Cannabis companies have been on the rise in recent years, and NBA veteran Al Harrington has staked his claim in the industry by launching Viola Cannabis, a purpose-driven cannabis brand rooted in social equity and minority representation.
Later this month, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, a law that will “decriminalize and de-schedule cannabis, to provide for reinvestment in certain persons adversely impacted by the War on Drugs, to provide for expungement of certain cannabis offenses, and for other purposes.” Harrington, however, has already been advocating for people who are disproportionately affected by the war on drugs through an initiative he launched called Viola Cares.
So far, he and his team have fully funded over 60 social equity applicants transitioning into the legal cannabis business, generating nine millionaires since 2019 with the goal of creating a total of 100 Black millionaires in the future.
I recently caught up with Harrington, and the company’s CMO Ericka Pittman, to learn more about Viola’s mission and goals.
TNJ.com: Congratulations on being named a board director at MedMen. What does that mean to you, and what is your goal for your new role?
Al Harrington: I’m very excited to have joined the MedMen Board. For me, it means another positive step in the right direction towards a more equitable cannabis landscape. My goal in this role is to make the core values we prioritize at Viola a priority for the industry as a whole. My hope is that in joining forces with MedMed, minority representation, education, equity, all come to the forefront of our minds as we continue to build the cannabis space.
TNJ.com: Viola is described as a “purpose-driven cannabis brand rooted in social equity and minority representation.” What is the current status of social equity and minority representation in the cannabis industry?
Al Harrington: There’s definitely progress that has been made in the social equity space but there’s still so much more work to be done. The cannabis industry has exploded over such a short period of time but the representation of Black and brown folks hasn’t necessarily matched – we’re still playing catch up. It’s my goal for the Viola brand to shift the direction of that tide. A core part of our purpose is to extend resources, tools and opportunities for minority communities to enter this market and create positive change in the industry influenced by their own experiences and insight as a person of color.
TNJ.com: There is ample information published about the cannabis industry, and its potential for growth and prosperity. How does influence in the regulatory environment, or the lack thereof, come into play?
Al Harrington: Influence is a major key in regards to having diversity especially regarding Black Cannabis entrepreneurs. We have to keep fighting for our seat at the table because if we don’t we (Black and brown folks) will be left out in the cold. And by the time they address it, it won’t even matter. So we have to literally fight for our piece of the pie. They create social equity, and look at most programs. The recipients still don’t look like the people who suffered the most during the war on drugs epidemic. We need to force our legislators to include us NOW.
TNJ.com: What, if any, challenges did you face in getting Viola built, and coming from a totally different industry as a basketball player, how did you learn how to operate a cannabis company?
Al Harrington: My initial challenges were weaving my way through the snake oil salesman. Being an ex-athlete people like app writers, lobbyists, growers all tried to take advantage. I figured out my way, then learned all the regulatory laws etc. But honestly, my transition has a foundation of a lot of hard work, grit, and grind.
I’ve had to fully engulf myself into this company and because of that commitment and the team I’ve assembled we have the success we’re having because of it. My mindset was the same as an athlete: if you wanna be the best, you must work your ass off at all times. That’s how you get results.
TNJ.com: In your opinion, what makes the Viola umbrella as a whole special; and as CMO of Viola, what are some of your current and future objectives with regard to growth, sales and marketing?
Ericka Pittman: Viola is special in the way it prioritizes purpose as the driving force behind all its activations, campaigns, and build out. That’s why I joined the Viola team. It was so important to be a part of a team that works toward positively impacting folks who look like myself. As we look towards the future of Viola, my overall goal is to make Viola a household name. All the sales and marketing efforts we are executing are driven towards this main objective.
TNJ.com: You are credited with being the first Black female CMO of a multi-state cannabis operator. How does the role differ from your numerous other executive-level marketing positions?
Ericka Pittman: This current role at Viola is unique in that we operate in an industry that is still developing. There are very few insights to reference as it relates to consumer behavior and the ever evolving audience that is engaging cannabis culture. Everything we are developing as marketers is new! We are creating as we go. This is an incredibly exciting time to be a leader in the cannabis space.
TNJ.com: When you think about the cannabis industry, is there anything you would like to see change?
Ericka Pittman: I’d like to see diversity and representation change in the space. I think it’s not only important that Black and brown folks are sitting at the table when industry-wide decisions are being made on a global scale, but that women also have a leading role. I’d also like to see the development of expungement programs and legislation happen at the federal level.
To know that there are folks who are still being punished for a plant that is now propelling one of the fastest growing markets today and pouring millions of dollars into our country’s economic growth. It simply isn’t right. Something has to be done about this injustice.