Industry Innovator: Jamie Pearson, Bhang Corporation
Bhang president and CEO talks about the company’s growth under her helm, her leadership style – and what it takes to be an industry leader.
Since its establishment in 2010, Bhang has grown into one of the industry’s most robust brands. Famous for its line of delicious gourmet chocolates, Bhang also offers pre-rolls, Hempsticks™, and high-quality CBD products, among its more than 50 cannabis, hemp-derived and terpene rich offerings. The company has earned plenty of accolades in its decade-long history including the title of “The General Mills of Cannabis” and many awards in multiple states.
Jamie Pearson, Bhang’s President and CEO, joined the company in 2016, after a 25-year-long career in real estate. The move was motivated by her professional and personal experience with cannabis – mainly, her familial ties to the industry.
With her dad’s long history of growing cannabis in Montana, Pearson explains how she grew up around the plant from a young age.
“He’s been growing marijuana for 55-plus years,” she said. “There was no stigma in my family around it.”
Though Pearson was comfortable around cannabis, she had no desire to be involved in it.
“I was a product of my environment and the times we grew up in,” she said. “My small town in Montana is super conservative, where basketball was religion and the stigma around cannabis was powerful. I chose the path of the athlete, and there was never any pressure from my family to do anything different.”
An avid athlete, Pearson played basketball in high school, college and for one of the Team USA feeder teams that traveled to the Soviet Union in 1987. “Marijuana wasn’t my thing,” she said. “It never would have occurred to me as an athlete that it could enhance my training, or any of the things that I know about it now.”
Years later, while Pearson was in law school, her first cousin, DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill, lit a joint on Saturday Night Live. The legendary moment landed the band on SNL’s “banned for life” list. Muggs played a pivotal role in Pearson’s professional move into the cannabis industry.
Embracing Cannabis Real Estate
Formal schooling wasn’t a prerequisite for Pearson’s success, though she has a BA from Vassar College and a master’s degree in leadership from the University of Oregon. While she had once planned to be a teacher or college professor, she exhibited a natural flair for business from the get-go.
“When I was in elementary school…we lived a few miles from the Tijuana border in Chula Vista. I used to go to TJ with my uncle and buy bags of Mexican candy, then sell it by the piece to kids from my school,” she explained. “Being an entrepreneur has always been part of my DNA.”
The next step for Pearson was founding a real estate investors’ association and later a celebrity cannabis marketing firm. As a real estate investor, Pearson along with her cousin DJ Muggs. bought two cannabis cultivation operations: a farm and an indoor grow, both located in Sonoma County.
Pearson has also amassed a portfolio of real estate in three countries. As a landlord, she says she’s always “preferred to rent to stoners.”
“In my real estate business, I knew a lot of people’s dirt. What I knew was that cannabis enthusiasts were great, and the alcoholics were prone to trouble,” she said. “Alcoholics would punch holes in the walls, get DUIs or they’d disappear off the face of the earth. My experience was that cannabis users didn’t seem to have that crazy up-and-down, chaotic lifestyle.”
Pearson’s first experiences renting to a “cannaprenuer” occurred over a decade ago.
“I had a residential tenant who asked me if he could rent one of my commercial spaces for his vertically-integrated cannabis business [Montana Advanced Caregivers],” she said.
“I went to visit his operation and saw people going into his dispensary with walkers and oxygen tanks and who had clearly had brain surgery. I saw for myself that his clients were the very definition of medical patients seeking relief that opiates or other medication weren’t providing,” Pearson said.
Though excited to help his company, she admits the federal illegality and “the risk of forfeiture” made her nervous.
“I did it anyway because I had that experience watching those people go into [the shop],” recounted Pearson, who says the company is still one of her tenants, operating in the same building this many years later.
A Serendipitous Deal
For Pearson, real estate is just putting deals together – simply put.
So, when Muggs enlisted her help to find a partnership with a cannabis brand for Cypress Hill, it was a no brainer.
“The thing that was important to Cypress Hill was that they didn’t want to have their name slapped on someone else’s product,” she said, explaining that the band members sought a partnership that would create products that truly represented the band’s ethos.
At Bhang, they found just that.
In an interview with Freedom Leaf, DJ Muggs described the moment he met with Bhang founders, Scott Van Rixel and Richard Sellers: “It was organic. They understood the band. Scott’s a big fan. He knew our history and all of our lyrics. Plus, he’s a chocolatier. It was like I was meant to meet these guys.”
Thus, the CHB (Cypress Hill Bhang) collaboration was born. The lineup currently features products that celebrate the band’s music, including the CHB Skull Jar, and a cassette tape stash box complete with six premium pre-rolls.
Pearson’s role nurturing the partnership impressed the Bhang founders. In another serendipitous series of events, the company offered her an official position with Bhang about a year after they began putting the deal together. They spent her first official day on the job in San Francisco and sealed the deal at a Cypress Hill concert at the Bill Graham Auditorium – in true cannabis fashion – on April 20,,2016.
Finding the Win-Win
Dubbed a deal-making ninja by High Times, Pearson is known for her ability to look for the win/win in every situation.
“If it’s not a win-win, it’s not a deal,” she says.
“Deal making requires relationship building. Active listening is the key to that process,” Pearson explained.
This skill set directly serves her role as CEO of Bhang, where she spearheads the company’s relationships and licensing deals on a global scale.
Bhang has joined forces with powerhouse companies, including CannaVative, Bedford Grow, Indiva, and Trulieve, Florida’s biggest medical cannabis firm.
According to Green Fund’s Louis O’Neill, partnering with these vertically-integrated companies has earned Bhang a place on shelves throughout North American. As of July 2020, “There are currently over 1,000 stores selling Bhang’s products, and this number is expected to exceed 2,000 by the end of ,” O’Neill reported.
This year, Bhang launched a brand refresh on their packaging, and Pearson is thrilled with the results.
“Our team is best in class,” she says. “Between our branding and marketing team, CMO Samantha Ford Collins, Global Director of Marketing, Nicole Hanratty – who executed our new packaging from concept to fruition – and our sales leaders, Anthony Colon and Heather Vigil, we function like an orchestra.”
The credit for Bhang’s current position in the market really rests on the players, Pearson says.
“Everybody excels at their position, works hard and holds themselves accountable for excellence. I am their conductor, but they are making the beautiful music.”
In addition to partnerships, risk-taking is an important part of Bhang’s growth strategy (and an inherent part of being in the cannabis industry).
“When you think of risks in cannabis, you think of all those things that could get you landed in jail – that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about putting our thinking caps on,” says Pearson.
For example, the company launched its first CBD product in 2011, and won its first award for CBD goods a year later. The company is also among the first to come out with mainstream terpene products.
“Cannabis is really a blank landscape, Pearson said. “We know that our job is to know what the customers want before they do. There’s a famous quote by Henry Ford that says, ‘If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would’ve said a faster horse.’”
Walking the Walk
The company plans on continued expansion, which it’s done exponentially under Pearson’s leadership.
“I learned a lot about leadership on the basketball court,” Pearson says.
As a point guard, Pearson coached, called and directed plays on the court. Similarly, at Bhang, she helps to shape, grow and guide the team. And she leads with a fierce regard for social responsibility.
She says the company has a reputation for putting good products in people’s hands that are delicious.
“We’ve been responsible to the industry, to the earth, to human beings – I love that about our company – we’re walking the walk, and talking the talk,” she said.
Her philosophy, she says, is similar to the Steve Jobs quote, “Don’t hire smart people and tell them what to do.”
By having good teammates, and people with great mindsets, Pearson says accomplishing goals is “really easy” because the hard work is done during the hiring process.
When hiring, she looks for emotional intelligence.
“The reality is, If I hire a competent project manager and they don’t have cannabis experience, but they have emotional intelligence, then what I have is a good teammate,” Pearson explained.
Diversity is also integral to that.
“We value it genuinely,” Pearson adds. “The truth is we’re looking for awesome people to be on our team or to be partners with us. What we’ve found is…we’re better with diversity – it isn’t just lip service.
My team will tell you, I have been pounding the drum of sharing our access and dollars with the BIPOC community since day one. When Scott asked me to be on the board of Bhang back when we went public, I told him I would only do it if he asked one of the existing board members to leave and added a person of color. Our chairman of the board, Daniel Nauth, agreed to join the board. He is a black man and an absolutely invaluable guiding force for our company.”
Hiring Women is Smart
Bhang’s executive leadership team is 85% female, says Pearson.
“From a common-sense standpoint—hiring women is smart,” she says, adding that mothers offer distinctive skill sets.
“I know when having a mom on the team, I’ve got someone who already wears multiple hats, and multi-tasks well,” Pearson explained.
For Pearson, being on teams of strong women is natural, explaining that it goes back to her days of playing basketball.
Beyond workplace productivity, women also make an astronomically high amount of purchasing decisions, approximately 70-80%, Pearson added.
“When you win the hearts and minds of women, you give your brand a leg up,” she said. “Having strong, smart women on the team is good business.”
Pearson is proud to be a part of the cannabis industry, largely due to its impact on conversations around sustainability, and how business is conducted.
“We are still in prohibition, and we can make this industry look any way we choose. I believe we must choose to disrupt the very notion that business has to be pale, male and stale (a quote from my friend, Jeanne Sullivan),” Pearson says.
“What I love is that our community has been talking about the environment, diversity, and social justice since the very beginning. We can and must do better, but in comparison with my experience in real estate, it’s not an afterthought. These topics are woven into the very fabric of our culture,” she explains. “Cannabis is the gateway to wellness. Our industry will change the world for the better.”