CEO Cannabis Connoisseur Wanda James Reveals How She Planted The First Seeds Of Success
In The Smoking Gun, we talk to CEO cannabis connoisseurs about how they planted the very first seeds of success in their careers, how they balance their day-to-day life, and how they are using their work to make the marijuana market more inclusive to people of color.
Society tells us there are two types of people in this world: polished professionals who are CEOs of wildly successful businesses and people who like to get high AF. But Simply Pure CEO Wanda James is living proof that you, too, can be a woman who does both, sis.
Courtesy of Wanda James.
As a veteran, former member of President Obama's Finance Committee, previous campaign manager for congressman-turned-Colorado Governor, Jared Polis, and full-time business owner, there's no doubt that Colorado dispensary owner Wanda James has a lot on her plate. But this trailblazer is on a mission to ensure that every single person in our community has the opportunity to eat. After her brother was indicted and incarcerated for a minor weed offense at only 18 years old, Wanda discovered a discrepancy in the system that was obviously disproportionate to people of color and decided to become the agent of change that she wanted to see in the cannabis industry.
In 2009, Wanda and her husband, restaurateur Scott Durrah, became the first Black dispensary owners in Colorado, and since have used their platform to advocate for the abolition of mass incarceration and create opportunities for people of color in the cannabis industry. Wanda told xoNecole exclusively, "Along the way, we found out that cannabis is indeed, truly medicinal. That we can save people; we could help vets with PTSD...we found out that we can help babies with epilepsy and grownups with MS. So all of a sudden we've gone from a recreational plant that the side effects make you giggle and eat cheesecake, and we found that this amazing plant also heals your body."
I had a chance to sit down, roll up, and blaze one with this trailblazer, who spilled all the tea on how she got started, her love of the plant, and what she's doing to change the landscape for people of color in the cannabis industry. Here's what I learned:
What is your first memory of being introduced to cannabis?
I was 16, and I was hanging out with a really good friend of mine. He was giving me a ride home and he pulled out a joint and he's like, "You ready to try this yet?" And I was like, "You know what? Alright, I'll try it."
At first, I was scared because I was expecting to be stoned, [like] walls were gonna move and I was going to see pink elephants and my mind was going to be blown, and I was going to be stoned. And what I found was I was delightfully elevated. My thoughts became more focused because there were so many different things that I was thinking and feeling and I enjoyed it.
What does your day to day look like?
I want to be fair. I want people to know that I work my ass off and I need young people and I need women to know that, y'all, what everybody thinks they see, it's like the iceberg, right? That's 20% of what I do. The 80% of what I do is that underside of the iceberg. I am up every single day at 4:30 AM, Saturday and Sunday included. I don't sleep in; I can't sleep in. The minute I get up, I turn on my computer. I answer all of my emails from the last 10 hours or so. During that time, it's quiet. I can think and I can get my thoughts out. So I return all my emails. I then do all of my accounting. I take a shower and I'm in the office by 9:30, 10:00 every day.
I usually leave the office at about 5:30 or 6:00 every night, or maybe a little earlier and maybe Kali, my assistant, and I will go and end the day and smoke a joint and she'll go off and do her things. I'll get home here at about 6:30 or so. Scott and I will have dinner together. Maybe catch a few movies or whatever else. And then I'm usually in bed at about 11:00, 11:30 every day.
Has working in the cannabis industry always been a goal for you?
No, and it's funny because you're the second young person that's asked me, has this always been a goal? You have to remember, up until 2009 [when] I was 44 years old, the goal of selling weed would have made me a drug dealer, not an entrepreneur. See the difference?
Photo by Joe Mahoney
"Up until 2009 [when] I was 44 years old, the goal of selling weed would have made me a drug dealer, not an entrepreneur. See the difference?"
Yes! There is definitely a difference!
And this is what's really inspiring, you may not even know what your career is yet because your career may not have even been invented yet. I did not know until 2009 that the possibility of this being a business would even be a thing. I wasn't really sure what it was going to be, but I didn't think it was going to be that.
What inspired you to join the market in the first place?
Because of my 25 years with three senators on speed dial, with a governor on speed dial, with Congress on speed dial, we felt relatively confident that we were going to be able to enter this industry without the fear of going to jail, which was the point of entering the industry. Because up until then, Black people had been going to jail. When we started in 2009, the goal was social justice. $260 worth of the street value of bad cannabis cost my brother 10 years of his life. He never saw an attorney, which, when he told me that I didn't understand until I saw When They See Us.
He [later] tested positive on his piss test and they immediately put an 18-year-old in a privatized prison, where for the next four and a half years, my brother picked cotton every day. He had to pick a hundred pounds of cotton a day in Texas to purchase his freedom. My brother became a slave. A whole bunch of people's brothers became a slave because that became an American-Corporate balance. My brother picked a hundred pounds of cotton every day for four years. How much does the cotton industry owe my family?
For almost seven years, we were the only ones in Colorado and that's a shame. And this is the racism that we've got to be able to fight. I've often said that my father's generation fought to be able to ride the bus, right? To get on the bus and sit where they wanted to on the bus. Our challenge is how do we own the bus? How do we own the bus line, right? So, it's one thing to decriminalize, which is great. We should not be going to jail for this. But now let's take it a step further.
What has your extensive professional career working with Presidents and Fortune 500 Companies taught you about the work you’re doing now?
Ironically, everything that I have done in my life up until this point has prepared me for this point. When you're going through your life and like, "Why am I here? Why am I doing this?" When I look back on it, everything that I have done has trained me for this.
After 25 years in politics, I know how to talk to US senators. I know how to talk to governors. Hell, I know how to talk to presidents, right? So everything that I have done in my life has prepared me for this one moment in time. Even my love of the plant, you know? I'm not just the business owner, I'm a client.
Courtesy of Wanda James
"After 25 years in politics, I know how to talk to US senators. I know how to talk to governors. Hell, I know how to talk to presidents, right? So everything that I have done in my life has prepared me for this one moment in time. Even my love of the plant, you know? I'm not just the business owner, I'm a client."
I love that! And I saw in a previous interview you said that at your house, there’s weed in the wine, food, and beer and I’ve never aligned with someone so closely in my life. In your own words, what are your views on medical and recreational cannabis usage?
The only time that I didn't smoke was the five years that I was in the military because the penalty was too high for a military officer in the late 80s, early 90s. If you were caught with illegal drugs, you went directly to jail, period. No conversation, no nothing. You just went to jail. So I wasn't going to chance that.
If you go to The Officer's Club, you could get top-shelf alcohol for 75 cents a drink. If you could drink all night and get up in the morning and put on your uniform, you were doing it right. And during that time of my life, I mean that was probably the time that I felt the least like myself. I was in my twenties, so hangovers don't last long and you're able to deal with your day, but [you're] nowhere near as sharp as you could be, nowhere near as engaged as you could be and it was because of alcohol. So it's been interesting to me when I look at alcohol versus cannabis. Alcohol loses all the time in my book.
What is the biggest misconception you think people have about marijuana products?
I think that the biggest misconception about cannabis is that people want to put it in the drug column. For me, when I think of drugs, I think of something that your body doesn't necessarily want or doesn't want, may need but doesn't want. I think that cannabis is something that works with our bodies. It works in total alignment with our bodies.
I just don't see this as a negative at all. I run three businesses, I'm up at 4:30 every morning, my husband and I are in great shape; we run, we do all kinds of athletic things. Neither one of us have any "ailments" to speak of; we don't have high blood pressure, we don't have diabetes and I'm not saying that's because of cannabis, but I'm also not saying it's not because of cannabis.
What advice do you have for women like me who want to enter the cannabis industry but may be intimidated by the barriers to entry?
Don't be intimidated, first and foremost. Take the word "intimidated" out of your vocabulary. And let me say, we all feel nervous sometimes. We all feel anxiety sometimes. Every time I go into a meeting, I feel nervous. I get that weird feeling in my stomach. I'm like, "Oh, here we go." But you know what though? That's life. That's not a negative feeling. That's a positive feeling. That's your adrenaline getting going. Adrenaline is getting released in your body so that your brain gets sharp.
We need to learn to love that feeling because that's the feeling of excitement and things happening. Yes, it's scary. Absolutely. It's scary because you know what? It might not work, but so what? So what? Because it might work.
"Every time I go into a meeting, I feel nervous. I get that weird feeling in my stomach. I'm like, "Oh, here we go." But you know what though? That's life. That's not a negative feeling. That's a positive feeling. That's your adrenaline getting going. Adrenaline is getting released in your body so that your brain gets sharp."
What footprint do you plan to leave on the cannabis industry when you retire?
I want this industry to be the catalyst for ending slave labor in America. Because when we talk about mass incarceration, we are talking about [in cannabis-related arrests alone], 800,000 people a year arrested for simple possession before legalization started. A year. Not 800,000 people total; a year. So I want this industry to be equitable. I want it to shine a light on what racism has done to destroy the black and brown community.
And then I want to see cannabis be the means of fixing that issue. Okay. In other words, I want to see our families and our communities benefit long-term from cannabis in the exact same way that Kennedys benefited from Irish whiskey when it was illegal. I want to see America pay its debt. And it is a debt and they do owe us, and I think that cannabis, that this industry can be the vehicle in order to make that happen.
Make sure to stop by Simply Pure the next time you're in Colorado and keep up with Wanda's adventures on Instagram @WandaLJames!
*Some responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Featured image courtesy of Wanda James.
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Being broke can be subjective because it means different things to different people. I had a coworker who said she felt "broke" when she only had $2,000 in all three of her checking accounts. Another considered having a negative account balance as "broke" after using overdraft fees to keep spending even when her account balances were low. Some might think "broke" is living off of credit cards after their cash has depleted. Others might have thousands of dollars in their accounts but not enough to cover their everyday bills with a bit left over for a rainy day.
No matter what your "broke" definition is, it's never a good thing, and with so much talk about financial fitness, recessions, and unemployment, how can you focus on better days when you're barely making ends meet, you're living check to check, or you're struggling with debt? Here are a few helpful tips that I lean on, especially when my pockets are screaming, "Chile, we're tired!"
1. Take a deep breath and release the shame.
High debt levels have been linked with depression and anxiety, and oftentimes, shame leads to avoidance. Find a bit of comfort in knowing that you aren't the only one struggling financially. (In fact, 35% of Americans have recently reported that they're in the "most debt of their lives," 61% reported they're living check to check, and Black women hold a disproportionate piece of the trillions of dollars in student loan debt).
Sis, we all deal with financial difficulties, so it's not something to be ashamed of. Find verbal ways to affirm yourself and boost your self-esteem, or talk to someone about how you're feeling. (There are free resources like the NAMI Helpline.)
Also, there are many reasons you could be "broke" that are simply beyond your control and aren't really a matter of fault on your part. It could have been a financial mistake, a lawsuit, a family cycle of poverty, an illness, a sudden loss of employment, an abusive relationship, or a natural disaster.
Some of these things take years to recover from financially, and you might have periods of being "broke" as you're trying to get back on your feet. And let's not forget, institutional and systemic issues of racism and sexism financially impact Black women in ways that are vastly disproportionate, so keep this in mind whenever you feel thoughts of regret and shame overpowering those of grace, problem-solving, and positivity.
2. Face the fears and ugly truths and make budgeting your friend.
Early in my budget journey, I hated the idea of it. I experienced childhood trauma related to frugality and limits, so, as an adult, I'd overspend simply because I hated feeling limited on what I could buy, especially food. I hated the thought of having a cap on anything related to the money I'd worked hard to earn. I'd buy on impulse, spend money eating out a lot, and prioritize entertainment and pleasure spending.
In my case, it wasn't about being neglected or deprived as a child, but I just loved food and freedom and hated when we only could go to restaurants on special occasions or how I'd always have to share food with five or more people. I was always privy to great meals, family vacations, and other amazing activities, and my middle-class family was always super-supportive, giving, and kind, but I grew a chip on my shoulder related to boundaries.
I learned in adulthood that budgeting isn't about deprivation, that I'd felt like nothing was enough as a child because I sought love through material things and grand gestures of money being spent, and that boundaries are a healthy aspect of maturity.
I also learned that budgeting could help me reach my lifestyle goals because, again, I love food, enjoying a great 5-star restaurant or a five-course dining experience. Even when you're "broke," you can still create a budget because the process includes realistically noting your everyday expenses, being super-aware of your actual take-home income, looking through your bills and calling creditors to negotiate or set up plans, acknowledging your splurge habits, and setting actual, realistic financial goals. I sat down once when I was flat broke, upset about debt that really wasn't as bad as I thought, and the process to at least get a handle on it actually turned out to be more than doable.
I also found out in my efforts to budget even while broke that I could actually get rid of unnecessary expenses and shift that money to things that matter to me, like security through savings, money for self-care, and a travel fund.
When you sit down and start the process of budgeting, it's empowering and scary at the same time, but at least you can finally breathe a sigh of relief by knowing the full picture of the truth in your financial situation and get the assistance you need in order to create a plan for financial wellness.
3. Start small and shift your mentality from "not enough" to "I can better manage what I have for now."
I've always been a go-big or go-home type of person who used to think in extremes. For example, if I couldn't buy a whole living room furniture set in full, with cash, I wasn't buying anything. Or if I only had $50, I couldn't save because it wasn't $100 or $1,000, so why not just spend the whole $50? Yep, that was me.
My anxiety over debt and always feeling like I didn't have enough subsided when I started to shift my thinking about what actually constitutes "small" or "not enough." So, for example, even if I only had $2 to my name, I could put 50 cents into my savings account instead of just spending the $2 on a burger because I'm emotionally eating due to shame. I could just buy the sofa and save up for the rest to purchase gradually over time.
My Granny has always earned less than $40,000 per year (and even less back in the '50s, '60s, and '70s) and leveraged that to keep ownership of her home, pay off her credit cards, and help out generations of family members simply because she never thought what she was earning was "too little" and was big on saving something. "Even if it's 5 cents, I saved it! You have to work with what you got and save your money! Try not to spend your last dime!" she'd always tell me.
If you don't make enough to meet savings account minimums, keep a jar of coins or envelopes with dollars at home. Use an old container---anything. It's the practice, not the amount, that matters. And that little bit of change can add up to a lot or at least provide a bit of a cushion for later. I now apply that to almost everything, whether I'm down to my last $2 or $2,000. When I see my savings account, I'm empowered to continue to challenge myself to always keep something in there, no matter how "small" the routine deposits might be.
3. Get an accountability partner.
Whether that's a financially savvy friend, partner, YouTube influencer, family member, or Facebook group, find platforms and people that will keep you in check, especially in those tough moments of doubt, fear, and anxiety. Go grocery shopping with them, ask their opinion before you make a purchase, share meals with them, and be sure it's someone (or something) who's really going to hold you accountable in a way that's a fit for your personality, your lifestyle, your financial goals, and their relationship with you.
(For example, if you're still living check to check and are struggling with unhealthy thoughts of comparison, it might not be a good idea to follow those hustle IG pages where everyone is balling out of control, talking about being millionaires all the time and showcasing their material blessings. Hey, if that pushes you to do better, cool, but if you find yourself feeling more insecure than motivated, unfollow and block, sis.)
Another great way to focus on accountability is to start a budgeting or a savings challenge (or join one via a Facebook group or IG page) so you can get the moral support and motivation you need to really take your financial wellness journey seriously.
If none of those are a fit for you, try your local credit union or the bank you have accounts with. Oftentimes, they have professionals you can talk to and who can look through your statements to figure out budgeting, money drains, and gaps.
And if your spending is deeply connected to childhood or other trauma, try counseling. I didn't get to the root of why I spent the way I did, why I had times when I was making good money but still living check to check, and why I would procrastinate and fear debt so much that I'd lose sleep at night until I talked to someone.
4. Figure out what drives your spending habits and get to the core of why you're always broke.
I literally had to use my last dime in order to invest in at least a few sessions with a therapist because I felt like I had nothing more to lose at that point. My spending habits were affecting my mental health because the shame had really taken over.
I'd see friends, family, and former classmates buying homes, expanding their families, and living great lives and always think, "Why am I so miserable and behind? I'm educated, get good jobs, and some of those people make less than me! Is my life going to be like this forever? I'll never get to that high-rise condo, be able to save for retirement, or be in a marriage where we're living great! I'll always be living check to check and scraping at the end of the month just to get groceries!"
I had to get real about my mental health and my family history to get to the root of my spending habits, prideful ways, and scarcity mentality. With the help of a professional and a bit of my own research, I learned how to decatastrophize my thoughts and self-regulate when I wanted to spend based on a negative emotional trigger. I also had to come to terms with immature and reckless behavior and habits related to procrastination, ego, and laziness.
Once I got through that, I realized I'd had several resources at my fingertips (i.e., housing lotteries, public assistance programs, family help, on-the-job advocates, and my own amazing brain) that I'd been neglecting to tap into and that I really was throwing away money and opportunities due to poor planning and low self-esteem. It took a while, and it's not an easy journey, but once you take those steps to get to the core of your why and how, you're better able to see clearly to focus on new habits and sticking to a financial wellness plan that works for you.
5. Brainstorm ways to make extra cash.
I left this one for last because if your money mindset is not healthy or balanced, it doesn't matter how much money you have. Toxic habits are the same whether you have $1 or $1 million, and you can still end up broke even after making lots of money.
That being said, I'm empowered by ideas and writing down solutions, especially as a combat for shame and fear. Solutions allow you to deal with reality, not made-up scenarios or emotions that will not help you get out of certain cycles (i.e., shame or indifference.) If you're broke due to your income and it never seems to be enough, even for your basic necessities of life (i.e., a roof over your head, food, clothing, transportation), it's time to look into how much money you're earning and find ways to earn more.
This doesn't mean you have to take on a third or fourth job (though, in some cases, it might). I'm big on working smarter, not harder, so if there's a side hustle you can do that comes easy to you, and there's a built-in market via your network or professional contacts to do it, do it.
(That's how I started my journey of self-employment. Before I took the leap, I did side gigs in writing, social media management, and editing via referrals from the network I already had as an editor and journalist.) Think strategically about your lifestyle, your work ethic, your current bills, and your mental health in order to figure out a way to make extra cash that won't make your situation even worse.
Go for that promotion, or apply for a new job. Think radically positive and just go for it. When you're broke, the only other way to go is up. Money is fluid---it can be lost and gained like the tide--but it's up to you to empower yourself, face your fears, get to know your triggers and lifestyle goals, and take action so that you can truly start living and stop just surviving day to day. You deserve it, sis. It's your time.
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Featured image via Getty Images