• Aaron

Politics, cannabis, and a deep dive on where both are going

Ardell is not only a black man working in cannabis but a Chief of Staff for one of the largest brands in the US. His story is a mixture of his early days growing up in Oakland surrounded by the Bay cannabis world, from working in the Illinois State Senate, to now where he leads many initiatives at Old Pal and the broader cannabis community.

Ardell Romez: AR, Brett Fink: BF

BF: Ardell, thank you for taking the time! Tell me about yourself.

AR: I grew up in the bay area. My parents weren’t overly political people, but they were somewhat active, donating to campaigns & politics was always discussed at the dinner table, it was instilled from a young age to always keep up with what's going on in the world.

My perspective on the state of the world began to change when I would visit my grandma during high school in Oakland. I soon realized that was a clear disparity in education funding when compared to the public school I attended in a suburb 15 minutes away. This led me down the path to study political science at Loyola University Chicago. Little did I know Chicago is the most political city in America outside of D.C. Many people think it's called the “Windy City” because it's quite literally windy but that's false. It's called the windy city because of the long history of corrupt politicians who end up in Federal Prison.

I began to get really involved in politics during my time spent at Loyola University, Chicago. I spent 2 glorious summers working in DC. In the summer of 2016, I worked in Congresswoman Barbara Lee's office. She is a congresswoman who represents Oakland & Berkeley. In the summer of 2017, I worked in Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Federal Affairs office, he is the former mayor of Chicago. At that moment, I decided that I was going to dedicate my life to politics. Upon graduating University, I worked as a policy budget analyst in the office of the Senate President, which truly was an amazing experience giving me the opportunity to work with various public officials and lobbyists. My policy focus areas were affordable housing, financial institutions, & University budgets. One of my happiest moments was helping push through legislation that stopped the practice of check-cashing businesses taking advantage of poorer people through outrageous interest rates.

While living in Chicago I met Brett through a mutual friend, a few months into our friendship, he convinced me to join him at Old Pal. Now, as Chief of Staff, I wear a ton of different hats, currently I handle the majority of our HR. In the 1st few months of working at Old Pal, the team grew to over 20, which kept me busy with the onboarding process of new people to the team. I also lead all of our trade marketing, & try to do the little things that make our executive team lives easier. The most fulfilling aspect of my job now is leading our corporate social responsibility & how Old Pal can be a leader in making cannabis more equitable for people of color. Having a larger voice in making cannabis more equitable for people of color is my main focus at the moment.

BF: Why Cannabis?

AR: I have always been a cannabis user. I thought it would be foolish to not make a living off of something that I truly love. Ironically, my high school senior project was on cannabis. I always knew that I wanted to work in the industry, I just didn’t know how to get my foot in the door. It's an exciting industry and I knew that if I got my foot in the door I would fall in love with it. I’ve been so blessed to get my start in cannabis with Old Pal.

BF: What specifically do you think has made Old Pal so successful?

AR: It all starts with affordability. Legal cannabis is expensive, and I truly believe that many players in the space are missing out on the value shelf. Old Pal gives people access to affordable quality legal cannabis that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Old Pal emphasizes on providing accessible cannabis to all. Internally & Externally we have a huge emphasis on community and bringing people together around this one beautiful plant. That is the number one thing that has stuck with me. I truly believe in what Rusty and Jason are building.

BF: What should white organizations be doing to be more proactive?

AR: They have to listen and not be afraid to have difficult conversations. Acknowledge that you're profiting off an industry that has imprisoned an immense number of black & brown people. They need to ask themselves, what can we do to make it more equitable? Look at how you can become more diverse. How can you create those opportunities? Companies should commit to hiring a certain percentage of minorities.

Right now, lots of companies are being very active on social media, but people have to hold themselves accountable and act in ways that truly make a difference more than a statement of solidarity & a black square.

There has always been a stigma about cannabis, especially people who decide to make a career of it. Many will say “are you sure about this or you're just a stoner.” I personally used to think “are people going to look at me differently?” Breaking down that stigma is very important right now.

BF: You have a unique perspective and one that needs to be heard. How has COVID-19 along with the social uprising from George Floyd affected minority communities?

AR: You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that COVID has affected black and brown families more than others. Healthcare funding is significantly less for minority communities. Now, why is funding less for minority communities? There is a multitude of reasons. It starts with representation, there aren't enough people of color in power making these decisions. If it is not inherently affecting them, people in power don’t seem to care about the issue.

Regardless, until we see more equitable funding not much will change This also comes down to education. If you aren’t given a chance at a fair & equal education, what do you think is going to happen? Rebelling against a system that has continued to oppress you is inevitable. It is all about equitable funding across a variety of social systems.

BF: You said you were taking the lead on making your voice be heard about racism at Old Pal tell us some more about that.

Thankfully, Old Pal has very much been an ally & has encouraged that we speak up on societal issues that are clearly wrong. We have had our Legalize Humanity campaign on an ongoing basis for over a year now. We sell T-shirts, prints, stickers, hats, and other merch. 100% of our proceeds go to an organization at the forefront of fighting many of these social causes. We are currently donating all of our Legalize Humanity proceeds to National Expungement Week, which provides services that empower communities to adapt, sustain & create in pursuit of equity.

In addition, we are looking internally and listening.

At Old Pal, we are also getting more involved with the shaping of policy in the cannabis space. Black and brown people in the company have a strong voice. I am going to tell you how I feel. A company's culture is everything. Even if you bring people of color people into your company, creating a space where everyone feels comfortable is extremely important.

BF: These are some great proactive steps. How do you see the future of cannabis?

AR: I think we are going to see more people of color in leadership positions within cannabis. More & more companies are going to be focused not only on their bottom line but on how they can be a part of the movement for a more equitable cannabis space. The future is bright in this space for people of color especially as more states legalize cannabis.

BF: Who are your main influences/mentors?

AR: My dad and my uncle. There was never a time in my life where I was told that I couldn't achieve something. There was never any doubt. I am truly grateful that I was raised this way, and it has given me supreme confidence. There is nothing I don't think I can accomplish. My uncle once told me “you may not see the difference of being black and white right now, but as you leave the bubble you live in and when you become a threat in business and politics, is when you see the biases amongst your peers.” Every meeting I am in there is a good chance I am the only black person.

I don't really have any mentors in the cannabis space. This is such a new industry, I don't know who it is at the moment, but open to finding that right person. With that being said I am always trying to lend my hand to help others navigate this space.

BF: If I was a new person in cannabis I would look at you to mentor me. Advice for people trying to get into the industry?

AR: Find someone in the industry and pick their brain. Find what specifically interests you in the industry, there are so many positions, find what your passion is. Relationship building is key. Find someone that you want to be like and follow their path.

The Exec team doesn't do everything. Humility at Old Pal is why I love the company. The team is everything, and the executives know that this is a team effort. There is no one person who does it all.

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