“As cannabis professionals, how do we go to the mainstream?” says Andrew Farrior, who cofounded Digital Venture Partners (DVP) along with Ryan Rapaport and prominent hip-hop producer/artist Sonny Digital. “How do we position what we’re doing, what we are, and where we are going to the average person who is not on MJBizDaily or Green Entrepreneur?”
This is where DVP’s mission comes into play, collaborating with brands and platforms to create quality cannabis content – content that raises cannabis awareness in the minds of mainstream audiences from every background. “This is an important step for the industry – bringing legal cannabis to where the eyeballs are. You have to exist there to succeed long-term in any market,” Farrior says. This includes content celebrating people of color, as well as women, combat veterans, and any other cultural group that has a stake in cannabis.
Farrior emphasizes that people outside of the industry are looking for quality, mainstream cannabis content, and it’s just not there. “We don’t want to do the traditional, outdated stoner storyline because that’s not the typical cannabis user,” he says. “And we don’t want to just tell stories of black trauma. Of course, it exists and it’s important to know about people who are in the legal system because of cannabis, but that’s not all that there is. We have to have positive, uplifting stories, people doing it the right way in this industry – and just figure out how to marry that with pop culture.”
Mainstream Cannabis Programming With A Pop Culture Twist
One of DVP’s biggest projects is the soon-to-be-announced cannabis TV series hosted by Sonny Digital. “We wanted to figure out what’s a mainstream programming series we could create that lives in pop culture and rap culture,” Farrior explains. “But we put medicine in the candy to where we are amplifying minority-owned retailers and brands.”
Throughout the series, Sonny Digital tours different cannabis operations, samples their best products, and converses with these tough-minded entrepreneurs. “You don’t really realize it because you’re following a rapper who you see smoking a lot of weed, but we’re actually putting these brands, these minorities, these equity-owned businesses right in front of audiences in a way they can exist within the everyday conversation,” Farrior notes.
DVP has another project in the works that features women-owned businesses in cannabis, Farrior says, adding that his team is also interested in developing cannabis-based content around LGBTQ communities and combat veterans, for example. “It’s our responsibility to look out for everybody, and in our company, we want to try to create a segment for everyone. We want to figure out how to create really cool programming that doesn’t make you sympathize and feel sorry; we want it to be something dope that you watch regardless, and we just happen to have something progressive in there.”
Farrior’s Entrepreneurial Journey Into Cannabis
Before Farrior came into cannabis, he spent 10 years in the music industry, working with prominent record labels, management companies, and hip-hop artists. While he gained a lot of valuable experience during this time, he also sensed limited growth opportunity. “The music business is such a mature industry, where these record labels are legacy companies that have been around for 100 years. The ownership and the stakeholders are already there, and I would just continuously operate as a contractor even though people such as myself were the ones putting these projects together and bringing them to light,” he explains.
“I identified cannabis as an opportunity in that it was a newer industry where the demographics were similar. In a lot of cases, you’re marketing to the same person as you would be when trying to break a new artist or new album. They’re probably consuming the music and the cannabis simultaneously a lot of times, so my talents transferred well.”
Farrior’s initial foray into the industry was part of a cannabis delivery business that was going to launch in New York. Despite early success in developing the model and raising capital, Farrior had to leave the project when New York kept pushing back on legalization. Yet during that early experience, he saw perhaps an even greater opportunity. “Friends and connections I had within music were like ‘man I want to bring my brand into cannabis, how do I insert myself? I want to have my own strain, etc.,’” he notes. “Anybody who’s not in cannabis has a very low-level understanding of the legal market. So that’s not how it works as far as jumping in and having a strain, especially when you consider all the compliance and regulatory issues.”
This sparked the original thought process behind DVP, Farrior continues. “A business model where we could bring in artists and entertainers, help them license their brands while we oversee everything.”
After a successful launch and getting some of these brands placed into a few California dispensaries, the impact of COVID-19 inspired DVP to pivot slightly, identifying content as a greater opportunity than any plant-touching efforts.
“We identified content as an opportunity – essentially, operating as a media house. I was actually contacted by Black Enterprise, and they wanted to have a business segment with cannabis, and they didn’t really understand it. I started to realize that a lot of these mainstream platforms and companies don’t have real comprehensive cannabis content,” Farrior explains. “And it’s an easier direction because you don’t have to deal with all the taxes and the like as far as being in retail and trying to deal with the general supply chain, so we just pivoted to content with the goal to create really consequential, positive mainstream cannabis content that just doesn’t exist within our realm.”
What’s more, producing mainstream cannabis content allows DVP to continue working with and promoting specific brands through storytelling. “We can still have a retail portfolio, but we don’t want to be plant-touching per se. We would have the influence and the infrastructure to where we can live in retail but not have to be a retail company.”
DVP is currently working on deals with major content distributors and streaming services as part of this new model. “Every step we want to figure out how to integrate cannabis with a specific culture to where both sides benefit,” Farrior explains. “Cannabis never exists alone. People don’t usually just sit alone in a dark room and smoke weed. You’re watching TV, you’re listening to music, socializing – so we want to figure out how to marry each one [to cannabis].”
Reshaping The Story Of The Cannabis Entrepreneur
Anybody who touches cannabis has faced one type of stigma or another. And of course, historically, racial undertones have been a driving force in cannabis prohibition. Since the emergence of the legal industry, Farrior points out a new type of stigma that has developed: the incompetent, money-hungry cannabis entrepreneur.
“As far as entrepreneurs, we saw all these major guys on Yahoo Finance and Forbes and these huge platforms most cannabis entrepreneurs can’t reach, and they go on there and they talk about how cannabis is booming and how they raised millions of dollars, and two years later they’re insolvent,” Farrior notes.
“These guys are stepping off the board, they’re getting sued by investors, and now that’s led to another negative stigma that legal cannabis is dead, the people who were in charge blew it, they didn’t know what they were doing, they were scam artists, they were building pyramid schemes, etc.”
This new stigma among cannabis entrepreneurs, Farrior continues, has made it harder for a lot of people to raise money in the space. “We want to retell the story of the cannabis entrepreneur. There are entrepreneurs who are doing it the right way, who are scaling themselves through trying to be profitable and beneficial to the plant and to their communities. We want to try to peel back that stigma through spotlighting really positive entrepreneurs, and also give minorities and underfunded founders an opportunity to have some really cool coverage,” he notes.
“And we’re trying to attack that twofold, from the minority standpoint and just as business people. We’re not all just in here raising money for no reason and going under, and paying ourselves big bonuses in the meantime. Some of us are actually trying to build a sustainable business.”
A Better, More Nuanced Approach To Social Equity
When telling the stories of minorities in the cannabis industry, social equity is an important part of the discussion – making sure that the people most impacted by cannabis prohibition actually benefit from legalization.
“Social equity is a very new thought and it’s a very romantic thought, but it has to be a lot more nuanced to sustain real success,” Farrior says, adding that his multiple conversations with social equity licensees – and really understanding their stories – has changed his perspective on the issue.
“A lot of times, when people are awarded licenses they are underprepared. So if you give a license to a person because they had a prior conviction or they’re black or brown or whatever, and you don’t put that person in a position to succeed and understand what that license means and how to create a sustainable business, you’re doing a disservice to the other applicants because then it’s like this person is representing social equity, and they failed,” Farrior says. “So now there’s going to be this underlying thought process that social equity may not be on the same level as a normal licensee or applicant, and my thing now is not only to empower people to win social equity licenses, but how we position them to win.”
Farrior came across an especially inspiring perspective when interviewing Hope Wiseman for his third installment in the YouTube series with Black Enterprise. “She is one of the youngest black women to own a dispensary, and she was talking about how as people of color it is important for us to have the spotlight, and equity and stuff like that, but we also have to be qualified on our end. I don’t ever want to receive anything just because I’m black. I don’t want somebody who was more qualified to get overlooked just because I happen to be black and I applied too. So I think that’s just as important in the conversation, to make sure that as people of color, our companies and our projects are just as good, if not better than anybody we are competing with in the space.”
Covering All The Vantage Points In Cannabis
No matter which angle you consider cannabis or the industry that surrounds it, Farrior maintains that covering these stories from more vantage points is crucial for progress on all fronts.
“I learn something from every single person I talk to because cannabis is so fragmented. Everybody has a different experience, so for me it’s about having an openness for new perspectives,” he says.
“There is just too much happening, too many changes, too much you don’t have control over from legislation to fundraising and all of this stuff to where I’ve learned to be a student constantly. Every person who I engage with, whether it’s a CEO or an intern working at a company I’ve never heard of, I’m going to give you the same respect and give myself an opportunity to learn from you. And that’s all we really can do at this point, it’s so early on.”