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.
Chief Mom Officer: 23 Quotes From Working Moms Finding Their Balance
The truth is, Black moms create magic every single day. Whether we're juggling motherhood with a busy 9-5, a thriving business, or staying at home to run a household, no day is short of amazing when you're managing life as a mommy. This Mother's Day, xoNecole is giving flowers to CMOs (Chief Mom Officers) in business who exemplify the strength it takes to balance work with motherhood.
We've commissioned these ladies, who are pillars in their respective industries, for tidbits of advice to get you through the best and worst days of mothering. Here, they share their "secret sauce" and advice for other moms trying to find their rhythm.
Emmelie De La Cruz, Chief Strategist at One Day CMO
"My mom friends and I all laugh and agree: Motherhood is the ghettoest thing you will ever do. It's beautiful and hard all at the same time, but one day you will wake up and feel like 'I got this' and you will get the hang of it. After 4 months, I finally felt like I found my footing to keep my kid and myself alive, but it took vulnerability to take off the cape and be honest about the areas that I didn't have it all together. The healing (physically and emotionally) truly does happen in community - whatever and whoever that looks like for you."
Alizè V. Garcia, Director Of Social & Community Impact at Nike
"I would tell a new mom or a prospective mother that they must give themselves grace, understand and remember there is no right way to do this thing and have fun! When I had my daughter three and a half years ago, I was petrified! I truly had no clue about what to do and how I was going to do it. But with time, my confidence grew and I realized quickly that I have all the tools I need to be the mother I want to be."
Nikki Osei-Barrett, Publicist + Co-Founder of The Momference
"There's no balance. I'm dropping sh*t everywhere! However, my secret sauce is pursuing interests and hobbies outside of what's required of me and finding time to workout. Stronger body equals = stronger mind."
Lauren Grove, Chief Experience Architect, The Grant Access, LLC
"I try to give myself grace. That’s my mantra for this phase of motherhood…grace. I won’t be able to get everything done. To have a spotless house. To not lose my cool after an exhausting day. Those things can’t happen all of the time. But I can take a deep breath and know tomorrow is another day and my blessings are more plentiful than my pitfalls."
Rachel Nicks, Founder & CEO of Birth Queen
"You have the answers within you. Don’t compare yourself to others. Curate your life to work for you. Ask for help."
Tanisha Colon-Bibb, Founder + CEO Rebelle Agency + Rebelle Management
"I know love doesn't pay bills but when I am overwhelmed with work or client demands I take a moment to play with my baby and be reminded of the love, energy, science, and Godliness that went into his birth. I am brightened by his smile and laugh. I remember I am someone's parent and not just a work horse. That at the end of the day everything will work out for the good of my sanity and the love within my life."
Christina Brown, Founder of LoveBrownSugar & BabyBrownSugar
"Learning your rhythm as a mom takes time and can be uncomfortable when you’re in a season of overwhelm. Constantly check in with yourself and assess what’s working and what’s not. Get the help you need without feeling guilty or ashamed of needing it."
Mecca Tartt, Executive Director of Startup Runway Foundation
"I want to be the best for myself, my husband, children and company. However, the reality is you can have it all but not at the same time. My secret sauce is outsourcing and realizing that it’s okay to have help in order for me to perform at the highest level."
Jen Hayes Lee, Head Of Marketing at The Bump (The Knot Worldwide)
"My secret sauce is being direct and honest with everyone around me about what I need to be successful in all of my various "jobs". Setting boundaries is one thing, but if you're the only one who knows they exist, your partners at home and on the job can't help you maintain them. I also talk to my kids like adults and let them know why mommy needs to go to this conference or get this massage...they need to build an appreciation for my needs too!"
Whitney Gayle-Benta, Chief Music Officer JKBX
"What helps me push through each day is the motivation to continue by thinking about my son. All my efforts, though exhausting, are to create a wonderful life for him."
Ezinne Okoro, Global Chief Inclusion, Equity, & Diversity Officer at Wunderman Thompson,
"The advice I received that I’ll pass on is, you will continue to figure it out and find your rhythm as your child grows into new stages. Trust your nurturing intuition, parent on your terms, and listen to your child."
Jovian Zayne, CEO of The OnPurpose Movement
"I live by the personal mantra: 'You can’t be your best self by yourself.' My life feels more balanced when I offer the help I can give and ask for the help I need. This might mean outsourcing housecleaning for my home, or hiring additional project management support for my business."
Simona Noce Wright, Co-Founder of District Motherhued and The Momference
"Each season of motherhood (depending on age, grade, workload) requires a different rhythm. With that said, be open to learning, to change, and understand that what worked for one season may not work the other...and that's okay."
Janaye Ingram, Director of Community Partner Programs and Engagement at Airbnb
"My daughter's smile and sweet spirit help me to feel gratitude when I'm overwhelmed. I want her to see a woman who doesn't quit when things get hard."
Codie Elaine Oliver, CEO & Founder of Black Love
"I try to listen to my body and simply take a break. With 3 kids and a business with 10+ team members, I often feel overwhelmed. I remind myself that I deserve grace for everything I'm juggling, I take a walk or have a snack or even head home to see my kids, and then I get back to whatever I need to get done."
Jewel Burks Solomon, Managing Partner at Collab Capital
"Get comfortable with the word ‘no’. Be very clear about your non-negotiables and communicate them to those around you."
Bridget Bogee, Marketing Lead At Meta
"Ask for help and always prioritize making time for you."
Julee Wilson, Executive Director at BeautyUnited and Beauty Editor-at-Large at Cosmopolitan
"Understand you can’t do it alone — and that’s ok. Relinquish the need to control everything. Create a village and lean on them."
Salwa Benyaich, Director Of Pricing and Planning at Premion
"Most days I really try to shut my computer off by 6 pm; there are always exceptions of course when it comes to big deals or larger projects but having this as a baseline allows me to be much more present with my kids. I love the fact that I can either help with homework or be the designated driver to at least one afterschool activity. Work can be draining but there is nothing more emotionally draining than when you feel as though you are missing out on moments with your kids."
Brooke Ellis, Head of Global Marketing & Product Launches at Amazon Music
My calendar, prayer, pilates class at Forma, a good playlist, and oatmilk lattes all help get me through any day.
Courtney Beauzile, Global Director of Client and Business Development at Shearman & Sterling
My husband is a partner who steps in when I just can’t. My mom and my MIL come through whenever and however I need. My kids have many uncles and aunts and they will lend an ear, go over homework, teach life lessons, be a presence or a prayer warrior depending on the day.
Robin Snipes, Chief of Staff at Meta
"Enjoy the time you have to yourself because once kids come those times will be few and far between."
Monique Bivens, CEO & Founder at Brazilian Babes LLC.
"For new moms, it is very important that you get back into a habit or routine of something you use to do before you were pregnant. Consider the actives and things that give you the most joy and make the time to do them."
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How Our Favorite Black Women Celebs Spent Their First Paychecks
Do you remember what you did with your first real-job paycheck? I mean that check that was the answer to all your prayers. You could finally afford rent, groceries, and happy hour. Maybe you were able to put a down payment on your dream car. Maybe you bought your first house or bought that Fendi bag you'd been eyeing since childhood. (Was that just me?)
Spending that first major paycheck is both a moment of celebration and a way to acknowledge your hard work. It's a dream realized. It can also be the biggest mistake of your life. (And that's okay. Life is about making those and moving on to bigger and better from the lessons).
When I got my first nice-sized paycheck that was over $1,500 after taxes, I spent it on an overseas trip. I'd never been allowed to travel abroad in my teens and in my 20s, I spent the bulk of my paychecks on my half of the rent (Roommate life, anyone?) and coping mechanisms for burnout. (Think lots of Hennessy, four-day-a-week club nights, 7-nights-a-week eating out, a few emergency room visits, a couple of run-ins with toxic boyfriends, and impulsive shopping at Century 21, Forever 21, and H&M.)
Let's take a look at how our favorite Black women in sports, music, and entertainment spent their first big paychecks, if not just to remind ourselves that they, too, are human and have the usual feelings of power and vulnerability when receiving a large lump sum:
Dimitrios Kambouris/Staff/Getty Images
The UnPrisoned star also shared with The Hollywood Reporter that her first purchase from the proceeds of one of her first major acting gigs to buy a laptop, hoarding the per diem cash she was given during her time shooting Save The Last Dance--her second movie role, ever---under a mattress.
Actress, producer and entrepreneur Issa Rae told Buzzfeed Celeb that she bought a Tesla with her first big paycheck after getting a major role. She also told US Weeklythat after buying it, she got into an accident a month later and was without a car for a whole year.
Stefanie Keenan / Contributor/Getty Images
Kelly Rowland reportedly did what many of us do when we finally get our hands on a nice sum of money: splurge, especially on things that we didn't have easy access to in childhood. She told Instyle that she bought groceries that her mom used to tell her were "too expensive" and had a party where everyone enjoyed the food and had fun. (Same, sis. Same.) She further talked about the lessons she learned from buying a 5-bedroom house after becoming a millionaire at 20.
Enjoying the fruits of her Destiny's Child labor, she recalled that the home was "too big" and that she was "too young" to buy such a home. She'd later make informed choices about how she spent her money and used credit cards.
Both Serena Williams sisters have always acknowledged the valuable money lessons they learned early on from their father. When Serena got her first check, she reportedly took it straight to the bank, rolling up to the drive-through (as if it wasn't $1 million!) She also said in an interview that she wouldn't just go pick up her check and the tour directors at the time had to eventually come and give it to her. Talk about discipline!
Daniele Venturelli / Contributor/Getty Images
Regina King is the ultimate legendary actress who has range (from 80's classic 227 to '90 cult favorite Boyz In The Hood to iconic western The Harder They Fall) and looks damn good after decades in Hollywood. She told The Hollywood Reporterthat when she got her first big paycheck, she invested in something many of us promise ourselves when we've gotten to a certain salary or status: a car.
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Featured image by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images