Seun Adedeji calls his entry into the cannabis industry an “American Dream story.” He moved from Nigeria to the U.S. at the age of 5, settling in Chicago, then in Dallas; as an adult, he spent time on both the West and East coasts. He was drawn to the industry in the interest of social justice, generational wealth and a drive to succeed. But he didn’t have the amount of capital, resources or connections as many others looking to launch their own business. He stuck to his plan, or, as he tells Cannabis Dispensary, “did not take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Adedeji launched Elev8 Cannabis in 2017. Three years later, at age 27, he is still the youngest African American man to own a cannabis dispensary in the U.S that he knows of. And Elev8 doesn’t only have one store. It’s a multi-state operator with locations in Eugene, Ore., and Athol, Mass.
Describing the work that went into getting to this point, Adedeji shares, “I tell people I became the COE—the ‘chief of everything.’ I became my attorney, I became my contractor, application writer, whatever was needed. I did it because I was passionate about getting into the cannabis industry; I was passionate about being a beacon of hope for so many other people that might have come from [a] similar situation. And I just wanted to give people—hustlers, people from my background—hope and show them that this is actually doable.”
Adedeji says he and his team made the decision to expand from the West Coast to the East Coast in light of Oregon becoming more saturated and Massachusetts having requirements that prevent cannabis monopolies, such as businesses generally only being allowed three licenses. He worked in Massachusetts to obtain host-community agreements and non-opposition votes from local governments.
“We focus on border towns, due to the fact that we're not a big corporation,” Adedeji says. (Athol is located near the New Hampshire border.) “I can’t afford Boston, and I'm not ashamed of it. So, we strategically focus on what is our strength, what can we afford right now, and we’re scaling, going places where most people don't want to go.”
Pierce Ellison, store manager of Elev8’s Athol location that it opened in October 2020, emphasizes the welcoming atmosphere of the company, outlined in its mission “to love, awaken, and elevate the human spirit by treating everyone like gold.”
“We are here to serve our surrounding communities and anyone that wants to visit us,” Ellison says. “Our mission is to be inclusive, treat our customers like they are gold, treat them like they are our family members.”
These approaches have helped Elev8 to—well, elevate—to a multi-million-dollar company with 20—soon to be about 40—employees, and the construction of two more storefronts in Orange and Williamstown, Mass., which Adedeji says are tentatively set to open by the second quarter of 2021. Like Athol, both Orange and Williamstown are located along the State Rt. 2 corridor that rides the northern border of the state.
Several years back, Adedeji worked selling phones at Sprint, and he rose in the company to a manager. To launch Elev8, he used $50,000, a combination of personal savings and investments from friends.
He has not used social-equity programs to enter or operate in Oregon or Massachusetts’ cannabis markets, though he says he did have a similar background—a former arrest for cannabis, for example—as such programs use as qualifications for participation.
Growing up as a teenager in Chicago, Adedeji was arrested for selling cannabis; the charge was possession. “Getting arrested at 13, I never knew that it would actually help me in the future,” he says. “It was just devastating, period. I couldn't see any benefit from it. I couldn't predict that cannabis was going to be legal. I was just a 13-year-old kid that was just trying to provide and feed myself. It was devastating—I thought my life was over.”
Adedeji says he relates with other people who have been affected by the War on Drugs. He advocates for social equity, but he doesn’t participate in those programs because he feels that many of them do not provide opportunities for true equity.
Many of the people who are advocating for social equity, Adedeji says, could try to launch a business under states’ broader rules and regulations. “But I think that a lot of people are missing out on the wave because they're so tunnel-visioned on social equity, they’re not actually executing on their vision and their dream of being a cannabis dispensary owner,” he says.
Adedeji says he is transitioning from “COE” to CEO, delegating different tasks to people who can complete them “on a mastery level that I can’t.” In addition to expanding its leadership team, Elev8 cross-trains employees and promotes from within. Budtenders shadow intake managers and store managers, for example, to see the different ways their store runs. Then, when the store hires more people, those new employees have the same opportunities to advance.
“I want people that stand for purpose, stand for the people and give others the opportunities to get this money so they can help more people,” Adedeji says. “I think that's it for me is just, I'm a purpose-driven person, I love collaboration and seeing my vision come to life. And that's stimulates me. That makes me get up every day and feel like I'm doing something, that I'm changing lives or helping people.”
Ellison (who, like Adedeji, lightheartedly ends conversations and signs emails with a reminder to "Stay Elev8ed!") says his boss has inspired him in multiple ways. “As a gay man, his inclusivity has inspired me, and pushed me to treat as many people as I can like gold, and treat everyone like they’re you’re family because in our family we accept anyone no matter who they are,” Ellison says.
Adedeji isn’t only being recognized as a leader within his own business. He serves as a “cannabis czar” for the Chicago Black Chamber of Commerce and will serve on the National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) board of directors from 2021-2023.
Offering Knowledge of the Plant to the People
Following their mission to treat people “like gold,” Elev8 team members to actively listen to and educate their customers on some of the intricacies of cannabis.
Ellison joined Elev8 in September 2020 as a budtender and soon was promoted to store manager of the dispensary’s Athol location. Previously, Ellison obtained a bachelor’s degree in music performance with a specialization in trumpet from Texas Tech University and was working toward a master’s degree in music performance at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
He says cannabis has played an important role in his life and that the chasm between Texas’ and Massachusetts’ drug laws was a factor in his decision to move to the Bay State. After the move, he obtained a medical card and worked as a cultivation technician.
“I quickly learned that indica[-leaning] hybrids would be my best friend,” says Ellison, citing that it helps him with depression, anxiety, stomach pains and headaches.
Now, after joining Elev8, Ellison channels his passion for cannabis as he welcomes all walks of life into the store, from 21-year-olds who have just become eligible to purchase cannabis in Massachusetts’ adult-use program, to people who can’t sleep at night, to 80- to-90-year-olds who “say they just want to have some fun like they did in the ’70s.”
For customers who are interested in learning more about cannabis and its effects, Adedeji says, Elev8 provides them with pamphlets with information on cannabinoids.
“We talk to our customers,” he says. “We seek first to understand what brings them in, what illness that they're trying to target or use cannabis for. Once we do that, we then educate them on the best product that can fit their needs. We have other customers that want to get high, but … they just know that they want to relax, they want to stay focused.”
Adedeji says he has noticed some general differences between how Oregon and Massachusetts customers approach purchasing decisions. “I think when you look at more mature markets like Oregon, you see a lot of Oregon folks—they're focused on cannabinoids, they're focused on terpene profile, they're focused more in-depth on the educational component,” he says. “When you look at newer states like Massachusetts and the East Coast, they're focused on THC potency.”
Large Lessons Learned
Adedeji offers some words of advice to dispensary owners and managers, both from personnel- and money-management perspectives.
“Your budtenders, your team members are the bloodline of your company,” he says. “Just appreciate them because without them, we wouldn't be able to lead.”
In addition, he stresses the value of a cannabis-business license and advises owners to time their larger capital raises after they have already acquired a license.Explaining his plans for Elev8 for the next several years, Adedeji says: “I think for us, we want to continue to be a leader within the cannabis industry. We want to continue to break down barriers … to do the impossible [when] people say it's not possible. I'm a guy that started with $50,000. Now, we are running a multi-million-dollar company. So, I really want to just continue to be a beacon of hope while expanding our brand across the United States.”