Prepare to be as adaptive as possible! You are writing history and there is no playbook. Laws, buyers, economies change with a blink of an eye, and your original plan will likely change. We are still very early in recreational cannabis and we are all building the plane as we’re flying it.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Felicity Chen, CEO & Cofounder of Potli.
Felicity Chen is a third-generation sauce and spice maker who launched Potli as a way to promote healthy living. Potli expands upon Felicity’s heritage and passion for functional ingredients by creating high-quality, hemp-infused craftsman kitchen staples for everyday use. Beloved for its award-winning honey, Potli’s original hives were planted in Felicity’s father’s backyard and harvested to treat her mother’s asthma. Born and raised in the Bay Area, Felicity remains committed to sourcing delicious ingredients from her home state. As the CEO, Felicity oversees Potli’s revenue and operations, ensuring the quality of ingredients — the primary reason consumers choose Potli — are at their highest. Prior to confounding Potli, Felicity worked in the food tech space at companies like UberEats and Gilt.com where she consistently innovated new ways to bring food to consumers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
Thank you for having me! When I left for undergrad, my father started beekeeping in my parents’ Northern Californian backyard for my mother who is an asthma patient. Hyperlocal honey does wonders for allergies which is what sets off her asthma. Her coughing spells would be terrifying during allergy season, and as there’s no way my conservative, immigrant, Asian mother would ever smoke a joint, we decided to put some weed into her honey and thus created Potli’s first product. To this day, we still harvest all of our honey from my parents backyard (we’ve grown to over 50 hives), and it’s how we began our journey creating recreational cannabis edibles for the pantry.
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?
I’m quite proud to lead a team of six women, all from different backgrounds and across the world. I didn’t set out to hire only women, but the best candidates from my search were clear. Through my fundraising journey, I have spoken to many investors, some of whom didn’t care about this statistic even though they were very interested in investing. In the end, I rejected their offer because it wouldn’t be a long term fit. I was days away from running out of capital and desperately needed the money. In the end, a better offer came and I am so glad I stuck to my values that day.
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?
Because of banking constraints (banks being federally insured), cannabis businesses have almost always operated on a cash basis. I remember my first time going to our extractors without any cash or my checkbook, I hadn’t realized they’d be ready to transact and so I offered my debit card. I remember the look on their faces and felt so embarrassed, I had to run to the nearest bank to pull out cash! It was honestly hilarious looking back, I was so green and precious.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
Although my parents have come around to cannabis, particularly with the healing effects, they are still very against smoking because of carcinogens. Years ago my dad came over to my apartment and he took away my bong. He said he’d give me 5,000 dollars to stop smoking. I said, double it, and we’ll make a deal. My dad and I shook hands and I took that money and put it into starting Potli.
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?
In 2017 I had the incredible opportunity to pitch Andrea Denz (Dre) from Sava as Potli’s first account. In that meeting she said she’d carry our honey (back when we had a honeycomb in each jar) and also invited me to a Women in Cannabis meetup happening later in the week. It was at the meetup that I met two other women also looking for a path to licensing. Two weeks later we signed the lease for our manufacturing space in San Francisco that allowed Potli to apply and receive our Cannabis licenses. Potli would not be here today without Dre, Ruby and all the women who band together in this industry to keep each other going.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Potli is constantly innovating on the latest foods that spark joy, aiding our customers to reclaim their relationship with cannabis, specifically with edibles. The first collection we launched was the Pantry collection, featuring Honey, Olive Oil, Chili Oil, Apple Cider Vinegar, and Sriracha — all crafted using delicious ingredients sourced from California that represent the farm to table movement. From that collection, we began innovating on our Heritage Collection utilizing products from the Pantry Collection. For example, Potli Shrimp Chips are Potli’s hero Heritage Collection product, and are made with Potli Olive Oil. You will continue to see products in our Heritage Collection that are ready-to-eat and ready-to-serve nostalgic snacks featuring originals from our Pantry collection. I can’t wait for everyone to try what we launch next!
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite 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?
1 in 4 is actually better odds than most other industries, so I’ll take that! The single most important thing an individual can do is to support and buy their cannabis from women. If you are going to buy cannabis, support the women-owned brand that is guaranteed to have less shelfspace than her male counterparts.
As a company (specifically to startups), diversify key hires of your leadership team! It helps prevent groupthink and may allow you to glean insights you previously didn’t have. Promote women into leadership positions!
As a society, we also need to accept that just because the product is made by women, it’s not just for women. Let us normalize buying, supporting and being thoughtful about where we spend our dollars.
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.
- Ask yourself what your purpose is! If you aren’t really here to heal, then you will not last very long.
- Prepare to be as adaptive as possible! You are writing history and there is no playbook. Laws, buyers, economies change with a blink of an eye, and your original plan will likely change. We are still very early in recreational cannabis and we are all building the plane as we’re flying it.
- Have an extended network of friends outside of the industry. I have friends from all walks of life that contribute a different perspective than that of being siloed in one frame of mind.
- You’ll need access to a lot of capital in order to scale your business and finding good partners who can and are interested in funding your company is more difficult than a “normal” startup, and it’s already really hard to close money as a “normal” startup! There’s really no such thing as bootstrapping your growth in this industry! Which segways nicely into my next point:
- Everything costs more to operate a cannabis business. You will get your bank account shut down a few times. Your packaging might be seized at customs. Your payment processor will charge you more because you’re categorized as a “risky” business. The cost to rent a space will increase because of the same reason.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
The opportunities to:
- Innovate and create new edibles
- Heal people, and actually make a difference in their lives
- Write history
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?
- I am concerned that legal weed is too expensive for the average consumer to purchase at dispensaries. Legal weed is expensive and because of overtaxation, overregulation and increasing pricing of real estate. For the average consumer, it’s quite expensive to buy through legal channels thus creating the largest illicit market there ever was. The increased price of recreational cannabis products are not because brands are charging more to make money. Write to your senators, tell them you are a tax paying, voting member of the community, and you need to be able to purchase your medicine at an affordable price by simplifying taxes and regulations.
- I am also concerned that the Child Resistant Packaging (CRP) requirements create a large amount of waste for our poor planet. Regulations state that all Cannabis products have to be resealable and child resistant if it has more than one dose. These requirements in the regulations created a large issue with waste because most CRP is made with plastics. While biodegradable options are available (i.e. hemp plastic), they are actually very difficult to source and extremely costly. They also typically do not look aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Research conducted by consultants have also found that certain plastics actually have a lesser carbon footprint. I am looking for startups that are disrupting this space to innovate on creating affordable, beautifully designed CRP!
- Finally, I am concerned with overregulation stifling the possibilities for real small businesses to thrive. I mentioned before that it is extremely capital intensive to be able to operate in the cannabis business. In a given week, our products can be rejected for the smallest of reasons because of how the dispensary interprets the laws are different from how the distributor and the manufacturer interpret it. These rejections are costly and trickle down, and it’s just one example of how gummed up our industry is. The governing bodies have now reorged to be under one roof the DCC, and I am hoping that with one set of leadership, redundancies and contrasting language can be smoothed out.
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?
The industry needs federal legalization of cannabis to create interstate commerce. This needs to happen sooner rather than later. Currently, each state that has a cannabis medicinal or recreational policy requires for all cannabis to be grown, harvested and sold within the state. It doesn’t really make sense for a small state like Rhode Island to harvest and grow cannabis indoors when there is perfectly grown cannabis in California because it actually has the right temperature and terroir to grow it under the sun. There is no other industry regulated in such a way. We should urgently push for federal legalization, so that we are not creating infrastructure that will be obsolete in a few years.
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?
Although the taxation of cannabis is creating barriers for normal consumers to buy legal weed, I don’t think we can conflate that with why cigarettes are marginalized. Cigarettes can be purchased at gas stations or grocery stores. Cannabis can only be purchased in a licensed dispensary where patients and customers are IDed. Multiple studies on smoke and nicotine have shown long term effects on how it can be carcinogenic, and because of such is socially marginalized. Cannabis can be used recreationally, but is fundamentally meant to be used medicinally. Higher taxes created the largest illicit market than ever before. This is due to legal cannabis being inaccessible and not because it is socially marginalized.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
YES, my absolute favorite quote is from Teddy Roosevelt, also known as the ”Man in the Arena” quote. It’s got me through the darkest and loneliest of times.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
This quote reminds me that though this industry is tough, I took that risk and chased my dream. I have the amazing and incredible opportunity to build something so completely creative and different, and for that I am so grateful.
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. 🙂
I am doing that already with Potli! We are inspiring our community to reclaim their relationship with cannabis. We are inspiring aunts, uncles, moms, and grandmas to solve their ailments with plant medicine. We are helping people feel better by hacking their health through rituals with food. The movement I wish to inspire is that one day, people will refer to Potli as a verb to infuse and elevate foods.