Austin Stevenson, Chief Innovation Officer at Vertosa
When did you formally enter the cannabis space?
Well I’ve been consuming cannabis for much longer than I’ve been working in the industry…but I got involved in the ‘professional’ cannabis industry nearly a decade ago, when I was an advisor to an accelerator in agriculture technology in Africa. I went to the MIT Innovation Laboratory, and I saw African farmers cultivating green leafy vegetables in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, via hydroponic indoor cultivation in freight containers. Seeing this piqued my curiosity, so when I got back to the U.S. and put my detective hat on and learned that it was really the cannabis industry that was driving innovation in terms of indoor, vertical farming. At that point, I took it as an opportunity to dive in and get started, as an advisor at a cannabis accelerator in Colorado.
My cannabis career evolved from advising to investing, then operating different cannabis businesses. Immediately prior to joining Vertosa, I led the regulatory Hemp/CBD testing program for Eurofins Scientific – a world leader in food, environment, and product testing services – where I built and designed quality testing protocols for CVS Pharmacy and other retailers who carry Hemp/CBD products.
It was during my time at Eurofins that I really got to see the good, the bad and the ugly of infused products. I identified major inconsistency issues for product potency and stability, which I knew needed to be corrected for the industry to progress and succeed long term and of course to build consumer trust.
Serendipitously, around the same time an old friend, someone who I respected in the cannabis investing arena, now Co-Founder and Vertosa CEO Ben Larson, reached out to me. He said he has been working with a PhD scientist focused on applying his expertise in surface chemistry to creating emulsion systems to infuse beverages and topicals with cannabis, ensuring precise potency and consistently stable products. This turned out to be Vertosa Co-Founder and CSO Dr. Harold Han — he was correcting the major issues I identified in the infused products industry while working at Eurofins. I knew we had to work together to help solve these problems in the cannabis-infused products supply chain.
What made you decide to work in the cannabis industry?
People, Products, and IMPACT! I simply love designing new and innovative products and watching how they impact people. I am energized by collaborating with teams, debating ideas, learning from different perspectives, and nurturing relationships with my team and partners. There is an immense amount of joy I experience when I’m able to help someone take an idea and turn it into a real, tangible product which they can taste and feel!
Additionally, I feel the unique intersection between product innovation, and public policy drives my passion to participate in the cannabis and hemp industry. For years, consumers have been limited to traditional forms of cannabis (flower and hash oil). In the past, many consumers (including myself) have been forced to hide, and enjoy the healing properties of the plant in secrecy because of regulatory restrictions. We’re now in one of the most transformative time periods in the modern age. With smartphone technologies, the world’s vast knowledge database is literally at our fingertips. Science is leading new product innovation, and cannabis is legal and more accessible than ever. By combining knowledge, science, and access, we now have an opportunity to recreate the narrative and redefine how and why cannabis is used around the world.
As a result of legalization, new jobs, products, and opportunities are developing. But with great opportunity there is great responsibility. This is the reason why I am an advocate for equity grants, workforce development, and other private and public mechanisms to fund start-up businesses run by people of color and others impacted by the War on Drugs. This is also the reason WHY we at VERTOSA have designed an INNOVATION PLATFORM and are committed to GIVING VALUE AND EMPOWERING ALL ENTREPRENEURS that have an idea AND BRINGING IT TO LIFE!
Do you feel there is more opportunity for Black Americans in the cannabis industry versus a more traditional industry? Yes or no and why?
Growing up my mother always said, “nothing in life will just be given to you, especially because being Black in America means you’ll need to work twice as hard for the same opportunity”. To that end, I feel that there is no real difference in the amount of opportunities for Black Americans in the cannabis industry versus traditional industries. In fact there may be fewer, because of the many barriers to entry which the cannabis industry imposes: economic barriers, organizational barriers like nepotism, regulatory barriers, the list goes on…
Yet, we all know this is a once in a generation opportunity to be a part of something as great as standing up a new industry – regardless of your race. So I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote, “[we] will not be judged by the color of [our] skin but by the content of [our] character”.
Reminded of those famous words by Dr. King, and my Mother’s encouraging words, we as Black Americans must continue to work hard to create the opportunities we deserve. Personally, I believe the best way to do that is to lead by example. I AM driven to serve others, and am most passionate about economic empowerment for the communities I serve. Since my days in microfinance, empowering other BIPOC and women entrepreneurs is my reason WHY. As industry builders, we are also job-creators, and with a positive intention to create more opportunities for all, we have the opportunity to create more jobs and opportunities to lift each other up! As a result, we may truly “be the change [we] see in the world”. That’s why I am so grateful to my co-founders, who share the belief that we must first build a company that is the best place to work in the cannabis industry. With that positive intention at the beginning, we now have one of the most diverse teams in the cannabis industry, and are continuing to create more opportunities for others to join us in our mission to unlock the healing power of the cannabis plant, and make it more approachable and accessible to all!
What is the most successful social equity effort in your opinion? Can be a charity or company program.
It’s too early to validate any effort as successful. In many states equity programs are just now starting to be built, and there is still a long road ahead. What I will say is collaboration is the new competition and we have an opportunity to start a movement that calls out cannabis operators who prioritize profit over people and products. The cannabis industry is as diverse as the country we live in. It is full of amazing leaders who are people of color, women, LGBTQ, and other minorities. However, many of the cannabis products on retailers’ shelves today are not made or representative of this diverse community that the space intends to serve. Instead, those who have always benefited from privilege continue to benefit in the burgeoning industry, and the privilege gap will continue to widen unless we create a movement that helps amplify the voices of BIPOC, Women, LGBTQ, and Minority entrepreneurs. So what’s the solution / path forward?
First, we can use consumer advocacy groups to demand current cannabis brands/manufacturers to donate a percentage of revenue to sponsor grants for minority cannabis entrepreneurs. This is something I’m personally supporting as an Advisor for EAZE’s Momentum Program.
Second, we can use local and state regulatory programs to create equity awards and licenses for underserved minority populations. This is another initiative that I am supporting as a Member of the City of Oakland’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
Third, those that ‘have’ must ‘give’. Companies who are profiting off cannabis today must ‘give-back’. If it’s not through grant funding, then by supporting an equity license for a minority to start their own company. Then ‘give’ job training and internship opportunities to all those that have been convicted of a non-violent marijuana crime. Re-entry programs for those whose lives were turned upside down from this plant, which is now a multi-billion-dollar industry, is an immediate opportunity to ‘right’ many of the ‘wrongs’.
Vertosa is helping these initiatives through our work with the Last Prisoner Project, EAZE Momentum, and Our Dream. In summary, profiteering only exacerbates inequality. Grants, Equity Licenses, and Job Training are requirements to create a more equitable cannabis industry. Professionals in the industry have a responsibility to re-write history by leading by example and creating an inclusive, equitable, and diverse cannabis community. By applying pressure at the national, state, and local levels, we have an opportunity to rise and shine together!
What is your personal goal for 2022?
Goal setting is core to who I am, so I have many personal and professional goals for myself this year. The purpose of goals is to set a target and achieve it; or to identify a problem, and solve it. Reflecting on myself, one challenge that I have been faced with is ‘perfectionism’. Too many times, I’ve let my desire to be perfect get in the way of progress. So the one (1) personal goal which I remind myself every single day when I look in the mirror (it’s literally written on a post-it on the mirror) is a quote from Lorenzo Snow, “Do not expect to become perfect at once. If you do, you will be disappointed. Be better today than you were yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you are today.” Thus, I am confident that if I am constantly striving to be better than I was the previous day, that I will accomplish all that I set out to achieve.