Bridge West Consulting had an opportunity to speak with Pam Hemachandra, CMO and Diprarag Dutta, CFO of Herbiculture. We are proud to spotlight this cannabis entrepreneur!
How did you get started in the cannabis industry?
In 2013, Pam Hemachandra was finishing her final year as an exchange student in Japan in a business program. At the same time, Canada was in the process of legalizing medical cannabis. Pam’s dad was the serial entrepreneur in the family and the news about Canada and the cannabis industry caught his attention.
He wrote a letter saying that he was an entrepreneur and was interested in learning more. After receiving an invitation to Ottawa while the legislation was being drafted, he quickly realized that he needed assistance to pursue a cannabis license. Pam’s father approached her and her sister Venus to ask for help with the application process.
At that time, Pam and Venus were both business professionals and they knew nothing about growing cannabis; however, they approached the new venture as a learning experience. They ‘hit the books’ and learned everything they could about cannabis operations, including the basic principles and best practices of growing cannabis. With so much to learn, they continued to research the industry and educate themselves on ‘all things cannabis’ while applying for their license. With a lot of hard work and perseverance, Pam and her family were among the first in Canada to receive a pre-approved medical cannabis license.
What risks and sacrifices were involved with launching your business?
Pam explained that when she and her family first entered the cannabis industry, it was challenging to be both entrepreneurs and of Southeast Asian descent.
When Pam, Venus, and their Dad were thinking of a name for their first cannabis company in Canada, they didn’t want the name to sound like a cannabis company. Since cannabis wasn’t fully accepted at that time, they didn’t want the name to convey anything negative. But a few years later when they created Herbiculture, it was a different perspective. Pam explained, “Being in the industry for a little while, we really got to appreciate how medical cannabis benefits patients and we saw many cases where it significantly helped people. When we were thinking of a name for our business, we wanted to incorporate that concept and convey how much culture is really behind cannabis. Unfortunately, this is easily neglected.” Pam continued, “When some people think of cannabis, they think of a stereotypical “stoner” culture. For Herbiculture, from the very beginning, we wanted to change that stigma and create a brand that highlights the amazing things cannabis can do to help people.”
Other family members and friends viewed cannabis as taboo, and there was a big cultural barrier to cross by pursuing a business in the industry. However, they focused on educating themselves to ensure they understood the business and the various growing, extraction, and retail processes, every step of the way. Pam wanted to deeply understand the true benefits of medical cannabis and she also wanted to help change the stigma behind it.
A few years later, Venus got married and moved to Maryland, where medical cannabis was being legalized. They saw Venus moving to Maryland as an opportunity and a short time later, Pam, Venus, and their dad decided to pursue a Maryland cannabis license. Pam said, “If we’ve done this once and were successful, we can do it again!” They continued to learn more about the industry and received their cannabis dispensary license in Maryland. When their Maryland business was becoming operational, they decided to exit their project in Canada to focus on managing the dispensary in Maryland, which they decided to name Herbiculture.
At the same time, Pam’s husband Dip Dutta was in the process of earning his CPA license and working with hedge funds. Herbiculture was growing steadily, and they needed accounting and financial management assistance. Helping to manage the books was a huge leap of faith for Dip, and it was a big decision to leave his secure job in Toronto to work with Pam and her family. Since it was a family business, Dip was reassured that everyone was in the process of determining their roles and how everyone could benefit from the business. Dip saw this as an opportunity to apply what he learned in school, so he hopped on board.
In 2019, Herbiculture took advantage of an opportunity to apply for the new round of Grower and Processor licenses in Maryland which was focused on giving licenses to minorities.. They ranked #1 for processor and #2 for grower, out of many MSOs that applied. Pam explained, “At that time, it was just me, Venus, Dip, and the rest of our small team that we built from the ground up.” Pam expressed how happy she is to have grown their business to where it is today, and currently they are in the process of wrapping up fundraising and hope to become operational next year. Learning in Maryland has helped them change and shape the market on the East Coast and Canada.
They started from scratch with this entire company, from raising the funds to figuring out the process, making a brand for themselves, and growing. They have worked so hard to become what they are today. Pam says, “We’re still so young even though we’ve been in the industry since 2013, but there’s still so much to learn. It’s exciting to be a part of something new every day and we aren’t really in it for the money at this point. This process has been really rewarding.” Dip comments, “There are not a lot of people who have been in the “legal” cannabis industry for as long as we have. By starting our own business, we learned as we grew and taught ourselves the best way to run our business. The motivation is there definitely, and that’s what really helped to fuel our success.”
How did you select Herbiculture as the name of your company and how is your brand unique?
In the beginning when designing their dispensaries, the Herbiculture team were adamant to invest in making their spaces comfortable for people. They focused on making their dispensaries open, bright, airy, and environments where everyone would feel very comfortable and welcome.
Dip said, “we wanted a very approachable vibe. We wanted this to be a place where people can learn, and our budtenders educate our patients and customers about cannabis. This is an opportunity for us to educate more people about cannabis.”. By building their company from the ground up and taking on every single role, from owner to receptionist, Pam, Dip and the Herbiculture team was able to see their company from every angle and know what’s important to their customers. Pam said, “It has been really exciting and rewarding for us to build a brand for our customers and for people that need it. Hearing their needs and concerns, while being able to address them, has been really important to us.”
What challenges have you faced while your company has grown and what are your future goals?
Over the years, Pam and Dip have accelerated their business operations and growth. From the beginning, they established big future goals to grow and cultivate cannabis, in addition to operating their retail stores in Canada and Maryland. Growing and cultivating has been a huge jump up from having a single dispensary. Being entrepreneurs, they have always been responsible for every aspect of the business. Growing Herbiculture has made them realize they had to grow their team and share some of the responsibility to grow their company. Pam discussed the importance of finding the right people to fill the roles in their company to keep the Herbiculture culture intact throughout their business. They are currently addressing this challenge due to additional growth and quick changes happening at Herbiculture. Their experiences have taught them to be knowledgeable in the industry and they have a strong desire to change how people view cannabis. To Pam and Dip, it is essential to have the right people with a shared vision on their team.
The future for Herbiculture is to expand throughout the East coast and apply for licenses in the new states that have legalized recreational cannabis, such as New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Their goal is to grow their small family business, make it much more substantial and make a mark in the industry on the East coast. Their hope is that as they build the right team, they will only grow bigger and stronger, and be even more successful in achieving their entrepreneurial dreams.
The Herbiculture Dispensary in Maryland is focusing on expansion as well, which allows for an increase in inventory and product storage, and therefore, to accommodate more patients and customers. When asked about Herbiculture’s future goals, Dip explained, “We want to have an impact. Our goal is to focus on growing and expanding.”
If you had one piece of advice for an entrepreneur just starting in the cannabis industry, what would it be?
When asked this question, Pam’s biggest advice is, “Don’t be scared of change. Having a structure for decision-making, I think is really important. You may have thought that certain layers of facts were true, but then something comes out of left field, and you have to make big decisions. You really need to understand what your priorities are, what are you trying to accomplish, and how you can get the information you need to make these decisions.”
Throughout the years, there were many times when Pam and Dip didn’t have all the information they needed. Pam explained the importance of having key information at their disposal and consulting with industry experts for advice to get the necessary information as soon as possible. Pam emphasized, “It’s important to admit that you don’t know everything and there are people out there that do know more than you and just ask for help when you need it!” Pam and Dip had to figure things out by making mistakes and they learned about issues to avoid.
Pam also acknowledged that another key to success at the start of a business is the importance of establishing a structure within a company. She said that it will help any entrepreneur avoid making mistakes that can cause damage to growth. In addition, Pam said, “Be confident that you can adapt when things change. In an industry as rapidly changing as cannabis, it’s important for any entrepreneur to understand that just because you don’t know everything, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn.”
How has COVID impacted your business or the cannabis industry, that you’ve seen?
When the pandemic first started, Pam and Dip were in Canada and had no idea what to expect. At that time, they decided to switch to curb-side pick-up to make sure that they could still serve their patients. As the pandemic proceeded, staffing became a huge issue and they needed to function while being understaffed and make sure that everyone stayed healthy. Dip explained that there was a point during the pandemic where their family in Maryland was running the dispensaries –Venus, Venus’ husband Shreemal, and two others, 10+ hours a day and 7 days a week. They did everything they could to keep up with business without having to limit their patients or shut down the dispensary. It was very important to them to do whatever it took to keep Herbiculture open for the patients that needed this medicine.
Since the start of the pandemic, Pam and Dip have been in Canada and Venus and Shreemal have been operating the Maryland dispensary. This was a challenge as Pam,Dip, and the Herbiculture team had to learn new strategies, implement them quickly, and make decisions very quickly.
There was also a huge demand for cannabis at the beginning of the pandemic because people thought that dispensaries were going to close. It was a challenge for Herbiculture to make sure that they had ample supply to keep up with the demand. At one point, they had wait times that were over an hour, and people were lined-up to stock-up on cannabis. In response, they implemented curbside pick-up for patients and customers so there was less contact, but this meant more regulations that Herbiculture needed to follow.
What do you like to do for fun?
Over the summer, Pam and Dip began paddle boarding, and they love spending time with their dog on the water. Paddleboarding has been a great way to recover from their workdays and reenergize themselves. It is very important to Pam and Dip to give themselves time to recover from work and they enjoy outdoor activities. “We’ve even seen that when we take care of ourselves a little bit more, we are significantly more productive at work. We make much better decisions, and we have a lot more clarity. Sometimes all of that is lost when you’re in it 24/7,” says Dip.
We Can Help.
If you own a cannabis business or are thinking about starting a cannabis business, we’d like to help. As a partnership of highly skilled and seasoned cannabis industry consultants and advisors, Bridge West Consulting is ready to guide you through this exciting and challenging landscape. Feel free to reach out to us anytime to schedule a consultation.