by Scott Rodd Staff Writer Sacramento Business Journal
SUBSCRIBER CONTENT: Apr 26, 2018, 7:28am PDT
With California’s legalization of recreational cannabis on Jan 1, Frank Louie didn’t see uncertainty — he saw opportunity.
“The people voted — it was going to be a legal industry,” said Louie, chief operating officer of the Sacramento Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce. “And we recognized that small businesses and entrepreneurs were going to be a big part of this industry.”
Educating the Asian Pacific Chamber’s leadership and members about cannabis has been a top priority for the organization. Following the 2016 passage of Proposition 64, leaders from the Asian Pacific Chamber have met with regulators from the state Bureau of Cannabis Control and the city of Sacramento’s Office of Cannabis Policy and Enforcement to remain abreast of the industry’s evolving regulations.
Starting in May of last year, the Asian Pacific Chamber launched a series of panel discussions on the cannabis industry, featuring state and local regulators, as well as influential members of the Asian Pacific Chamber. The organization has also hosted smaller community gatherings.
The Asian Pacific Chamber’s goal, according to Louie, is to ensure its members have the necessary resources to transition their existing businesses to serve cannabis companies, as well as to launch new ventures in the budding marijuana space.
“There’s a very diverse need for resources for entrepreneurs trying to break into this industry,” he said.
Over the last year, the Sacramento Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce and the CalAsian Chamber of Commerce — state and local organizations based in Sacramento that share the same leadership staff — have organized five panel discussions featuring regulators, entrepreneurs and trade association leaders in the cannabis industry. The most recent event featured Lori Ajax, chief of the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, as its keynote speaker.
The ticketed events are open to the public, but members are able to attend at a significant discount. According to Louie, the panel discussions are an opportunity for members to learn about the industry, as well as gain access to influential people.
“Think about how a small business owner would be able to reach state regulators and policymakers on their own— they wouldn’t be able to,” he said. The Asian Pacific Chamber has also helped organize more intimate community gatherings for Asian-American business owners — especially for those who are first or second-generation Americans. In recent months, the organization hosted a community gathering in a South Sacramento neighborhood with a large Asian-American population. A trusted community leader held the gathering in his home, and the Asian Pacific Chamber arranged for an interpreter to translate the discussion for non-English-speaking attendees.
The smaller event was intended to cover practical requirements for getting involved in the cannabis industry. It also aimed to reverse long-held assumptions about marijuana.
Ophelia Chong, founder of the online platform Asian Americans for Cannabis Education, said one of the biggest challenges for the Asian Pacific Chamber has been destigmatizing cannabis. Chong’s website highlights Asian-American entrepreneurs and researchers working in cannabis. Louie approached her to join the CalAsian Chamber of Commerce in order to leverage her educational platform.
“With the interviews that I post, I try to talk about heritage, where people have come from and why they’re in the industry,” Chong said.
Chong, who is also the founder of stock photo agency StockPot Images LLC, is one of several cannabis entrepreneurs that the Asian Pacific Chamber recruited in anticipation of the state’s legalization of recreational cannabis.
Tyler Kearns, owner of SevenLeaves Products, a cannabis cultivator in North Sacramento, was invited to join the Asian Pacific Chamber’s board of directors.
Founded in 2015, SevenLeaves employs 12 full-time and 16 part-time employees. As an Asian Pacific Chamber board member, Kearns has hosted tours for members at his facility and conducted outreach with members of the Asian Pacific Chamber who want to break into the nascent industry.
“They need direction on where to start that process,” Kearns said.
Other area chambers of commerce do not appear to have named cannabis entrepreneurs to their boards. The California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, however, has conducted a cannabis business workshop, and the Sacramento Black Chamber of Commerce expressed support for Proposition 64. The Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has cannabis businesses represented in its membership, spokeswoman Erika Bjork said. “As an emerging industry, we are actively exploring ways that the Metro Chamber can engage, and support, this sector of the ag industry,” Bjork said in an email. The majority of Asian Pacific Chamber members Kearns has met with are looking to find an auxiliary niche in the cannabis industry — such as packaging, marketing or real estate services. In the coming months and years, Louie said, he expects a growing number of Asian Pacific Chamber members will launch cannabis-focused businesses, especially in cultivation and manufacturing.