. One you’ve built a team you can trust, delegate responsibilities based on the strengths of each team member and check in regularly.
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 about that?
I am hands down most grateful for my business partner, Susan Cleverdon. We have complementary skill sets and a deep level of trust. We were friends before we became business partners, taking long hikes in the redwoods of Northern California together we would discuss all the ways cannabis and complementary herbs have helped us on our own wellness journeys and also how access to effective, high quality products was limited. It’s like a light bulb went off one day when we were walking. We looked at each other and both thought, we can change that. We got really excited and moved on to make it a reality.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We are in business to craft the highest quality products for health and wellness. It’s incredibly gratifying to get testimonials from our customers describing how our product solved their sleep issues, helped with pain management, or allowed them to continue doing a sport they love. I would like to think that our sourcing of organic ingredients and support of small farmers is making a difference, and that we are making the world a better place one customer at a time. I also love to speak at events and teach people how to use cannabis products for wellness.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Your job description is infinite and fluid. I am frequently asked “Who is your compliance officer?” or “Who is your marketing director?”, and the answer to both of those questions right now is me.
- Pioneering a new industry is not always as glamorous as it sounds. Making crucial decisions in a constantly changing environment has led to a lot of sleepless nights. The outcomes of your decisions are not always easy to anticipate, for example when you roll out a new product that does not already have traction in the market, and you discover that you have a lot of customer education to do in order to get sales. It may be a great product, but if your customer does not know how to use it or why it might be effective, then having it on the shelf does not translate to sales.
- Pivoting will become your new signature move. In 2018 the California cannabis regulations changed twice in one year and there were constant challenges to source packaging that would meet the changing regulations. The amount of research and time invested in staying in compliance under the ever-changing regulatory structure was by far the biggest challenge our business has faced.
- This type of job is not something you can step away from after 5 pm or when you’re on vacation. You have to be ready to embrace checking email on the weekend and while on vacation. You also have to think about being in cell range. You have to be ready to make quick decisions at the drop of a hat when a problem arises no matter where you are, what day it is, or what time it is.
- The business community in this industry is strong, supportive and energetic. This community bond with colleagues and partners is unimaginably strong and unique. There is a feeling that we are all in this together, which creates a nice environment for collaboration and helping each other out. The most rewarding element, that I could never have predicted is how many talented and incredible people I would come to know through this endeavor.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My biggest hope is to inspire a movement of health and wellness. We have a national crisis of “un-health” in our country, where too many people rely on prescription medications, instead of prevention and lifestyle changes. Every one of us has the ability to change our future by changing the way we approach wellness. I want to empower people to take charge of their health and take action. It can be one small step in the right direction that often leads to another, and another until it becomes a habit to give health and wellness the attention it deserves.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” ― Maya Angelou
The largest challenges are what makes us who we are and gives us the tools we need to face future challenges. Past adversity makes us stronger and translates to perspective we can tap into to tackle what the future throws our way. All the challenges we have faced in creating this business have taught me about who I am, what’s important to me and solidified my resolve to keep pushing toward my future vision of what our company can be.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I would love to sit down with Oprah Winfrey for a private lunch. She is both extremely powerful and also deeply relatable on a human level. She has overcome so much adversity in her lifetime and has achieved so much, against all the odds. She is a true innovator and visionary, a strong woman who has forged her own path. I find this incredibly inspirational.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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