Community: Entering the cannabis industry was like finding my tribe. Eyes aren’t rolled when we say we’re working towards a greater good with our business. There’s always a woman to virtually smoke with, lean on, be vulnerable with, and collaborate with. The more I embrace this community, the more joy enters my life.
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Meryl Montgomery.
Meryl Montgomery is the CEO and Co-Founder of Barbari, a cannabis brand specializing in a mindful approach to consumption through their botanical smoking blends and low-dose prerolls (both CBD and THC). In partnership with her Co-Founder, Valarie Sakota, the pair introduced a first to market product, the Barbari THC Herbal Spliff, to Oregon and Massachusetts. Before Barbari, Meryl worked on the content and digital strategies for some of today’s largest eCommerce companies, including Casper Mattresses, Bonobos, FabFitFun, and more.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, by two loving lesbian moms. Being raised in an LGBTQ household in the 90s, activism and equal human rights for all were common dinnertime conversations. This upbringing motivated me to live a purposeful life. For the first 10 years of my career, however, my purpose was my ambition. I was focused on fulfilling my MadMen New York City dreams, building a savings account, creating meaningful relationships, and living in a great apartment. I achieved all this, yet was deeply depressed. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was wasting my time on Earth. So when my longtime friend, Valarie, approached me with her brilliant brand and product idea, the Barbari Herbal Spliff, I saw it as an opportunity to make a real difference in the world. Together, we could use our business as a tool to reimagine capitalism while also creating a product that helped people feel in control of their high. Hook, line, and sinker, I was in. I quit my NY career, moved back to Oregon, and got to work with Valarie to launch Barbari Herbal Blends and Barbari Herbal Spliff.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
I’ve always been an emotional person who is often criticized in business. I think this is something a lot of women, in particular, are told to suppress. When I was still working in NYC, a former manager once said to me that I am an emotional person and recognized that it wasn’t something I’d ever be able to just “not be.” He challenged me to find a way to use my emotions as a tool. I think in business, heightened emotions can mask what we’re trying to communicate. I’ve since learned to channel my feelings into fuel. My emotions connect me to Barbari, my Co-Founder, product, customers, and partners. It is what sustains me. It drives my passion, keeps me interested and informed, gives my voice substance and an edge that defines me against others. I’ve learned that anything that can separate you from others is a strength, not a weakness. My emotions are what separates me, and I’ve learned to use them to my strengths.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
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?
That’s easy — my Co-Founder, friend, and business partner, Valarie Sakota. She’s the brilliance behind the Barbari brand and product line. There quite literally wouldn’t be Barbari without her vision, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without her intuition, support, and leadership. We balance each other, motivate each other, and, more importantly, are there for each other as friends before anything else. Before launching Barbari, Valarie and I had more than 10 years of friendship under our belts. We did mushrooms together for the first time, we drove cross country together after college, we shared secrets, joints, shoes, dreams, and so much laughter. While driving cross country, Valarie got very, very ill. For a moment, there was a conversation about her leaving the trip early to go home because she was that sick. But she battled through it! Throughout anything, Val always finds the strength to push through and rise above any obstacle. She’s one of the strongest women I know in every possible way.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
Barbari has both financial goals and a greater purpose, which is tied to our companies success metrics. Our greater purpose is to use business as a tool to solve some of today’s most pressing problems: social inequality within the cannabis industry, social injustices against the BIPOC and LQBTQIA+ communities, and global warming. We strive to be both models of this type of business and join forces with other like-minded companies to create a coalition and network working towards a greater good.
Upon launching the company, we knew we wanted to build the company around a gives back business model and launched with 5% of our sales to rotate organizations that align with community healing and health. We’ve contributed to Planned Parenthood, Fierce NYC, Family Preservation Project, Ethel’s Club, and other organizations that support community health and rebuilding. By the end of 2020, all our packaging will be made from biodegradable materials, and we’ll heavily be promoting our subscription model, which reduces our overall ecofootprint. We work with most BIPOC and LQBTQIA+ partners on everything from marketing, content to production while also sponsoring marijuana handlers to permit BIPOC and LQBTQIA+ individuals who want to join the cannabis industry.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
- Hobbies: Moving back to Portland from NY to launch Barbari was a gamble. My collateral was my relationships with my friends, my long-term partner, my career. In my mind, I didn’t risk all that to spend my time on anything other than building Barbari. I found that operating like this sunk me into an intense, non-functioning level of my depression. Not able to get out of bed, crippled under the weight of all my failures, replaying each mistake, each mister over and over again. This is because I wasn’t giving my brain anything other than stress to feed itself with. Hobbies not only reduce stress hormones, but they make space in our minds for creative thought and creative problem-solving. Once I picked up a hobby (swimming for me), I noticed a remarkable improvement in my work quality, in my ability to see solutions others couldn’t, and in my relationships with others. It’s been challenging to find a pool due to COVID, but I’ve been experimenting with other hobbies to give my brain the rest it needs to perform optimally.
- Meditation & Breathwork: I begin and end each day with a meditation from the Calm app. I’m a newbie to meditation, so the app is beneficial for me. Since I’ve lived through the worst versions of myself, I’m continually trying to be the best version of myself. I remember in one of those Netflix Explained episodes, the winners of those memory competitions practice mediation. Most business leaders I know or have studied use meditation daily. Its effects are subtle but noticeable. I’m more patient with others and listen to others better than I ever have before.
- Community: Entering the cannabis industry was like finding my tribe. Eyes aren’t rolled when we say we’re working towards a greater good with our business. There’s always a woman to virtually smoke with, lean on, be vulnerable with, and collaborate with. The more I embrace this community, the more joy enters my life.
- Trust Yourself: This is easier said than done but entirely possible. How can others believe in you and your vision if you don’t even believe in yourself? For me, there was a moment that solidified my trust in myself. When at a bar with some friends, a friend of mine was sexually assaulted in a women’s bathroom, and the perpetrator ran away. Without thinking, I chased him onto the 4th floor of an abandoned hotel. I looked him in the eyes, and in my biggest voice, told him he needed to come with me and wait for the police. Safe to say, that didn’t work. He bolted again. While I chased him through midtown Manhattan, I was on the phone with the police dispatch, sending them our locations so they could apprehend him. At one point, he turned around as if to attacked me. What I didn’t know was that a group of young men had seen what had happened were following me as my protectors. As soon as the perpetrator came at me, they jumped in front of me like a wall and scared the man to keep on running. He jumped into a cab, attempting to flee. Except I jumped into the front seat of the cab to make sure it didn’t go anywhere. That’s when the police finally caught up to us and arrested him on site. I didn’t have time to think. I just knew that this man had attacked my friend, and there was no chance I was going to let him get away with that. That’s when I met my true character, my inner warrior. Although I’d never recommended putting yourself in this danger and hope no one ever finds themselves in a situation like that, I hope everyone has an experience where you can see who you are. Nearly all the human body elements were made in a star that traveled through several supernovas (Google it). We quite literally have the power of the universe within ourselves. This experience held a mirror up to me, and I saw the power that was within me. It cemented a trust that I will always be able to access this power within myself.
- Be a Forever Student: Experts are bullshit. I believe that you can be highly passionate and interested in something, and because of that interest, be driven to know a lot about it. But when you find something that gives you that much sustainable interest, you won’t always be learning more about it. I am a lifelong learner. Experts feel like a bougie title to separate yourself from wanting to learn more. I hope never to be an expert.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I and others are working on unionizing the cannabis industry, which I guess is weird as a business owner. My stepmom was an avid union supporter and organizer. She instilled in me the understanding that companies are built by the ones that build it, not the executives. To create a successful industry, we must ensure everyone in that industry is healthy and motivated. As a business owner, these are business cases to be made as well. Happy and healthy workers are shown to be more productive, self-sufficient, and creative in problem-solving. To care about the product they are making, they must know the company cares for them as a family cares for each other. My stepmom passed away this year, and it was my promise to her to continue her legacy of fighting for labor rights and equality. No way am I letting her down now.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Don’t worry. That feeling of failure is normal. As a founder, you’re doing everything. It’s impossible to do everything perfectly. So what happens is you do a lot of things 50–75% of what you know you could do. Don’t worry. I assume all Founders feel like this. You likely don’t have the resources you need and doing the most you possibly can be to build your successful company. Honestly, I think it might be a myth that successful companies feel successful when they are actively running the business. This is my first company, so I’m right there with you, which is certainly how I feel. I’m too busy, stressed, and working on 20 things to feel successful.
- Resilience will be your greatest asset. As a company that launched a first to market product, we heard “no” a lot. The cannabis industry is full of regulations and interpretations. To us, “no” simply meant we had to find another way to achieve our goal. That mentality has been instrumental in getting us to where we are today.
- Find your greater motivation. If you think this will be a quick few years, in and out, sell the company, and live the rest of your days doing whoever the fuck you want, your entrepreneurial journey might be over before it even starts. This is possibly the hardest, biggest thing you’ve ever done. This means you’ll need something to sustain your interest, a greater purpose that motivates and drives you. It’s not wrong to want to have that life, one of total freedom, and that could be your greater purpose. Just about anyone can start a company, but your greater purpose will sustain you to build your company.
- Don’t get too fixed in your plans so that you can’t be adaptable to change when it inevitably comes to your door. As an emerging industry, the cannabis industry is especially susceptible to rapid change. This year has reinforced the notion that to survive, but to be successful, we must adapt quickly. For example, we prioritized our CBD line ahead of our THC line once the shutdowns began. It wasn’t an easy choice as we’d been building towards our THC launch for 2 years — 11 if you think of how long Valarie has been dreaming of this product. But it was the right choice. It’s good to have a final destination, but you have to adapt to obstacles or changing conditions.
- Your perspective has value. As first-time Founders, we had to confront our dose of “imposter syndrome.” We were thinking and doing everything differently than other titans of industry. Did this somehow discredit us? Through owning our past career achievements, reaching out to our network when there was an area we wanted to gain a better understanding of, and accepting that our differences from other Founders were our superpower, we were able to shed our imposter syndrome. We studied “business as usual” tactics both inside and outside the cannabis industry. To disrupt the cannabis industry — indeed, do something different — our unique perspective gives us an edge that other leaders don’t have, a fresh perspective.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health, and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
My depression is something I’ve grown to know better over the last 11 years. Many of us, Women and Founders, exist everyday with emotional or hormonal imbalances, and we fucking rock. Know your triggers. Stress is a common one, and certainly one of mine. There’s lots of stress in running a business. Knowing your triggers helps to know your tools to get back to your best self. This is a beneficial article that gets into this issue more. Just know you’re not alone in your feelings, and more likely than non-business owners to have depression because you’re an entrepreneur.
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