Maryland-based vertically integrated cannabis operator Curio Wellness has announced a new funding program that will provide $30 million in startup capital to up to 50 minority business owners to allow them to open a Curio franchise in one of multiple states.
“At its root, it was born of an interest in making a statement about diversity,” Jerel Registre, managing director of the Curio WMBE Fund, told Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary.
Curio CEO Michael Bronfein started thinking about ways to support diversity in the industry back in 2018, Registre said, and worked with one of the company’s key investors to move beyond Curio’s focus on a diverse employee base to create business ownership opportunities for women, minorities and disabled veterans.
Access to capital is a key challenge for many prospective business owners, Registre said, due to the cannabis industry’s limited access to banking, as well as diverse communities historically having a more difficult time accessing capital to build businesses.
“That is where the idea for a fund was born,” Registre said. “Then, as we looked at how to make sure that both the fund and the entrepreneurs were successful over time, we wanted to be able to provide operational support that went beyond advice, really. … We settled on franchising because that really enabled us to partner with the franchisees or the entrepreneurs to drive both the performance and the brand of the store in a way that created sustainable business and business models.”
How to best address diversity remains an important challenge as the cannabis industry matures and faces the prospect of federal legalization, Registre said, and in taking a stab at solving this issue, the Curio team hopes to bring industry stakeholders together on what a diverse marketplace really means.
Curio hopes to provide entrepreneurs access to franchises in up to 10 states, which will be chosen based on their regulatory structures and the overall health of their medical cannabis programs. Curio is largely a medical company with a clinical approach to cannabis, Registre said, and plans to launch its franchisees’ businesses primarily in medical markets.
The company is currently awaiting regulatory approval for its franchising model, but once it has the green light, it will establish an application process for prospective franchisees in early 2021. Registre will work with Curio’s president of retail services, Andy Cohen, to develop specific criteria for applicants.
“[We want potential franchisees] to be a great leaders, but there’s also an aspect of being excited for regulation,” Registre said. “We really need people who … are willing to color inside the lines, to really make sure that compliance is at the forefront of the management of the store.”
Curio will require franchisees to appoint a clinical director for each store, he added. “In a lot of cases, we expect that a clinician will seek to be the franchisee themselves and serve as the clinical director, and then [will hire a team with] experience around retail, marketing, sales and all of those other skills that will make for a successful store.”
As the franchisor, Curio will provide launch support to franchisees for the first six months to a year, including help in the licensing process, initial employee hiring and training, site selection, and the buildout of the dispensaries. In the longer term, Curio will help develop standard operating procedures for its franchisees, as well as provide day-to-day guidance in running the stores.
The company also offers Curio College, which will educate franchisees and their teams about the clinical aspects of medical cannabis.
“We need a mechanism to keep our franchisees and their employees current on the latest in research and development in the space,” Registre said.
Curio is currently fundraising for the program and is about halfway to its $30-million goal, which will ultimately allow the company to help launch 40 to 50 minority-owned dispensaries.
Curio’s franchising model ultimately leads to 100% ownership for entrepreneurs, Registre said, as the fund is structured as a launch vehicle rather than a permanent investment in each store. The franchisee will purchase the fund’s ownership over time, he said, and as capital is returned to investors, it will be reinvested in even more minority-owned businesses.
“From our perspective, when we looked at the opportunity to make a statement about diversity, it’s hard to assemble all the components to drive a long-term impact,” Registre said. “Even if you’re able to support an entrepreneur in receiving a license, there’s a need for ongoing support so they can get their business established, let alone operate successfully over time. So, we’re really enthusiastic and we have a lot of conviction around the idea that pairing the financing with the franchise element creates … a long-term relationship."