Client Spotlight: A Q&A with New England Cannabis Trailblazer, TaShonda Vincent-Lee

The CannaBusiness Advisory is pleased to spotlight some of the Burns & Levinson clients that are pushing the cannabis industry forward, in Massachusetts and beyond. First up is TaShonda Vincent-Lee, co-founder and director of community outreach at ELEVATE New England, a networking firm “created to support the New England cannabis industry’s need for workforce and community education.”

What made you decide to start ELEVATE New England? 

My co-founders and I couldn’t ignore the undeniable need for cannabis education in New England, both for the diverse people wanting to work in and own businesses in the newly legalized marijuana industry and, perhaps more importantly, for the communities in which cannabis businesses sought to operate. Despite passage of Question 4 by a significant margin in 2016, municipalities across the state are discussing and implementing bans and moratoria, and this is because of ignorance and fear about the plant. We created ELEVATE to connect the cannabis workforce with training and opportunity, and to provide proactive outreach to a variety of communities and demographics, so that more jobs can be created by thriving businesses. To that end, we provide professional networking opportunities, coordinate community education efforts, and generally promote a more diverse and equitable cannabis industry.

What obstacles did you face in getting it up and running?

We haven’t faced many obstacles pertaining to the founding of ELEVATE – the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. However, given the current federal stance on legalization, many businesses are hesitant to provide otherwise traditional services to cannabis-related entities, including us. Despite being an ancillary business (i.e., one that doesn’t touch the cannabis plant), we have found ourselves faced with basic issues like the lack of available cannabis-friendly venues – even if we are not allowing consumption. In April, Eventbrite removed one of our events – a workshop on the Massachusetts laws around growing cannabis at home, legally and organically – from its ticketing site. We were not advocating anything illegal or selling marijuana, but because this plant is still federally illegal, even nonprofits focused on education, like ours, face roadblocks doing simple things like selling tickets to educational events.

We’re also actively in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which is an undertaking in itself! After working previously with another for-profit event company, we knew that being a nonprofit would be a competitive differentiator that also reflects the values of the local cannabis community that ELEVATE supports.

How did you initially become involved with cannabis?

As the three co-founders of ELEVATE, we all came to cannabis via different avenues. Our executive director, Beth Waterfall, is our jack-of-all-trades business leader who spent fifteen-plus years in corporate marketing. Cara Crabb-Burnham, our director of education, created the first vocational cannabis training program on the East Coast, and has worked in cannabis policy reform in Massachusetts since 2009. My professional experience is in campaign management; I also served as a mental health technician, educator, and counselor for people from low-income communities. I first became involved in the industry as a patient, then started going to industry networking events, where I met and began working with Beth and Cara. Each of us, upon being established in the cannabis industry, agreed on the need for restorative justice and economic empowerment in communities. We knew we had the information, skills, and determination to make a difference and motivate others to get involved.

How does ELEVATE help to promote diversity and inclusion in the cannabis industry?

By providing minority, LGBTQIA+, veteran, and lower-income communities with: (i) industry-specific education and training workshops, (ii) accessible volunteer and employment opportunities, and (iii) business planning and development support. Our leaders sit on and moderate panels and give presentations about the value of diversity and inclusion, motivating people from traditionally marginalized groups to not only explore the cannabis industry, but also prepare to shape and lead it. Women, people of color, and the LGBTQIA+ communities, in particular, have never had this kind of seat at the table at the beginning of a new industry. We’re building the seats and opening minds.

What advice would you give to future leaders looking to get involved in the space?

Hold on tight, it’s going to be a bumpy road! As we navigate the political waters and continue the fight for the legalization of cannabis on the federal level, anyone getting involved in this emerging industry must be ready to endure the unknown and overcome the potential barriers associated with running a business in a quasi-legal market. Also, be prepared to become your own best advocate, and make sure to get those testifying and presentation chops ready. You’re probably going to need them!