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Walking the Talk
Viola Brands:
A Case Study in Cultivating Racial Equity

Cannabis producer Viola Brands is determined to increase minority representation in the industry. Its Viola Cares program provides education, employment and other resources; in order to create 10,000 jobs within the cannabis industry for Black people.

Truly purpose-driven businesses must exist to create long-term, lasting impacts for their stakeholders. If the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement can teach us one thing, it’s that sustainability and social equity go hand in hand. Going forward, no business can be considered sustainable as long as it is oppressing the lives of others somewhere along its value chain. Consumers will be looking to see whether brands walk their talk.

Viola Brands — a cannabis company founded in 2011 by former NBA player Al Harrington — exemplifies this ethos. Harrington’s grandmother, Viola, suffered from glaucoma, arthritis and other health issues; but eventually found relief when Harrington convinced her to try cannabis. From there, Viola Brands was born — and it has since become a nationally recognized cultivator, processor, distributor and dispenser of ultra-premium cannabis products.

Determined to increase minority representation in the industry, the company re-invests its revenues into its recently launched social equity program, Viola Cares — which offers resources and funding for minorities who have been disproportionately targeted by the war on drugs, particularly those who have been criminalized for non-violent cannabis drug offenses. The program turns oppression into opportunity, giving a boost to those who have had real disadvantages from institutionalized racism. One of the company’s goals is to create 10,000 jobs within the cannabis industry for Black people.

The Viola Cares initiative is focused on changing the industry dynamics of cannabis through education, incubation and employment; as well as benefiting communities in need in other ways — the program fed over 20,000 people across four markets in 2019 through various events and food drives; and Harrington is donating 20,000 CBD creams to Black Lives Matter protesters across the country who are suffering from pain.

So far, Viola Cares has committed over $500,000 to empower its applicants to become minority owners/investors that own and operate Viola, and Harrington has made it his personal mission to turn 100 Black cannabis entrepreneurs into millionaires.

We caught up recently with Viola CMO Ericka Pittman to learn more about the conscious cannabis brand and how it’s bringing much-needed equity to the industry. She said the team is excited about the impending roll-out of a new curriculum and scholarships, for individuals that wants to become experts in the cannabis space.

“I hear a lot around the statement that Al made, around ‘making 100 millionaires;’ and the responses we’ve been getting are, ‘where do I sign up to become a millionaire?’ — like it’s a lottery or a game show. But what it really means is creating access to capital, access to education and viable resources so that we can empower and enable individuals to become millionaires in the cannabis space.”

Through the Viola Cares incubator, Viola is working to create apprenticeships and mentoring opportunities for its millionaires-to-be within its nationwide network of dispensary and cultivation partners — providing education on everything from how to launch healthy cultivation or a dispensary; through access to Round A investors, job opportunities and training. Pittman says a few individuals they have worked with to date have already achieved millionaire status.

“We’re very excited about the work that we’re pulling together to really empower people — to teach people how to effectively run and source funding for cannabis companies, and to understand the legislation and the evolution of the cannabis industry at large,” she said.

When Pittman joined the Viola team in January, it marked a few firsts for the 25-year marketing veteran — she became the first African American female CMO of a multi-state cannabis operator; and, she says, Viola is the first company she’s worked for in which Purpose is “a fundamental part of the DNA of the company.”

“There has been a social impact element to most of the brands that I’ve represented, but Viola is the first company that I’ve ever worked for that includes purpose as part of our key performance indicators. So, we’re not doing a good job if we’re not creating those opportunities for others in this industry; and, for me, that is groundbreaking — I’ve never experienced that in a business model.”

Since the tragic killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police at the end of May revitalized the Black Lives Matter movement, companies across the US have been forced to look at their role in supporting and actively driving racial equity — with varying degrees of success and efficacy. Pittman says a vital component of any authentic response or strategy is that it’s fully embedded into a company’s business model — along with a thorough understanding of the issue and the communities affected by it.

“We are blessed to be of the culture that we’re servicing, so there’s a level of organic connection and authenticity that we bring to the table — we say what we mean and we do what we say,” she says.

Pittman said that, in order to respond authentically on the issue of racial equity, brands and companies must acquire deep insights into what the communities in question actually need.

“First and foremost, identify stakeholders within your organization that intrinsically understand the social impact matter that you’re trying to solve for. I think large companies do themselves an injustice and a disservice by making assumptions about cultural hurdles and sensitivities — it’s important to have a fundamental understanding of the audience that you’re trying to serve. And having stakeholders and leadership that reflect that audience will help you as a larger company to create authentic and genuine ideas and programs to help forward whatever social impact efforts that may be.”

She also urges companies to “really roll your sleeves up and get dirty” — social media sound bytes and ‘thoughts and prayers’-type responses will no longer cut it.

“Get in the weeds, touch the people to understand what individuals need; and you’ll create solutions — not just throw money at a problem,” Pittman asserted. “You can always donate to charities and then sleep well at night thinking, ‘we did our part, we gave back.’

"But I think that leaders of larger organizations need to take a step back and take some personal ownership of understanding the hurdles that they’re trying to solve for. Then, when they do put programming in place, it resonates with the target audience; and it forwards the agenda of that audience — then, it becomes more effective.”