I believe in regulation of cannabis, but think it does this plant a disservice to compare it to tobacco. This plant has been around for thousands of years as a medicine. I believe it should be looked at like a preventive wellness tool and medicine.” Olivia Alexander
As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Olivia Alexander.
Olivia Alexander has grown Kush Queen into a multi-million dollar, multi-channel brand manufacturing only the finest cannabis infused products. Referenced as the Queen of CBD by the LA Times, Olivia has a knack for being able to develop, connect and relate cannabis to community, health, and wellness. Olivia’s book, The Essential Guide to Cannabis for Women: How to Buy, Use, and Enjoy Cannabis for Recreation and Wellness releases on sale on March 29, 2022.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Olivia Alexander! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
When I was 18, I tried cannabis for the first time. I had a lifetime of mental health issues and severe relentless insomnia. With my first puff, I slept like a baby and knew cannabis would be a part of my life forever. A few months later, my boyfriend’s friend opened a medical cannabis shop and I got hired as a budtender. Behind the counter, I realized everything everyone knew about cannabis was wrong.
The majority of the people who came into the dispensary weren’t there to get high, but to feel better. A significant portion of our customers were dealing with severe diseases and disorders. I didn’t understand why people in cannabis didn’t want to focus on the medicinal and medical benefits. Over the years, I built a following online as an influencer and content creator while I worked at cannabis companies well before legalization hit. I always felt alone, as there were few women in the industry.
Cannabis has long been a boys club filled with misogyny and toxicity. Between my experiences with people who used cannabis for wellness and the lack of representation of women in cannabis, I decided to launch my own company in 2015. It’s sort of been a ride to the moon ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There’s not one story in particular that sticks out, but my entire journey.
First and foremost, I am one of the few people who literally grew up in this industry. I started at the most entry-level position and now am a CEO.
I have been in cannabis for so long, I used to lie about my entire life. Everyone told me I was ruining my life by posting my cannabis use on social media but I knew I was changing the stigma. Then, things slowly changed and I was there to ride all the waves: the OG medical days in California, the hemp CBD boom of 2017, legalization in 2018, and now the next chapter in cannabis.
I did it all with my own funding, having only had a single angel investor back in 2018. For me, the lesson is longevity and commitment.
This industry has insane turnover and there’s always a new hot brand with tons of funding (who inevitably goes bankrupt). I am here to be the antithesis of it all and to show people that if you carve out your own lane, pay your dues, and frankly never give up, then you can do it too.
The industry has few people here for passion for the plant and the people that use it. For a lot of cannabis brands, its all about the bottom line and being the biggest company. For me, it’s about innovation, inspiration, and bringing people the best products every single day. I just want people (especially women) to know that you don’t need billions of dollars. All you need is passion. The cannabis space needs more people with a true passion for the plant.
Olivia Alexander, can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest moment I can remember was when we got our first $30,000 order. It was back in the early days of medical cannabis and we got picked up by a large dispensary chain Med Men. At that time, we had only been in business as Kush Queen for 6 months and our monthly sales were $30,000.
At the time we were still doing every part of the bath bomb process by hand. Our batch only made 12 bath bombs at a time. Needless to say, we had to stop everything we were doing, purchase equipment, and then begin the painful process of scaling our batches.
For weeks, every single batch failed. We had broken bath bombs and powder everywhere. Everyone was crying all the time, for about 3 straight weeks. I made a sign that said, “DON’T CRY OVER BROKEN BATH BOMBS” and another ”X days since broken bath bombs” (like the work accidents sign).
Everyone sort of broke down laughing and crying as I put them up. It literally shifted the energy in the production room and it’s almost like after that moment everything began to click.
For me, the lesson I learned was the value of humor and having fun, especially when your team is frustrated and down. It’s crazy because 6 years later, we don’t really have broken or rejected products from our line. My current product manager was an original member of our product team and we always laugh about it. He brings that spirit to our workflow and we pride ourselves on having fun in everything we do. Legal cannabis and hemp is actually an incredibly challenging industry to survive and thrive in so at Kush Queen, we put an emphasis on having fun.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
The funniest story is that as soon as I got into the industry, my mom joined me. My mom was my first employee and still works for my company to this day. I tell people that she’s the real Kush Queen.
Back in the medical days, she was the only mom at the Cannabis Cup. She would literally be at these festivals with people dabbing their faces off and she would be dancing at the booth. She was front and center in the cannabis community.
She would bring me pounds of weed, glitter pipes, and has never once judged me like the rest of the world. Who would have thought a pageant queen southern belle mother would be so eager to join me in cannabis?!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Back when I was just a content creator, I got a LinkedIn message from a girl named Rachel Wolfson. She was a comedian, meme creator and had a degree in marketing. She was pitching me to work for a marketing company, pre-Kush Queen. I met her in a strange work lunch in Studio City and we smoked a blunt in my car after. She was one of the few people I ever met that was making cannabis content from a female perspective. We just shared this passion for cannabis and this belief that women were being misrepresented in our community.
I immediately put her on my Olivia Alexander Youtube Channel The Budd and we started a podcast. Over the years, Kush Queen became relentless in its need for my time and she started being busier with her comedy.
Once we got in the Rolling Stone Cannabis Gift Guide and we couldn’t figure out how it happened. Weeks later, we realized she had done it. She did events for me, she helped roll joints, modeled in photoshoots, promoted KQ, and really just put me on to everyone at all times since the moment she met me.
Now, she’s the first woman to join the Jackass crew and is in the number one movie in America. You never ever know who that person is sliding into your DMs or your LinkedIn messages. So many people walk all over people, burn bridges, and get to the top in a non-collaborative way.
I am forever grateful to Rachel for believing in me and Kush Queen. I have always believed in her genius from the moment we met.
Olivia Alexander, are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Were always hard and at work in research and development. We’ve been developing our transdermally psychoactive cosmetics for years, which is undoubtedly the biggest undertaking of my career.
Our latest launch, BARE+ made with acidic cannabinoids is near and dear to my heart. Along with the latest study that came out a few weeks ago, which showed acidic cannabinoids have the ability to prevent covid-19, there is also a ton of other science to back acidic cannabinoid benefits.
As many in the cannabis industry continue to significantly focus on cannabis for recreation, at Kush Queen, we are instead staying focused on the wellness and scientific approach because that’s what will truly transform people’s lives.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to this report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?
I recently saw this Instagram post that summed up this question perfectly for me. It was on a page called “The Future is Flower” and it said, “There is a battle going on for the soul of the cannabis industry. And every cannabis consumer is a soldier in that battle, consciously or unconsciously. Vote for your values. Vote with your dollars. And support companies that support our communities”.
We need consumers to be armed with the knowledge they are in control. In my new book, The Essential Guide to Cannabis for Women, I have a short guide on how to be an ethical cannabis consumer. It’s all in your own hands to support women-owned, BIPOC owned, independently owned, and LGBTQIA+ owned brands.
You, Olivia Alexander, are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each.
- Putting The Plant First Doesn’t Always Happen — With large corporations entering the market, having to answer investor demands, and remain competitive in the market, it’s easy to lose sight of honoring the plant and keeping her benefits front and center.
- The Cannabis Industry Is Not That Different From The Tech Industry — As a woman in the industry for 16 years, at some point, I expected there to be more women and diversity at the proverbial table. Five years into legalization in California and there are now fewer women in leadership positions then when I began my career. Although we want things to be different, expect a “bro” like culture similar to the tech industry.
- Your Ethics & Morals will be tested — This seems obvious however, you might think you have clear values, morals and a personal code of ethics. This industry will require you to speak up and call things out like you’ve never experienced before.
- Not Every Smokes Weed — This used to bother me and calling people out for being a cannabis CEO but not smoking weed even turned into losing a potential investment deal. Be prepared to interact with people that are far removed from the actual plant medicine or don’t take the time to learn about the plant, its delivery methods, and the benefits of use.
- Do This For You & Your Passion — The cannabis industry is full of challenges and unoriginal ideas. You couple those two things together and it can make your courage and strength to continue on the hard days very challenging. Before entering this industry, REALLY ask yourself why you are doing this and don’t ever lose sight of your passion.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
The first thing that most excites me about the cannabis industry is seeing more women, POC, and LQBTQIA+ people joining the space. The second is the hope of federal legalization within the next 5 or so years. And the third is the global expansion of the hemp market, I am so excited to see Kush Queen products making their way around the globe.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
Monopolization. My first major concern for the cannabis industry is monopolization. Currently, the price of licensing is so high it is keeping so many small businesses from existing in the space. This creates problems for consumers and is especially bad for workers. The consolidation of the industry has begun and it’s truly scary to think the entire space could end up being owned by a small few. Cannabis should be an industry where businesses big and small can exist. Where the stakeholders represent the vast amount of people who use cannabis. Instead, it is owned by a few corporations that simply have the ability to lose billions in order to own the entire supply chain, cultivation, extraction and retail.
Taxation. Currently, in California, both consumers and businesses are being taxed to death on legal cannabis. The state has been warned repeatedly by the industry, activists and consumers that this is a house of cards. Over 80% of the cannabis market in California is still illicit and untaxed. Legal cannabis is failing in California because consumers are choosing unlicensed dispensaries to save money. By simply lowering the taxes they would drive both consumers and businesses to join the legal market.
Product Quality. As companies sought vertical integration, we saw the creation of massive operations. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of low-grade cannabis sit on the market in both California and Canada. Overall it’s all the same problem: poor product quality because commercial cultivation at a mass scale may be good for their business plans, but it leaves customers with a low-quality product. Conveniently (in the name of safety) large producers and corporations lobbied for regulations that do not allow the customer to be able to smell, touch, or even open the product they are buying. This is another thing driving people to the illicit market because frankly, you can get better cannabis at a lot of the unlicensed dispensaries.
What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, Olivia Alexander, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?
The biggest reasons we need legalization at a federal level is banking and advertising. Without federal legalization, this industry will always be struggling with access to fair banking and advertising.
Even to this day, CBD companies do not have access to SMS texting platforms. To outsiders, the states legalizing is enough, but they do not see the issues around banking. What is also concerning is that we are so far behind other countries like Canada.
In fact, a good portion of the U.S. market is already owned by Canadian cannabis companies because they have had federal for some time. Ultimately, cannabis is a true American export and a huge part of our history.
Our industry shouldn’t be owned by Canadian cannabis companies because we couldn’t get progress at a federal level. The lack of federal legislation also goes back to the monopolization problem.
Currently, only large and extremely well funded companies can exist as multi-state operators. The need for a business to be licensed in each state, unable to cross state borders with products is another way to keep the small businesses out.
Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?
Cigarettes are poison. They cause cancer, disease, and do not interact with any system inside our body.
Cannabis is medicine. You, me, and animals all have a system inside our body called “ the endocannabinoid system” which interacts with our central nervous system, has receptors all over the body, and modulates our most important body functions.
Our body also produces endogenous cannabinoids (naturally occurring molecules). We have cannabinoid receptors all over the body and in the skin.
Cannabis is also generally psychoactive, so comparing it to cigarettes or even alcohol does not work for me.
I believe in regulation of cannabis, but think it does this plant a disservice to compare it to tobacco. This plant has been around for thousands of years as a medicine. I believe it should be looked at like a preventive wellness tool and medicine.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In 2016, I lost 1.5 million followers on Instagram due to censorship.
At any given time, a social media platform can take your profile away for violating the TOS (which posting cannabis and cannabis content do).
My world was sorting burning down all around me. This is when I truly pivoted everything I had into Kush Queen.
The mantra and quote that guided me every day is, “They can’t stop you if you don’t stop”. For me, the greatest accomplishment I’ve had as an entrepreneur is never giving up. It’s my biggest advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and is my personal key to success. The only thing that can stop you…is you.
Olivia Alexander is a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be a movement to inspire people to be their own medicine. I really believe that we are the cure and the cause of our own disease. That if we change the way we think about disease and sickness it could cause a great shift in the world.