As one of the most profoundly accomplished female entrepreneurs in cannabis, Wanda James is simultaneously shattering the glass and grass ceilings. The founder and CEO of the Denver-based dispensary, Simply Pure, is blazing a trail for not only women of color, but for women in general.
James is the first legally licensed African American dispensary owner in the US. She attributes that to her strong work ethic; a willingness to trust her intuition; a readiness to pivot when necessary; and the influence of her “remarkable” father, who raised James and her brother alone.
“My dad used to always tell me, ‘If you’re ever walking down the street and something tells you to turn left, but you need to keep going straight, follow your gut: Turn left,’” James says. “He always told me not to let someone talk you out of not feeling that instinct.”
James learned to trust her gut and listen to her intuition—an ability that helped her form a strong sense of self and build a successful career as an adult. She says she never felt that growing up without a mother changed who she was or who she could become. Being part of a family without traditional gender roles helped form her expectations of the future: As she saw it, anything was possible.
After graduating from the Naval ROTC program as the first Black female in 1986, James admits she didn’t understand the significance of many of her accomplishments until years later. She found discipline and structure within the military, something James admits she needed at the time. So, James didn’t realize that it was uncommon for her to be the only Black woman in ROTC, or the only female officer or one of very few Black executives in corporate America. She says she didn’t realize she was America’s first Black dispensary owner either.
“I didn’t even know that until I think it was MSNBC that brought it up, because I didn’t know it was unusual,” she says. “The more I’m experiencing and looking back, I’m now saying, ‘Well, dang, I was the only woman. I was like, ‘Go me!’”
Her work as a Fortune 500 Executive, a small business owner and a leading advocate in the cannabis industry led James to work with government leaders including President Obama, Vice President Harris, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Barbara Lee and Colorado Governor Jared Polis. She says she focuses on social equity, justice and ending the War on Drugs. She ran for election to the University of Colorado Board of Regents representing District 1 and won in Colorado’s general election on November 8, 2022. With yet another achievement, James is a first-generation graduate of CU Boulder. Combined with the fact that there hasn’t been a Black woman on the Board of Regents since the 1980s, it’s another remarkable accolade in her career.
James admits that some of her life’s most significant decisions weren’t planned.
“When the universe presents something to you in a moment—whatever that is—your ‘spidey’ senses, your gut, all of a sudden, it all comes together and it’s like, that’s what you’re doing,” she says. “And so, I wish I could tell you—even with everything with cannabis, even with going to college and joining the military—all of those decisions were things that the universe presented me with at a time when that wasn’t what I was looking for. But it all said, ‘Say yes.’”
But the road hasn’t always been easy. James says it’s these tougher experiences—learning how to overcome hardships—that have provided her with many of the skills necessary to succeed. James made this clear while speaking to a political science class at CU Boulder. A student asked about her many career highlights, so she started running through her triumphs, but then, she suddenly stopped and said, “I need you to all understand that all of this happened because other things didn’t go right.”
Even in the competitive landscape that Denver dispensaries operate, she says her shop’s superpower is that they’ve remained small and have yet to take on any debt. Also, James says their ultimate success is because of the people behind the work.
“We’re like The Little Engine That Could,” she starts. “Nobody has been greedy. My investors have held on even when they don’t always get dividends. But we’ve all looked at it as if we’re almost at the point of legalization. It’s been the people who work there as well as what we believe about the plant. And it shows. We take time to explain things to customers; we’re not trying to rush them in and out. We’re doing the antithesis of what every consultant says you should be doing in a retail operation.”
When it comes to counseling women trying to break into the industry, James isn’t all sunshine and roses—not even close.
“Whenever I’m asked about advice I’d give to women about entering the cannabis industry, I’m always torn between wanting to give the uplifting answer that I know somebody in my position should deliver to folks,” she says. “It should be something like, ‘Hey, believe in your dreams, and yes, your cake can be on the shelf of every dispensary out there.’ But, sadly, that’s not the case at all. I’ve always been about entrepreneurism. I love being an entrepreneur. I’m wired that way. Not everybody is wired to be an entrepreneur.”
James emphasizes the importance of understanding what you’re getting yourself into. While some people may have their heart set on starting and growing a business, others may be better suited working alongside a team of passionate employees.
“There are incredible careers and high-paying jobs in the cannabis space,” she says. “If you’ve never run a business, if you don’t understand mass distribution, if you’re not looking at scaling your product line the same way Coca-Cola scales, then in that case, you’re in the wrong business. If you’re not looking to build that kind of business, sitting in front of a computer most days, having countless meetings with people you may not like very much and who don’t understand your passion and don’t speak your language, cannabis may not be your calling.”
Luckily for James, cannabis was the siren call she never knew she needed to answer. After a lifetime of groundbreaking firsts—in cannabis and in business—this dynamic force of nature is determined to keep following her gut and continue making her father proud.