Wanda James Interview

Puffco: Thank you for taking the time to hop on a call with us. We want to start off by saying thank you for your service. We had no idea that you were a commissioned Navy officer. How soon after retiring from the military did you get into the cannabis realm?

Wanda James: I didn't retire from the military. I was in the military for... Well, I mean, if you consider my time in college for 10 years total, but it was four and a half years active duty. So when I separated from the military, that would have been in 1991, and then cannabis happened in 2009. So there was a lot of things that were happening in between there. Worked for a couple of Fortune 100 companies, a couple of Fortune 50 companies, started a few businesses, played in politics, ran a few campaigns, worked for the President of United States, and then got into cannabis.

Puffco: What was your early life like?

Wanda James: My early life. My mom is British. My father is African-American. My dad was military. So every three years we moved to Europe and moved back to Colorado. So I have lived... My dad was stationed at every Air Force base in Colorado, and I lived in Germany, Italy, and England growing up.

Puffco: What made military a path for you? Why was that something that you felt you had to also get into? Was it your family?

Wanda James: Yeah, so the military was... If your dad's a doctor, there's a good shot that you're going to be a doctor. When I went to college, what I found at the university, and I had a great time there and everything else, but the military was a natural place for me. ROTC, Naval ROTC, in a huge university with 40,000 kids. ROTC became more of a family and helped you kind of navigate as a young person, what college was going to look like. And having military officers there, their goal is to make sure you graduate. So they kept us focused. When we veered off, they brought us back in. So the military was good for me, especially being the first person in my family to go to college. I didn't know what to expect. So the military was a good guidance for me.

Puffco: Tell us a little bit about the family dynamic and your dynamic around cannabis at that time and how it relates to the military and that structured environment.

Wanda James: So the only time that I didn't smoke was when I was actually in service after graduation. Through college, I mean the University of Colorado, I mean, we've been a top 10 party school since 1962. We're also... was the first school in the nation that NASA put a building there and we have satellites all over United States... all over the space stations. So I'm proud of the University of Colorado and the work that we did there, but no, cannabis was very much a part of my college career. Once I was a commissioned officer, I didn't smoke at all, just beer because the penalty for officers consuming illegal drugs was stiff and severe.

Puffco: Tell us a little bit about working with the president, how that came to be.

Wanda James: Getting out of the military, I moved to Los Angeles. I always wanted to live there. So I moved to LA as a young military officer, a Black woman. I was headhunted by numerous corporations, so I thought that I was going to have a corporate career. I thought that I was going to be a CEO of a Fortune 100 company. That was kind of the goal. What I found was I didn't like corporate America. I didn't enjoy it at all, being a cog in the wheel. I mean, it's a great career. It was just really uninteresting to me, to be honest with you. So I started dabbling in politics. I ran for Congress when I was... I don't know. 32, I believe? Our congressman passed away right after he was elected. There was a special election. So I thought I would run.

Puffco: That was the beginning of your career in politics.

Wanda James: I lost. But the woman that ultimately won, Senator Diane Watson, was amazing. She took me under her wing, taught me a lot. I was involved in numerous political issues, campaigns for many years, and then moved to Colorado. And when I got here to Colorado, a friend of mine from Chicago called me and she says, "Hey, there's this guy that you're going to want to meet. He's running for president. He's doing a fundraiser in Colorado. His name is Barack Hussein Obama." And I'm like, "You're crazy. This guy stands zero chance with this kind of a name." And when I went to the fundraiser, there were only probably, maybe... I don't know. Probably less than 10 people at the fundraiser. And I got the chance to sit down and talk to him in a way that most people wouldn't get the chance. And I became an early supporter, raised quite a bit of money for him here in Colorado. And so was invited to be a part of his national finance committee. And that was exciting and fun and then he won.

Puffco: How long were you on that finance committee? What was that that time like? And how did you transition out of that?

Wanda James: So I was on the finance committee from... Oh boy. All these dates. It all seems like one big year now. I believe I joined it in something like maybe 2007. So 2007 to... through the campaign. And then coming off in 2009 after he had won, we knew that the Ogden Memo was going to be coming out from his justice department. And the Ogden Memo is what allowed for cannabis to happen in the states. So basically if you followed your state's guidelines, the federal government was not going to prosecute you. And that's when we decided that we wanted to open up a dispensary for political reasons.

Puffco: Can you expand on that?

Wanda James: My brother was one of the 800,000 people a year arrested for simple possession, 85% of those being Black and Brown, mostly boys between the ages of 17 and 24. This became America's slave labor class. My brother was a slave for 10 years and when I say a slave, I absolutely mean a slave. For four years of his incarceration, he had to pick cotton. A hundred pounds of cotton a day to purchase his freedom. And so this was in 1992 before I'd met my brother and it was shocking to me that a poor black kid would be sentenced for $160 worth of street weed to 10 years of a sentence. That story is disgusting until you find out that it happens 800,000 times a year. So coming off of Barack Obama's national finance committee, we knew that we wanted to put a Black face on cannabis and we wanted to talk about it politically. And that's what we've been doing for 11 years, unapologetically talking about it politically.

Puffco: Tell us about that current cannabis business. What the mission is of it, what your actual deliverables are in terms of what you're offering the community, where you see growth happening?

Wanda James: We have three dispensaries, a grow facility, and an edible company. We are in the middle of a huge race right now because our goal is to take our brand across the United States, being the best possible partners that we can be to underserved communities. We're actually looking at franchising Simply Pure as a dispensary model. And from that franchise, we're offering a true franchise, not where we would be predatory in setting up the franchisees to fail. We want to make sure that those franchisees get every opportunity to succeed in an industry where not very many people succeed. And I think that there's a falsity when people see how much money cannabis makes, but operators keep very little of that. And the people who make the most money off of cannabis is the federal government under the 280e laws, which takes about 40% to 80% of your profits, depending on how your accountant can set up your business structure.

Puffco: What has been your experience of being a woman on this path. Would that path look any different if you were a man in your eyes?

Wanda James: So I get asked this question a lot, being a woman in a man's space. And I want to be honest about answering that. The short answer, if it wasn't me, would probably be yes. But let me back up a little bit. I was raised by a single parent father. I have four brothers. Everything that I have done in my life has been overwhelmingly male. At college, joining ROTC, I was one of three women in the battalion. Coming into corporate America. It's crazy how old I am at this point, but there weren't a lot of women in the C-suite. There weren't any women in the boardroom. I was probably the third wave of professional women that came into the workplace as an executive, and definitely in the military. When I was in the military, women weren't even allowed to be in combat situations. So it's only been recently that women have been able to take on roles in the military of true leadership. So it's been an interesting place for me all the time, because I don't have those same types of issues with male dominated roles. Now let me say, the downside to me is I get called things like aggressive, mean, but to be honest with you, I'm none of those. I'm just very direct. If I was a man, I wouldn't have those types of titles put on to who I am, but quite frankly, I don't care. At the end of the day, it's that ability not to care what people think is what keeps me moving and keeps me going. So I am beyond outspoken. I am beyond able to dig in and let folks know that I'm the boss. No, if, ands, and buts about it. All the time, 100% of the time.

Puffco: Do you think this is the journey for most women in cannabis?

Wanda James: So as far as being a woman in this space, no. I have not seen a lot of the issues that exist for a lot of women in this space, but that doesn't mean that being a woman in this space does not have its issues because my female companions and women who have been CEOs have had a very difficult time growing their businesses. And we've seen a lot of terrific women being pushed out of their companies that they created because nobody cared when it was a million dollar company. Nobody cared when it was a $5 million company, but when it was a $10 and $15 and $20 million company, the male board of directors have decided that the woman that built the company was not qualified to take the company to the next level and have pushed her out. I do a lot of training around that with women on holding onto their businesses and being able to ensure that they can maintain control of their business as they move forward.

Puffco: What are the things that you're most excited about for the future with your business, with cannabis?

Wanda James: So, the future... This is going to be a crazy question, but I look forward to cannabis being boring. I look forward to that point when this is a legal product, when it can be sent through the mail, where people aren't arrested. I want to be able to get to the point where this is a commodity like all others. And we're able to run our businesses and not have the ridiculous regulatory frameworks surrounding a plant.

Puffco: We hear you on that.

Wanda James: A plant by the way, which nobody has ever died from, but yet we have to jump through ridiculous hoops to be able to bring our product to market.

Puffco: After hearing your journey now, we’re curious, what is your advice to any women coming into the cannabis industry and essentially what they should be prepared for?

Wanda James: Yeah. So I really want people to dive in now and jump into the cannabis space and be a part of this because there's never going to be another time where you can take advantage of being a big part of a new industry. I mean, I guess we did it with tech back in the late '80s, early '90s, but you can't buy 25% of General Electric right now, of GE, right? You can't buy 50% of Hennessy or Grey Goose Vodka. But you can participate in starting your own business or in investing in some of the brands out there that women like to consume. And I do believe that cannabis is good for women.

Puffco: Can you expand on that please?

Wanda James: I believe that when I talked to moms that tend to be a little bit stressed out, especially new moms, who are like, "Hey I can hit a vape pen and relax and quell my anxieties and still be an amazing mom to this new baby that I have, or to my toddler, or to my teenager." So I'm a firm believer that this industry is great for women. I look forward to seeing more female leadership at the top, in the C-suites, in the CEO positions, in the CFO positions. I really want to see women understand more about finance. I really want to see more women investors in this space. I want us, as women, as moms, as sisters that want our sisters to be safe in college, to take an active role in what this industry looks like and shapes itself to be. And I think that that's a great plan for where we're headed in the future, and I'm seeing more and more young women come out of college wanting to be a bigger part of this industry. And that thrills me to no end.

Puffco: What is your favorite form of consumption? Do you dab a lot? Do you smoke flower?

Wanda James: All of it. Yes. Yes. And yes. And that's why I like my Puffco, to be honest with you. I do enjoy dabbing. And I don't mind the torch and everything else and the e-nails. I really don't. But sometimes it's just a lot of work, right? You know what I mean? Just want to come home, sit down, and get my Puffco. I mean, it's just a much easier way of making that happen. But these are the great things though, that ingenuity and the way that we are consuming and learning to consume and what young people are coming up with. I mean, Puffco wasn't around nine years ago. It sure wasn't around when I was in high school.

Puffco: You’re right about that. The industry in constantly evolving.

Wanda James: These are wonderful things that are happening in the industry, once we removed the barrier of being illegal or the barrier, or the... Not the barrier. How people look at cannabis. When we're free to create and do amazing things with it. Flower is always going to be my go-to. I'm OG. I'm old school. And so flower is always my go-to. And even in the world of COVID, there is nothing I love more than passing a joint. I know. Now we have to have the little glass tips and we all have our own little tip and we make it work. We make it work.

Puffco: What does cannabis do mentally for you, physically for you?

Wanda James: I always talk about the idea that the idea of the lazy stoner is just a myth. I'm up every day, the military has trained me. I wake up between 4:30 and 5:00 AM every day. I'm out with my dogs. I'm in my fifth decade of life. I've gained no more weight than I've gained in high school. We're still very active. We run, we rock climb, we ski. We have a very active lifestyle that includes a lot of cannabis.

Puffco: That's amazing. We love hearing that. That's awesome.

Wanda James: So it's all kind of good for us.