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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Taylor "Pretty" Honore is a spiritually centered and equally provocative rapper from Baton Rouge, Louisiana with a love for people and storytelling. You can probably find me planting herbs in your local community garden, blasting "Back That Thang Up" from my mini speaker. Let's get to know each other: @prettyhonore.
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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There is no feeling worse than applying a full glam face beat only to have it melt off from the spring humidity and summer heat. Having the right primers on your roster to combat the melt is a must, with summer rapidly approaching. To assist you with keeping your makeup look secure in hot weather, this is everything you need to know about securing a weatherproof base, primer edition!
The start to any flawless glam depends heavily on skin prep. Whether you are a cleanser, vitamin C, followed by SPF girly, or not, starting on clean, well-hydrated skin makes a huge difference in makeup that lasts. With both primer recommendations we highlight below, be sure to apply a hydration routine that works best for your skin type and concerns.
Secure The Sweat Waterproof Mattifying Primer
One/Size, the beauty brand founded by Patrick Starrr, launched the Secure The Sweat Waterproof Mattifying Primer. This makeup primer, according to the One/Size site, promises to be “sweatproof, waterproof, and shine proof.” Secure The Sweat delivers up to 12 hours "of oil resistance, shine control while remaining mattifying.” It is an aluminum-free formulation with “botanical alternatives to provide a skin-safe option to balance excess sweat.”
Secure The Sweat retails for $34, and the application process to reap the maximum benefits of the primer is simple, beginner friendly, and easy to follow.
You want to start on fresh skin using a dime size amount. Warm the primer up on your fingertips, then pat the primer into the skin.
This is the step you want to follow to the T to reap the full 12-hour benefits. Wait 1 minute before applying foundation or desired base makeup.
The final result is comfortable on the skin while maintaining a completely matte finish.
E.L.F Cosmetics Power Grip Primer
The E.L.F Cosmetics Power Grip Primer is the primer of the year for 2023! The Power Grip Primer retails for $10 and is the best cost-effective way to get long-lasting makeup. The Power Grip primer leaves the skin with a super-hydrated natural finish. Great for dry skin types, it's packed with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and glycerin.
Like Secure The Sweat primer, the application is easy to follow. Apply evenly to the skin. Using your fingertips, warm the product and pat the product into the skin. Allow the primer 30 seconds to set before applying foundation or desired base makeup.
While the E.L.F Cosmetics Power Grip primer is exceptional and a personal favorite, I had to put Secure The Sweat to the test. I wore the primer for a full 12 hours.
My makeup after 12 hours with primer.
As promised, my makeup was intact after a long day of running errands, a walk in 80-degree weather, and filming under studio lighting. I noticed some shine around my t-zone later in the evening, but nothing compared to how my unprimed routine would break down in a 12-hour time frame.
Whether you choose the Power Grip or Secure The Sweat, it's safe to be outside this summer because your makeup is not going anywhere!
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