Sarah Agboola is the founder of Golden Bliss Brands in Los Angeles, specializing in the manufacturing of cannabis-infused product lines. Her business focuses on edibles and pain relief creams for the discerning cannabis connoisseur. She has sacrificed money, health, and family to build a dream in a thriving industry that still makes it difficult for Black women like her to succeed. This is her story.
I remember 2017 like it was yesterday. How could I forget the sheer excitement of finally being able to position myself to work and make an impact in the legal cannabis industry? Name a cannabis seminar or conference, and you would likely find me there front and center, soaking up the info, building my network, establishing my brand.
Having the opportunity to own and operate a manufacturing and distribution company in the legal market was a dream come true. Surely this would be my escape from the hustle and bustle of Corporate America, my opportunity to create something of my own that would build generational wealth while serving the community. Having a license meant that I could employ others and work to remove the stigma from cannabis. I could right the wrongs from the War on Drugs that targeted communities of people who look like me.
My dream was to make and sell a brand of premium quality infused cannabis products that would line the shelves of dispensaries and eventually reach the masses. I sought to own and operate my company in the City of Los Angeles.
I did everything right, or at least I thought I did. I spent most of 2017 registering my business, hiring an attorney to have consistent legal representation, creating my pitch, and outlining financial projections. There was no way I was going to fail.
Unfortunately many of my hopes were dashed during the licensing process. I saw the ugly side: overly complicated application forms, unbelievable hoop-jumping, backroom deals, predatory partnerships. Nothing that could have prepared me for the moving timelines and constant disappointments.
The first sign of real trouble came when my California application submission was delayed for nearly eight months. Sure, I was a little upset, but I was certain that the time and money I had invested would end up working to my benefit. I used the extra time to pitch potential investors, update my business plan, and share my vision.
Then more challenges came in 2018. It felt like an Olympic obstacle course. On top of the delayed process, the constant stress led to health issues. By December of that year, I had exhausted more than $150,000 from my savings and my family members. I was crashing on my aunt’s couch and suffered a heart attack.
Finally, on December 28, 2018, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The city awarded me a temporary license.
This was it — I had finally made it past the hard part. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself. It seemed like finding additional investors would be a breeze now. I could not have been more wrong. My niche in the market was clean green-certified cannabis. The good stuff. However, due to the higher price point and target consumer, investors were reluctant. I saw the potential to create a brand of multiple infused products for the mass market. Investors saw it differently.
Despite my corporate background, proven financial integrity, and a business plan with solid projected financials, it didn’t seem like enough. Potential investors constantly told me that I needed to give up 50% or more of equity, that I should relinquish all control and just leave the decision-making power up to them. Essentially, they only wanted to work with me if they could completely take over my license.
I wish I could say that most of the hurdles came from my White counterparts. Unfortunately many were set by my own community.
Ever-changing local cannabis regulations and delayed timelines prompted groups to start forming that could offer support, advocacy, and real-time information. White men and women formed their own groups. Groups of Black business people offered to help me, but I could see that the deals they presented would be predatory, leaving me powerless. I was left with the impression that no one would be fighting for me or lending real support to Black women in the industry, much less an Afro-Latina like myself.
I wanted investors who believed in my vision and capabilities. I spoke with a wide range of potential investors, from retired athletes to doctors, and but they only wanted to invest in businesses owned by my White counterparts or Black men. Some of these companies — almost all run by White men — were burning through cash, buying unnecessary luxuries and new homes. And these were the smart ones who investors trusted?
Thankfully, with the help of those closest to me, I secured a deposit for a third different building. Yes, you read that right. My two previous properties did not meet the state standard to pass inspection so I had to move locations.
I finally had the money, made the move, and was preparing for inspection when the Department of Cannabis Regulations (DCR) for the City of Los Angeles notified me that they wouldn’t be inspecting companies with building changes until further notice. Another blow. Here I was, three buildings in, living off what was left of my savings, and counting pennies while paying rent at a building that wasn’t scheduled for inspection anytime soon.
A new year brought additional changes to local licensing and Covid-19. In the midst of it all, I was desperately trying to maintain my health and good standing to attract investors. But I’m not Superwoman. I struggled to pay the rent on an empty building that I had to keep in order to maintain my license. So I began seeking alternatives yet again.
I met with several groups and encountered the same song and dance: they didn’t have money to buy in on the license, they wanted to do illegal cultivation to pay rent on the building, they want to help but didn’t have the money, or they brought an “I’m better than you” attitude. Or, worse, they were condescending and had nothing to offer. It felt like an enormous slap in the face from my own community.
Despite securing a city license, a pending state license, having building, insurance and cameras, I still lack investors, joint ventures, and partnerships. Now I’m learning that most investors want to see an already built-out facility and three to six months of working capital. The stakes keep getting higher and I’m running out of funds.
Most women in the local cannabis industry are still seeking funding as tight DCR deadlines approach that could knock us out of business forever. There have been constant changes on short notice, no social equity, no assistance, and difficulty moving buildings. We still lack funding and power. We are constantly aiming at moving goalposts. Yet we must meet the deadlines.
My story hasn’t ended, though. I am determined to keep going. I know it is not too late to keep my brand alive.
If you’d like to support to Golden Bliss Brands, contact Sarah directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.