I seem to catch him mid thought.
“As long as you wake up every morning and you have the grind, ambition and motivation, then the sky’s the limit,” says Sean Oganesyan, unquestionably one of the cannabis industry’s most determined, disciplined and enthusiastic cultivators.
At the time of this interview, Oganesyan was vice president of cultivation at STIIIZY, the phenomenally successful California cannabis company. We’re in his downtown LA office, where he’s sitting at his desk, expertly rolling a joint of Black Truffle—a deeply beautiful cultivar with purple flowers so dark they’re almost black. We’re fresh from the intimate, behind-the-scenes tour of the company’s grow rooms Oganesyan had just shown me and Cannabis Now’s founder and publisher Eugenio García, where we were privy to seeing Black Truffle and STIIIZY’s other popular strains in different growth stages. What a treat.
I met the famous cultivator for the first time earlier this year at the opening party for STIIIZY’s 30th dispensary in Costa Mesa, CA. He was radiating positivity that evening and today’s no different. I knew of him by his stellar reputation as a master grower, of course, but I wasn’t expecting him to be so unaffected and, yes, real.
The weed he grows is second to none, and Oganesyan has collaborated with some of the biggest names in the industry. He co-founded 22Red with his childhood friend and System Of A Down rockstar (and our cover subject) Shavo Odadjian. He’s built cultivation facilities—and grown triple-A product—for B-Real, Cookies, Seed Junkies and many more. “Throughout the years, I’ve been honored with friends who have blessed me with good genetics to cultivate for them or myself,” he says.
In a moment, smoke fills the air as Oganesyan lights the now-rolled joint. He passes it on to me and I take a couple of tokes, savoring the deliciously spicy dankness. I settle back into my chair as Oganesyan begins to tell his life story. And what a story it is. From being raised in the former Soviet Union to joining the US Marines, from childhood gymnastics to growing some of the best weed in California, one recurring topic connects them all: his unwavering discipline.
Oganesyan says he’s known from a young age that success stems from routine and self-control. His dad enrolled him in gymnastics at three years old, and the knowledge and education he gained in his formative years helped pave the road to success. Oganesyan’s mom, he shares, was a gifted engineer who held 68 patents in the Soviet Union, including one for the first automatic washing machine in the communist nation. His father was the CEO of an Italian furniture and leather warehouse in Latvia. “In Armenian communities, there’s a saying that translates to, ‘Your mom is your purity in life. Your dad is the man inside you that’s ready to fight and survive and do what’s necessary to protect your family,’” he says. “My dad was the disciplinarian; my mom had the brain. Growing up in this environment helped me develop certain business methods…the grind, the hustle, the work.”
Strict rules guided Oganesyan’s way of life. “My dad trained me to be disciplined, and that’s what’s made me successful,” he says emphatically. “When you have a goal, you must be disciplined to set your vision towards your goal, which means you must be consistent. And to be consistent, you must be disciplined and committed.”
After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, life as Oganesyan knew it changed overnight. “I remember standing in line at 3 am to buy food and supplies for the family as an 11-year-old—everybody had to pull their weight,” he says, matter-of-factly about the sad, remarkable memory from his childhood. “I saw the real struggle and knew we were better off than 80 percent of the people around because of my dad’s job.” Clearly, those challenging times played a pivotal role in shaping his future. “When you see things in life at a young age, it moves you to be a fighter, to never break, to be someone that could withstand a storm and stand up and take care of not just himself but people that rely on him, too.”
Some of his family relocated to the US in the 1950s to flee the ongoing Armenian Genocide. Oganesyan, his parents, his brother and his brother’s wife and son, made the move in 1993. They first moved from Latvia to Armenia, then to Glendale, near Los Angeles and moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the heart of a thriving Armenian community. “The first thing I noticed when I came to this country was the palm trees,” he says. “I felt like I was in heaven.”
The family settled in quickly, and Oganesyan enrolled at the local Roosevelt Junior High School. Money was tight, so he picked up his first job selling donuts at the school cafeteria. He says he began living the American Dream and found that the possibilities were endless. Before graduating from high school as captain of the football team, Oganesyan was named Defensive Player of the Year.
The boy was now a man; the next chapter of Oganesyan’s life would utilize and refine his discipline.
“My parents kept pushing me to go to college, but I wanted to learn more about American culture,” he says, so in 1998 he became a US Marine, selecting the East Coast for boot camp. “I wanted to escape the Armenian community bubble and learn about America. And what better place to go than to the East Coast where it all started?” he asks.
Oganesyan says he thrived in the military, succeeding in everything thrown at him. After completing the initial training, he was meritoriously promoted to Private First Class. His athleticism and discipline made him a natural for the Marines, and he climbed through the ranks. After five intense military years, Oganesyan returned to civilian life.
“One of the biggest problems for ex-military trying to integrate into civilian life again is that there’s no purpose for them,” Oganesyan says. “That’s where a lot of the depression and the dark thoughts come from as you’re analyzing all these different things in your head. That’s what can drive you to madness. But there was none of that conflict for me; I just said, ‘Let’s get to work.’”
At the time, his mom was managing an 80,000-square-foot clothing manufacturing facility, so he started working there, learning the apparel trade. This led him to launch a fashion brand (China Doll) with his cousin. The brand, he says, was extremely successful and it was only then that Oganesyan was able to marry his wife.
Pausing from his story, Oganesyan leans over his desk to pass me the joint. I take another hit, musing over how glad I am that he found his way to cannabis. A light, cerebral buzz washes over me, and I hand it back, eager to hear how Oganesyan would become one of our country’s greatest cultivators.
Oganesyan’s move into cannabis is quite a story. He says he consumed cannabis a few times in high school on snowboarding trips and again when he got out of the military, albeit infrequently. But it was his wife’s cousin, who worked for B-Real’s Dr. Greenthumb, who first opened his eyes to the enormous opportunity of cannabis as a business.
So, together with “a very dear friend,” Oganesyan got to work building the foundation of his own cannabis cultivation empire.
Fortuitously, as part of a military transition program to the civilian world, he spent three months studying masonry, plumbing and electrical work. These skills proved invaluable, as he could build everything required to grow in the warehouse. “We got our permits; we put together a whole business plan; we hired an attorney who gave us all the guidelines around what we needed to operate. We went
into business as Green Healing,” he says.
The two friends opened a 10,000-square-foot warehouse “while everybody was still growing in houses,” he says. Oganesyan began spending more than ten hours a day in the grow room. “I learned how the plants maneuver and grow,” he says. “I applied my gymnastic discipline—what I ate during training for the highest endurance level—to the plant’s feeding. Naturally, you want to feed them more than just once a day; how about twice a day, three times a day or four times a day, five times a day? That evolved to steering the plant’s growth by understanding the roots’ movement and the energy it takes for that plant to grow. It’s a calculation; it’s an equation. I don’t know where it came from; it just made sense to me.”
150 lights illuminated the multi-grow-room facility. The inaugural harvest was successful: The first room harvested had 24 lights from which they pulled 86 pounds of the orgininal OG, the iconic strain from Kenji and Josh D. You can imagine what the other 126 lights produced.
By 2010, Oganesyan and his partner had 1,000 lights operating in California. “We were fully licensed for every facility and followed the guidelines for legally cultivating. We employed 170 staff on full health insurance and worker’s comp. We paid ourselves enough to care of our families and everything else went back into the business,” he says.
In an all too familiar story, their legal grow was raided in 2011. “When we were raided, everything was on paper, every tax document in its place,” he says. Like so many people in similar situations, Oganesyan was left to pick up the pieces after the bust and forced to start anew with all their vendors and the legal dispensaries they were contracted with. Once again, Oganesyan’s discipline was on full display. “A true leader will get on his hands and knees, whatever it takes to get the work done. My initial thought was, ‘How do I create yet another business to protect my people because they must take care of their families?’”
One vendor suggested he come and work directly with them by providing his cannabis cultivation expertise to help build their business, which gave him the idea to start consulting. He advised multiple cannabis companies and dispersed his people between them. Within 18 months, Oganesyan was managing 3,000 lights across California. “I was able to put my head down at night and not worry about somebody coming knocking on my door and taking my wife and I to jail,” he says.
In 2019, Sean Oganesyan was approached by the founders of STIIIZY and the rest, as they say, is plant history. “Our visions aligned,” he says. “They said, ‘We don’t have a cultivation department and we want you to build it.’ Everything we discussed made sense to me because these guys are grinders. The founders are grinding every single day with every single one of their employees on the floor. We shared the same discipline and mindset—everything I come from. We were a powerful army; we were a team. We innovated, influenced and inspired each other every day,” he says, referencing the three “I’s” in STIIIZY. “We worked together, acknowledged certain problems and attacked them in unity. We had one vision, one goal.”
Spoken like a true Marine.