“If you’re not helping your community, who is going to help you?” – Karla Rodriguez, Wana Brands
“At the most human level, the most important thing we can work on is equity,” said Karla Rodriguez, Corporate Social Responsibility Director of Wana Brands when BIPOCANN caught up with her to talk about all things CSR in cannabis, “For everyone to have the opportunity to succeed at life, build generational wealth, and always have something to eat.” We couldn’t agree more.
Personal Motivations to Build an Equitable Industry
Rodriguez is someone who not only talks the talk, but authentically walks the walk of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in cannabis. This Denver-based advocate has very personal reasons for wanting to enter the cannabis industry as a means to bring about positive change in the world.
Her father’s side of the family is Mexican American, and Rodriguez witnessed the devastating and lasting impacts of the War on Drugs at an early age. She saw many of her family members incarcerated for cannabis, and tragically lost one cousin to unsafe synthetic cannabinoids, a by-product of prohibition. The scars left on her family will never truly heal.
“There is some real room to make incredible change and impact right now, and we can still see the impact of what has happened, and we have a responsibility to do something about it,” said Rodriguez of her personal motivations, “That is why I eat, breathe and sleep equity and social responsibility every day while walking through this industry.”
An Authentic Path to Community-Based Work
Rodriguez comes from a very impressive background that in many ways, made her the perfect person for the role of Corporate Social Responsibility Director for Wana Brands.
For over 15 years, Rodriguez was a participant in the film industry, working as the Community Partnerships Manager for the Denver Film Society and then as the Private and Community Events Manager, and later as the National Culture and Community Manager at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, where she found herself working “in tandem with the C-Suite on community engagement”. Rodriguez describes this time in her career as “when I recognized the power of coming together and working collaboratively.”
When the pandemic hit, the landscape of employment in the arts drastically changed, and Rodriguez experienced a layoff. However, to her delight, before she’d lost her job in the film industry, she had applied to Wana Brands in the cannabis industry which offered her an interview. “I saw the true heart and intention through which Nancy Whiteman ran the company and I knew it was the place for me,” she said. She also was attracted to the opportunity to work for a Denver-based company with a national and international focus.
A Journey in Corporate Social Responsibility in Cannabis Begins
Just five days after giving birth to her daughter, Rodriguez had her first interview with Wana Brands. “Never have I been my more authentic self,” she says as she recalls her initial time with the company during her recruitment. It was that undeniable authenticity that ended up with her landing the role of Corporate Social Responsibility Director, which she has enjoyed since March 2021.
Rodriguez explained that Wana Brands has four pillars of giving: racial and social injustice (which also includes the LGBTQIA+ community), sustainability, domestic violence, and fighting food security and homelessness. Wana Brands very visibly mobilized their authentic spirit of giving this past 420. “We are trying to shape what would be days of marketing into days of giving,” she explained.
To mark the monumental cannabis holiday for 2022, The Wana Foundation distributed $140,000 among 14 community organizations across the country. The impact of this donation resulted in helping to open a grocery store in a historically Black community that is also a food desert in Tulsa. Food deserts describe geographical areas that are under-serviced in terms of access to consistent, fairly-priced, nutritious, and culturally appropriate foods. The donation also contributed to building community gardens within food desert neighborhoods in Miami, and bringing an LA-based food desert neighborhood closer to opening a grocery store.
The company has also participated in campaigns with Legal Women Voters to increase voter registration and education, and during the pandemic, provided free vaccination clinics for those who wanted the option, but didn’t have adequate access.
Wana Brands’ CSR initiatives aren’t just about looking outward. “It’s really important that when you’re doing this work in the external community to not neglect your internal community,” Rodriguez advises, “Support equity, inclusion, and growth within your own company. Factoring that from within is going to fuel the intention to do the work outwardly.” As a measure of giving back to their own workforce, the company created an Emergency Assistance Fund that employees could apply to if they’re experiencing financial hardship.
Executing Authentic Corporate Social Responsibility in Cannabis
We asked Rodriguez about the required mindset needed to change marketing into giving and awareness of community needs. “Corporate Social Responsibility programs have to work with the balance of taking what we know in our hearts as the right thing to do and also have a business lens,” she explained, “Sometimes you need to pull off that business lens just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a balancing act, and it’s about taking that passion and injecting it into the soul of corporate industries.”
Rodriguez went on to share how cannabis companies can execute their CSR strategies in true, impactful, and authentic ways. “When it’s baked into everything, then it’s authentic,” she says, adding “pun intended”. “It’s not just someone sitting in a room and writing checks and that’s the end of it. It trickles down and it’s a part of all the thoughts when a new product launches or a new initiative is undertaken. It’s not just a one-time performative act.”
She enjoys working for Wana Brands because that spirit has been at the forefront of the company since its inception. “We are here to serve. Nancy created this company to serve the world, to serve the cannabis industry, and enhance the world for others through our products and programs.” She refers to giving, volunteerism, community events, and awareness campaigns as some of what make Wana Brands unique in its CSR approach. “It’s a holistic approach, all year round,” she says.
“Pride is great, but what are you doing year-round? Black History Month? What else are you doing the other 364 days of the year to recognize the contributions of Black and Brown people?”, she posits, “It has to be built into the day-to-day of everything you’re doing.” She also noted that when considering their CSR strategies or reporting on diversity hiring within the industry, Indigenous people are often left out. “I don’t want Indigenous people to be lost in the shuffle,” she said.
We asked Rodriguez how cannabis companies direct their community engagement in a way that truly has impact. “You can’t make assumptions about the needs of the community,” she said, “You need to honestly step back and listen. It’s hard because we often want to react and fix things quickly. But if you don’t know what the true needs of the community are, you won’t make an impact. Half of my job is listening and following the lead of people I meet with.”
Her Hopes for the Future in Cannabis
We asked Rodriguez where she would like to see the cannabis industry five years down the road.
“We don’t ask ourselves that question enough because we’re so busy fighting on a day-to-day basis that we forget to project towards the future,” she says. “We know that so many social equity programs aren’t working. My hope is that we can get to a place where Black, Brown, and Indigenous businesses can thrive and have as much chance to succeed as any other large MSO or large manufacturer out there. My other hope is that obviously that we keep getting closer and closer to federal legalization, and access to banking.”
Rodriguez also places access to formalized education for BIPOC and women in the industry of high importance, seeing a lack of access to formalized education both outside and inside the cannabis industry that teaches people how to succeed in business. “I have faith that five years from now we’ll be light years ahead around education which will lessen the stigma about the plant.”
Before we closed off our conversation with Karla Rodriguez, we asked her how to combat some of the resistance that can be rampant in cannabis toward Corporate Social Responsibility. She left us with a great tidbit of advice for cannabis executives who may be a bit resistant to sharing a bit of their piece of the pie with others: “What got you where you are is by the help of others. No one gets success without the help of another,” she stated, “Your continued success will definitively rely on the support and loyalty of your community, so if you’re not helping your community, who is going to help you?”
“It’s your responsibility as a global citizen of this world.”