My first piece of advice is to become very comfortable with failure. In building a business, failure is around every corner, and if you give up after the first, second or even one hundredth failure, you will not succeed. Henry Ford said something along the lines of, “If you think you can, you’re right…and if you think you can’t, you’re right too.” This comfortability to ultimately push beyond my failures is what has helped me succeed throughout my career and navigate the uncharted, everchanging medical cannabis landscape successfully.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicholas Vita. Nicholas Vita is the vice chairman and chief executive officer of Columbia Care LLC, LLC, the largest multi-state medical cannabis company in the United States. Mr. Vita began his career as a strategic advisor at S.G. Warburg and then as a member of the Healthcare Investment Banking Department at Goldman Sachs. He has more than 20 years’ experience as an executive and an entrepreneur in finance and healthcare.
Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path?
When we submitted our first application for medical cannabis licenses in Washington, D.C., I was serving as a member of the board. I initially became the CEO, rather, I was ‘volunteered’ by the board of directors to assume the role of CEO, because there were no subject matter experts, the industry was populated by a disproportionate number of “snake oil salesmen” and operational complexities were far more unique to this industry that anyone had expected. Even the most basic support mechanisms, such as access to bank accounts, finding properties and hiring vendors (accountants, lawyers, etc.) were unavailable to us because of our industry. Notwithstanding, I was convinced that it was in those complexities that lay the opportunity. I had a passion for, and experience with, innovating and building businesses. In addition, throughout my life, I had served in leadership capacities, so when the opportunity arose (and the board ‘volunteered’ me to ‘fix’ the problems with version 1.0 of the D.C. operation), I jumped in head first. In the case of Washington, D.C., our first market, after many challenges including several human capital failures (virtual near corporate death experiences due to dishonesty and incompetence), enormous personal and professional sacrifice and tireless work, we eventually replaced personnel and solved the original operational problems that surfaced as we moved from licensure to operations. Serving as the leader of this business from a starting point of zero enabled me to witness first-hand the positive effects our company has had on patients’ lives. The opportunity to transform the standard of care by offering more efficacious, less dangerous alternatives to treat chronic and palliative unmet medical conditions, while building a business in a market where no real corporate leadership existed was exciting, challenging and gave me the chance to do something nobody else had done before.
While my drive, attraction to and comfort with disruptive, unchartered territory and passion for helping people and building businesses has helped me in this career path, it would be disingenuous to ignore the two critical factors for success that I benefited from: luck and timing. When someone is given an opportunity to be part of a phenomenon — and what is happening right now within the cannabis industry is truly a phenomenon — it’s the luckiest thing I can imagine.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Before Columbia Care was ever formed, the concept of creating a national leader in the cannabis industry was so far beyond what anyone thought was possible. Just mentioning the idea became an opportunity for ridicule. This cynicism was reaffirmed by several experiences that surfaced early in the history of the predecessor company. Within a few weeks of being awarded our first application for a medical cannabis license in Washington, D.C., we discovered that a person who had been given access to the company’s accounts had been embezzling money and stole over $100,000. I remember when the lead recordkeeper pulled me aside after he discovered that a fake company had been receiving funds, neither of us could believe it. This flagrant dishonesty was one of the worst professional moments of my career. As I began calling members of the board to tell them what had happened, I thought I could hear my career gasping its last breath. Whether I wanted to or not, the only option was either to take over management and run the company or let it fail. I could not let it fail, so I bit the bullet, told the board what had happened and agreed to assume the responsibility of fixing the situation. So, I uprooted my life, abandoned my career in finance, got dumped by my girlfriend of many years and moved in to my parents’ house and began rebuilding the company from scratch. Everyone thought I had gone crazy — including my family.
Eventually, we were successful and were the first dispensary to open in our nation’s capital. However, as it turned out, even though we were open, the District of Columbia had not registered a single patient with the medical cannabis program due to processing delays. We were open for business, operating 40 hours/week as required by D.C. regulations but had no patients to serve. Suffice it to say, that was the first of many lessons we learned about ‘being first’. This form of regulatory risk is unique to the cannabis industry and compounded the specific complexities that come with working in a rapidly emerging industry that happened to be viewed as ‘legal-ish’ (at best) according to the Federal government. These experiences helped me to develop and help our organization become innovative, flexible and resilient. Although the specific problems we face may change, the magnitude and speed of the issues we encounter and solve every day accelerates as we grow into the global industry leader.
Through it all, the team survived, and Columbia Care was built on a foundation rooted in experience, tenacity and creativity. I believe the early struggles made us stronger and taught us indispensable lessons. Since those early days in 2012, we have been selected for more licenses by state regulators than any other company and have become the largest multi-state medical marijuana operator in the country as well as the first U.S. company to win a license in the European Union. This success would not have been possible without grit.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When the only way through a situation is victory or total failure, it changes one’s perspective. There was no backup for this plan — it had to work. I wasn’t necessarily born with the talent to succeed in this role, but I was born with an abundance of stubbornness, heart and an imagination. Giving up in the face of failure was never an acceptable course of action, even when the odds were stacked against me.
Although I can’t explain when it first surfaced, an acute fear of failure has always been with me. When I was in college, I was a heavyweight rower at Columbia. My boat was the first boat in 30 years to win its category in the national championships. Although we had less talent than our competitors, we won by a bowball — less than one inch. Everything was stacked against us, but we wanted it more, and we won. That victory wasn’t about talent, it was about heart. When the other boat crews came over to give us the shirts off their backs (as is the tradition in crew), I experienced a moment of pride and humility that came with this hard-fought win. This feeling is something that my teammates and I will carry with us forever and that I have brought with me throughout my career.
With Columbia Care, I feel the same way. Up until recently, we had less capital and fewer people, but a differentiated strategy and unique corporate mission and culture. This operational and philosophical commitment to our strategy and values begins and ends with the fundamentals of patient care, service and quality. The passion that we encourage all CC employees to embrace enables us to connect and serve patients in a meaningful and authentic way. In addition, it has always been my strong belief that Columbia Care’s precisely-dosed, pharmaceutical-quality products make a difference for all stakeholders and provide tangible progress in patient outcomes and care, making the challenges we have faced pale by comparison. Success would have been impossible if I hadn’t had complete trust in the good that Columbia Care could do for the world.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
Grit is the unique combination of passion and persistence and has been core to my identity throughout my life. It allows you to listen to the critics, but still believe in yourself. Grit is the manifestation of faith in one’s self, in a mission and in the people you choose to partner with. It is the commitment and will to see things through to their completion, no matter the cost, and a character trait we look for in every hire. Grit is also something we reward when we see it used in practice for the benefit of the company or the people and communities we serve. As you can see from the many obstacles we have encountered to bring the organization to this point, Columbia Care most certainly would not be here without it. I have always been persistent and have been known to dig my heels in and pursue something even in the face of criticism and adversity, however it is the shared passion that we all have for this business and the belief in our mission to improve lives through product innovation, research and delivering a positive patient experience, that truly made the difference in Columbia Care’s success. This passion still drives all that we do.
So, how are things going today?
Today, I’m grateful to say that Columbia Care is thriving and leading the charge in driving the medical cannabis industry forward. Without the prior challenges, we wouldn’t have been able to reach many of the milestones that have facilitated the growth of the organization and fostered both my personal and professional growth. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to build Columbia Care from the ground up and to continue to have the chance to drive its growth globally. In the last six years, we have grown Columbia Care from a single dispensary open 40 hours/week with no patients to serve into the nation’s largest provider of medical cannabis-based products and services reaching more than half of the United States’ population with our transformative pharmaceutical-quality medical cannabis. Expanding access, performing data-driven innovation and providing the best patient experience while delivering consistently-dosed, high-quality medicines to patients in great need in order to improve quality of life continue to be the driving factors for me today and every day.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)
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 you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?
I can confidently say that I would not have made it through the difficulties I faced starting Columbia Care without my family, my co-founder, Mike Abbott and my true friends who stood by me. I was fortunate to have this strong support system when all of the worst-case scenarios that I could have imagined during Columbia Care’s inception were being realized and I had to move back home. Not only did my parents allow me to live with them, but they continually supported me even when it was easy to think I was ruining my life by leaving a successful career in finance to start a cannabis company. It was not just one single person who helped me when things were tough. I owe all of my family and friends a debt of gratitude for giving me the support and confidence that I needed to get through a very difficult journey.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The Columbia Care team has worked tirelessly in pursuit of our mission to improve the lives of patients with unmet medical needs. Columbia Care’s success and position as one of the premier leaders in the global medical cannabis industry means that those in need have better options, bringing relief to our patients as well as their families.
Our commitment to conducting much-needed scientific research on the effects of medical cannabis for patients is a major driver of our success. We have brought legitimacy and data-driven innovation to the medical cannabis industry and have used alternative means to do so beyond the status quo. Just in the last few months, we announced two research collaborations that are designed to gain insight into the benefits of medical cannabis for patients currently suffering from the standard of care, or lack thereof. The first is with Columbia University to study the changes in opioid use when taken in conjunction with our medical cannabis products. Our pilot research has shown that almost two thirds of patients with neuropathy who use our medicines have decreased or stopped their opioid use. The importance of this work has been recognized by NIDA, who we are honored to say is funding the study. Our second initiated collaboration in the last two months is with The Center for Discovery, a distinguished provider of advanced specialty care to individuals with complex medical and behavioral conditions. This collaboration is designed, in conjunction with world renowned neurologist Dr. Orrin Devinsky, to study the use of our precisely-dosed products in treating intractable epilepsy. The success of these studies will help to drive the development and acceptance of new and better treatment options for patients.
Our commitment to providing the best possible patient experience further enhances our ability to bring goodness to the world. To date, we have completed almost 1,000,000 successful patient interactions, and we are still constantly looking for ways to improve. For example, we know that some patients are concerned about paying for medical cannabis since it is not covered by insurance. To solve this issue, we are in the process of initiating our Adopt-a-Family Program, which will provide our medication at very low cost to patients with critical conditions who otherwise could not afford them. This is made possible through financial donations by employees, patients and Columbia Care.
We are constantly setting the bar higher in the medical cannabis community and challenging the companies around us to keep pace. In doing so, we are not only improving the lives of patients with our products, research and experiences, but also increasing the quality of offerings, data and innovation from the companies around us to better this relatively new field as a whole.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Since its inception in 2012, Columbia Care has amassed the largest database of patient feedback in the industry. In order to constantly better ourselves and the medicines we provide, we actively use this patient feedback to drive our product innovation. In addition to our extensive, growing portfolio of precisely-dosed, pharmaceutical-quality cannabis-based medicines that we are continuously improving, I am excited about one project in particular: Mydos, our unit-dosable device that aerosolizes our medical cannabis formulations for inhalation. Essentially, this is an inhalation device that provides titratable, dose metered cannabinoids with consistency of greater than 99%. The challenge for physicians, pharmacists and patients with current vape pens is that the cannabinoid dose that patients receive is entirely dependent on and varies with each inhalation. With Mydos, the cannabinoid dose is controlled, so patients know how much they are taking and receive a consistent dose with every inhalation.
What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?
My primary piece of advice is to lead by example. In my experience, if you are able to demonstrate how much you are willing to sacrifice to achieve an outcome, others will follow. If they aren’t, they might not be the right fit for your organization. Enthusiasm amongst employees to uphold the corporate mission stems from genuine, authentic leadership. Although painful sometimes, it is imperative that senior executives constantly assess and reassess the capabilities of the organization relative to the challenges and opportunities it faces to ensure long term success.
P.S. Be punctual, proofread everything, don’t skip meetings and listen more than talk.
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 intend to use the global platform Columbia Care provides to pursue BHAGs that are consistent with our organizational mission, vision and values. As a starting point, I am continually looking for opportunities to find the largest possible problem and use Columbia Care’s infrastructure to find a meaningful solution. Whether it’s disrupting the opioid crisis by using medical cannabis as an alternative pain reliever, integrating direct patient feedback to drive product development or challenging the way payers think about reimbursement and coverage, I hope to inspire a movement to address large, fundamental problems that patients are facing today. Stay tuned.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote comes from one of my father’s favorite stories that he used to read to my siblings and I when we were children, David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” I’ve always interpreted this quote to mean that you can either wait for life to happen or you can make life happen, but you have the power to become your own hero and change your life’s direction. With this quote in the back of my mind since childhood, I have endeavored to build a life and a career that are particularly rewarding. In doing so, I hope to not only be the hero of my own life but to be a hero to my family, colleagues and the patients Columbia Care serves every day.
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