As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne Shpall. With a deep knowledge of design, development and production, Suzanne began her career at industry leading fashion brands Reformation and Modcloth. This experience, coupled with her creative fearlessness, inspired a career change back in 2013 and the launch of her first company, Rosewood Pantry, a gourmet, gluten-free bakery. Suzanne scaled the business from a small Cottage Food Operation run out of her kitchen to a mid-size enterprise with high-end clientele including Joan’s On Third, Monsieur Marcel and Blue Bottle Coffee. Recognizing the growth potential in the cannabis industry, and seeing a dearth of healthy edibles for medical patients, Suzanne launched Highland Pantry in 2016, with a very well received line of single-serving organic almond butter packets in various dosage options. Since then she’s continued to grow Highland Pantry’s brand and product line while establishing herself as an industry thought leader and sought after Creative Director.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
My mom! A few years ago, my mother discovered the benefits of cannabis to help her cope with debilitating migraines and chronic arthritis, after having given pot a thirty year break. She is now consuming cannabis to help her maintain her overall well-being. Realizing how she was benefiting from this amazing plant, an idea took hold. I had been building a gourmet, gluten-free dessert brand called Rosewood Pantry and realized there was a real opportunity in the cannabis space for products with the same integrity, but with a unique perspective that catered to women like my mom. Because feeling good should be fun, and because boomer babes deserve a cannabis brand that’s as cool as they are.

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?
Everyday is an interesting adventure in this industry! I am always learning and growing. One experience in particular that sticks out to me is when I visited my first cultivation operation. Touring the facility had a significant impact on my perspective of the industry and what role I play in it. Cannabis is unique in that its a crop, a raw material and a Consumer packaged good. The cannabis industry seems to be comprised of multiple industries and communities. Being a part of this industry means that I am actually part of a multifaceted network of industries (cultivation/farming, distribution/sales, brands) in a way that I would not be able to work in many other industries.

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?
When I was first starting out, I created the first test batches of product by hand using laser thermometers, customized mixing tools and simple math on a calculator. The first batch I tested was split between “Dosed” and “Un-dosed” so that friends & family could still participate in the testing phase without feeling the effects of the active ingredient, if desired. As I was separating out some “Undosed” for my boyfriend and I to sample that night, I must have mixed them up (this was a time before METRC and clear SOPS for production). Oops! Let’s just say my boyfriend and I were quite peckish that evening and decided to sample A LOT of what we later realized was actually the dosed product. After that experience, I understood why people are afraid of edibles. It also sparked an idea, as I knew there was a better way to consume without worrying about “overdosing”. That’s why Highland Pantry focuses on providing the perfect micro-microdosed products to our consumers. Our products are specifically designed to fit her regular ritual, so she can maintain that manageable mellow, and have a damn good time doing it.

Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
When I was first starting Highland Pantry and was still in the early research phase, before I was even talking about it openly, I was simultaneously still running my cookie business which was a local success at the time. My dad, who is HP’s biggest fan and was excited about the new venture, let it slip that I was entering the cannabis space to one of his friends over an afternoon glass of wine. The next morning I awoke to a text from said friend requesting 4 dozen of my “new and improved” cookies. He thought I was baking cannabis into my cookies and wanted to order direct for the source! I let him down gently, telling him he would not be getting any infused cookies but I assured him he could be one of our first “taste testers” for any cannabis infused products we bring to market. He is still to this day one of our most loyal, and thorough, r&d product guinea pigs!

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?
It really does take a village. Throughout my years in this industry I’ve had the immense luck to connect with amazing partners, collaborators and mentors from all walks of life. From our Spokesperson Aliza Sherman, who is an inspiration both as a female leader in this industry and as a mother and friend, to our group of strategic investors and advisors who have played an integral role in getting us to where we are now.
None of this would be possible, however, without my business partner and friend, Michael Frank.
Michael and I have known one another for many years, and have always kept in touch about our new ventures. As recently as 2017, Highland Pantry wasn’t much more than a dream, some sample product and a very long deck outlining ideas for the future. At the time Michael was preparing to leave his job as Head of US Marketing at Doja, a Canadian cannabis company, and was looking for his next exciting opportunity. Michael knew about Highland Pantry and my vision for the brand. One day he asked me what my dream job would look like. I told him if I had my way, I would be able to grow Highland Pantry. His response was, “I am in. Let’s grow HP together.“ So we set to work building Highland Pantry into what it is today. Michael believed in the brand enough to stand behind it as my partner, and that faith has brought us to where we are now. As we’ve continued to grow our team, bringing on a stellar CFO in Gary Epper and a host of boomer brand ambassadors, I could not imagine a better partner than Michael to help me grow this brand and serve our demographic.
And we have big plans for the future. So stay tuned.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We just launched our first product, a line of low dose, CBD forward mints in three distinct dosage categories: MINI, MIDI, and MORE. We are incredibly proud of this product (I use the MINI everyday!) and are excited for what’s ahead.
We have already begun working on our next few products, focused on addressing issues we know our demographic face daily. From dealing with daily aches and sleeplessness, to helping assuage the severe symptoms resulting from Chemo, to helping to add a little more fun in the bedroom, we design products that will help our consumers live better, easier, happier lives.
Speaking of easier, we are also working on a super-secret project that aims to streamline purchasing for our consumers, so she (or he) doesn’t have to traverse the city searching for a retailer that carries Highland Pantry. This project launches late this year, so stay tuned!

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?
A) Individuals — support and invest in women-lead and female-focused brands, companies, organizations.
B) Companies — hire smart, qualified women for leadership positions such as C-suite roles or bring on to Board of Directors.
C) Society — recognize that nothing great ever comes from just one person or one gender and we as a society need to understand the value of balance between the masculine and feminine. Also, hire more women!

You 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.
1) Patience: Slow and steady wins the race: I come from fashion, food and tech, and I can say that this is not an industry where “move fast and break things” works. Patience is a virtue. At the same time…no stories here- they asked for stories or examples
2) Take Chances: Taking strategic risks can really help you differentiate. Think outside the box, but always have your…
3) North Star: Be clear on what you are doing, why, and for whom. Paying close attention to what your consumer really needs is key and will help you make smarter business decisions in the long run
4) Partnerships are key: When I say it takes a village…strategic partnerships are crucial to being successful in this industry. Find the people/partners that share your core values and goals
5) Persistence!: Believe in what you are doing and never ever ever ever ever give up
6) Adapt as needed: It’s important to always keep your eyes on the prize, but almost equally to be ready to think on your toes and shift in new directions if that’s what is best for the business. Be nimble.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
1) The opportunity to help shape an industry while growing my business the way I want to, with an amazing team and network of strategic partners
2) The opportunity to focus on a severely underserved demographic, and have a lot of fun doing it
3) The chance to bring all of my experience working in fashion, food, and ecommerce to a space where there is room to craft a unique narrative and brand perspective

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?
My Main Concerns:
1) California’s Grey/Black Market is taking market share away from licensed brands, and threatening the legitimacy of the legal cannabis market
2) Big money has flooded the market, consolidating much of the market and potentially threatening the ability for smaller & independent companies to survive/grow
3) Homogenization of the industry that leaves behind certain communities
Ways I think reform can be implemented:
1) Federally legalize cannabis to regulate the industry more consistently and lower taxes for the end consumers
2) Open up pathways to consumers so they can have a say in the market and in which brands they want to support (i.e. more licensed retailers, “California has the lowest ratio of retail licenses to potential cannabis consumers, with just one retailer for every 34,256 adults 21 and older.”
3) Greater transparency and industry-wide support for communities affected by the war on drugs

What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?
I wholeheartedly believe in the Federal legalization of Cannabis.The sooner, the better. I believe this for many reasons. Federal legalization would allow the government to regulate cannabis more consistently, which would;
1) Benefit the industry and local communities
2) Help to clarify and streamline things for local governing bodies and the people who run institutions overseeing legal cannabis, not to mention…
3) Add new jobs to the workforce in all facets of the industry
4) Increase revenue from this taxable commodity, helping to bolster government and community projects
5) Allow cannabis companies to grow and contribute to the economy, functioning as legitimate business they way our counterparts in other industry are allowed to function. For California, as the 8th largest economy in the world and the 3rd largest cannabis economy, this would help to bolster an even stronger economy keeping us at the forefront of not only commerce but also innovation

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?
Modern society has approached this plant with fear, rather than curiosity. Cannabis has suffered stigma for so long. It has been lumped in with Schedule 1 drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco, being treated like these other substances which have already been proven to have adverse effects with long-term use or abuse.
Given that our knowledge of the benefits vs potential risk of cannabis is still somewhat nascent, I don’t think these comparisons are fair or beneficial. From what we do know already, Cannabis has a plethora of healthy benefits (from relieving anxiety to assuaging nausea to increasing the healing process of broken bones), and does not have a knowable LD50 (an indication of the lethal toxicity of a given substance). While it makes sense to be careful while we discover more, I am hopeful that the regulatory framework will allow enough space for us to learn everything we can about this plant before making a final decision about how we should classify or use this plant and all it’s qualities.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Rather than a life lesson, I’d love to share words of wisdom passed down to me by my Grandmother, and then my mother, of which Im reminded each birthday: “Women are like French cheese or fine wine. They only get better with age.”

You are 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. 🙂
I would start what I like to call the Green Girls Movement. This national network of women in cannabis would help women excel in the industry. Whether it be finding a job, a reliable vendor, or strategic investors, this group’s goal would be to bolster communities, positioning women in leadership roles and promote equal opportunities for women of all walks of life.

Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!