Business

Novel Equity Initiative Aims to Lower Barriers to Entry

By Willis Jacobson Sep 15, 2020
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Willis Jacobson is an award-winning journalist whose career has spanned both coasts. Now based on the Central Coast of California, he has covered cannabis news and issues since 2015.
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Willis Jacobson is an award-winning journalist whose career has spanned both coasts. Now based on the Central Coast of California, he has covered cannabis news and issues since 2015.
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As a Black woman who is both a cannabis entrepreneur and activist, Amber Senter is acutely aware of the challenges that come along with trying to get a start-up off the ground.

“The barrier of entry for manufacturing is extremely high,” she said. “The infrastructure costs are crippling. Building out these facilities is no joke.”

Through a new initiative unveiled Tuesday as part of a first-of-its-kind partnership, Senter is actively working to lower that barrier for future Black and brown canna-business owners.

EquityWorks! Incubator, co-founded by Senter, and the separately-operated Oakland Cannabis Kitchen were announced as the first organizations that will benefit from a unique program launched by the city of Oakland, Calif. 

The organizations will each provide shared-use manufacturing facilities for people from communities that have been historically targeted by the War on Drugs, with the operations supported for at least one year by grant funding from the Bureau of Cannabis Control and in partnership with the city of Oakland.

The new program arrives as government initiatives to foster minority-owned cannabis businesses, including in Oakland, have struggled to produce success stories. 

“It’s really expensive to build out these facilities, so I think this is necessary,” said Senter, whose program received $250,000 in grant funding. “We have to do these things in order to see our products on the shelves. It’s just too difficult without it.”

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Both the EquityWorks! Incubator and the Oakland Cannabis Kitchen will offer similar shared spaces for people looking to start or grow businesses, primarily in manufacturing.

Senter noted that her level of funding will allow her incubator to bring on five fellows, each of whom will be able to take advantage of the available resources to produce and market edible and infused cannabis products.

She cited statistics that suggest just 3% of California’s cannabis companies are Black or brown-owned, while also pointing to the popularity of the edibles market, which is among California’s fastest-growing cannabis segments with a reported 20% year-over-year growth.

“The fellows that are accepted into the program – we’ll be assisting them from concept to the shelf for their infused cannabis products,” said Senter, whose facility will provide 1,200 square feet of commercial kitchen space. 

That assistance, she said, will include sourcing the cannabis, providing tools to analyze data for efficient operations, arranging compliant testing, and providing resources for marketing, packaging, and bulk purchasing to cut down on costs.

Senter said she has already secured partnerships with retailers throughout California to help ensure that the products made in the incubator will be accessible to consumers.

“As soon as their products are ready, boom – they’ll be in 10 retailers across the state,” she said, noting that products could likely reach store shelves as soon as January 2021. “I’m really excited for this program, and I’m really excited about the visibility that Black and brown infused products are gonna get. They’re few and far between right now.”

Others in the industry are supportive of the concept.

Though he is uninvolved in the programs taking place in Oakland, Chris Ball is also familiar with the obstacles that minority operators, particularly those with equity licenses from the state, can face.

Ball, who used his social equity license to launch Ball Family Farms in Los Angeles, said he was glad to see organizations and programs like EquityWorks! Incubator and the Oakland Cannabis Kitchen filling what he considers a void in the market.

“I ran into every obstacle I think there probably is, or could be,” he said, briefly laughing at the memories. 

“I think it’s a very beautiful and positive thing that the city [of Oakland] and the state are trying to put some things together to make sure these social equity applicants can start doing business and make some money for themselves,” he added.

Senter, who is the CEO of Breeze Distro and co-founder of advocacy group Supernova Women, said she’d like to see the Oakland program, with its public-private partnerships, become a model for other municipalities around the country. In addition to the shared kitchen programs, the city reported that it is also planning to use $1.5M to $2M in state grant funding to purchase a facility for shared use by operators with equity licenses. 

“There is a lot of creative innovation in the community,” Senter said. “I don’t want lack of funds or knowledge to be the reason why someone doesn’t act on developing a product or idea. It’s my hope that by eliminating these barriers and providing a pathway to success, this program will not only launch businesses, and create jobs but also change lives.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” she added, “which is a good thing.”

For more information on the Oakland program, or to obtain an application, visit the city of Oakland’s website at https://www.oaklandca.gov/services/shared-use-manufacturing-facilities. Applications are due by Oct. 2.

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