Champion positivity, inclusivity, a strong purpose and mission, an understanding of growth plans, transparency (because things are changing so rapidly), and a clear vision for the future of the company. I am very honest and upfront with my team, keeping them in the loop of why we are moving in a certain direction and how that will benefit the company. We also provide stock options, health insurance, and paid time off.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jill Ellsworth, MS, RDN. Jill is founder and CEO of Willow Industries, Inc., which provides state-of-the-art, ozone-based technology for post-harvest microbial decontamination. Upon launching Willow Industries in 2015, Jill’s aim was — and remains — to protect consumers and patients by helping producers put clean, safe product on the market. Willow’s technology has proven to reduce yeast, mold, bacteria, mildew, E.Coli, and other dangerous pathogens, all while protecting the medicinal properties of the plant. The introduction of the WillowPureSM system to the market has provided growers a solution to passing newly set state regulation standards. Fueled by her passion for innovation and dedication to healthier living, Jill is a vocal advocate for the cannabis industry’s adoption of FDA-like standards and proactive promotion of safety measures. Jill serves on the Cannabis Health and Safety Advisory Committee for the City of Denver and is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a Master’s of Science in Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science. Prior to launching Willow Industries in 2015, Jill founded Vibrant Earth Juices (VEJ), a cold-pressed organic juice company, in 2010 and later parlayed VEJ into a beverage distribution company. In 2013, Jill was named Female Entrepreneur of the Year in Emerging Business by the Santa Barbara Women’s Economic Ventures group. Most recently, Jill was selected by Marijuana Business Daily as one of their 2019 Women to Watch in Cannabis. She has also been honored by cannabis lifestyle magazine, GreenDorphin, as one of the 20 Most Influential Women in Cannabis and Industry Leaders Magazine as one of the Influential Businesswomen in the Cannabis Industry. She recently closed a $2 million Series Seed round for Willow.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I come from the nutrition world as a Registered Dietitian, with a Master’s of Science in Nutrition and Food Science, and am 100% an entrepreneur at heart. I have founded and sold a few different businesses, including a cold-pressed juice company and a natural beverage distribution company. As I was transitioning out of the beverage industry, I began looking at the cannabis industry and found that many of the food safety regulations I was required to adhere to for beverage production were missing in the cannabis industry. Microbial testing was mandated, but cultivators didn’t understand the consequences of such contamination or how to eliminate it if they tested positive. It was a lightbulb moment for me to innovate a solution that would protect consumer safety and provide an effective solution for cultivators that were faced with (inevitable) contamination issues. Kill steps are required in food production, and that is what I was looking to innovate in the cannabis industry.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The first thing that comes to mind is adoption. When I first launched Willow, no one was interested, even though there was this huge underlying issue in the industry. No one would talk to me or entertain the idea. It took a year and a half to garner interest about the technology. Growers were very wary of someone that did not start in cannabis and seemed to be selling snake oil. But we had some really good data supporting our technology, and that pushed the company forward.
The conversation is changing and adoption is taking place. Growers understand they can no longer take a risk with possible contamination and want to have technology in place that mitigates that risk.

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?

We had just received our WillowPure prototype and brought it to a cultivation in Denver that my friend owned to do some R&D on their flower. During our time at the facility, one of the growers asked if they could put small plants into the machine, and without hesitation, I said yes, not quite sure how ozone was going to affect a live plant. As we all learned that day, ozone and live plants do not go well together! Plants need oxygen to live and just like humans, cannot breathe ozone. We were watching the plants die in front of our eyes. In retrospect it is funny simply because it was a huge mistake in the beginning but at the time it was pretty dramatic.
What I learned was that pioneering a new technology in a nascent industry comes with great responsibility. In the beginning, I was focused on trying to figure out how to effectively use the tech and how we fit into the life cycle of cannabis production, but now I recognize the broader role I have in the industry and take the responsibility very seriously.

Growing a cannabis tech business CBD Willow Industries

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

I feel like every day is a new exciting project! Things change so rapidly in cannabis that you can’t quite predict what is going to happen next. However, one project I am really excited about is launching our Willow Central Processing Facility near Salinas, CA. We will bring in contaminated flower, clean it, and send it back to the distributor. This allows us to control the process (which we do very well) and cater to a very large cultivation demographic. I see this toll processing concept as the future and can’t wait to get it launched.

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?

There are so many people that have helped me along the way but I have to give the most credit to my husband, Jason, who is also billed as a co-founder. He entertained my (seemingly) crazy idea to “clean weed.” and provided the seed money to get the prototype into production. He has been supportive, understanding, and my best collaborator. Today, Jason is Willow’s CFO and a very valuable executive. I also want to give credit to two of my early, ride-or-die team members, Steve & Josh, who grinded with me from the very beginning.

This industry is young, dynamic and creative. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?

Growing a cannabis tech business CBD Willow Industries

Absolutely! The big marketing question we had to ask ourselves is how can we get our product and message in front of potential customers when most advertisers won’t accept cannabis related ads. Because these conventional marketing channels haven’t been a viable option, we’ve ramped up our PR, doubled-down on SEO, and built our network by attending industry events and conferences. We’re also a bold thought leader in the space. Whereas legacy companies are often reluctant to speak out on controversial subjects, we try to shed light on what we’re seeing in the industry, and this has really helped propel Willow to a national stage.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?

Three things that excited me are the technological innovations, product development (CPG), and seasoned executives from other industries coming into cannabis and bringing their expertise.
Three things that are most concerning are the ever-changing and siloed state regulations, unsubstantiated claims for consumer packaged goods, and the uncertainty of federal legalization.

Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business”? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Patience is key
From the outside looking in, the industry seems to be moving like a rocket ship. However, being on the inside, that is typically not the case. Adoption is slow (refer to my previous response), rules and regulations are constantly changing and evolving, which requires a quick pivot, and legitimacy is slowly taking place. At my core, I am not a patient person, so I’ve had to dig deep to work on being patient and not rush the process. It hasn’t been easy!
2. This isn’t a gold rush
A lot of people refer to cannabis as a “gold rush”. Sure, being on the ground floor of an industrial and cultural revolution is exciting and hugely rewarding. But this isn’t a “get rich quick” scheme. It seems as though every business is working under tight margins and cannabis is not a cheap crop to produce. It’s a long game and the ones that can withstand the turbulence will win.
3. Differentiate yourself
When I launched Willow, there were no companies providing this type of technology or service. Once it caught on that this was a problem in the industry that was not fully being addressed, I have seen many competitors pop up in the market that are no longer in business. Whether it was a “me too” or the tech didn’t work, it is very important to differentiate yourself in a crowded field, especially if you are selling a product. Ask yourself: What makes you better than your competition? What is your competitive advantage? You must find ways to set yourself apart.
4. Understand compliance and state specific regulations
Each state has a very different set of cannabis rules and regulations, so it’s imperative you understand how to stay compliant and up-to-date on rules and regs. There are some really good companies out there aggregating all of this info (I particularly like CannaRegs), so build this position into your organization and stay up to date. For instance, we had been operating with no issues in a Midwest state and then suddenly, they changed the regulations and prevented remediation. We immediately addressed this issue, but our customers would have been out of compliance using our tech, which is really concerning.
5. Stay positive.
This industry is like no other industry I have worked in. While the black market vibe is becoming a thing of the past, there are still remnants of what that looked like. Whether it’s the people or behaviors or business practices, it can feel like you are being defeated on a daily basis. But staying positive and holding true to your core beliefs and mission is the best way to make it through the really hard days.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Champion positivity, inclusivity, a strong purpose and mission, an understanding of growth plans, transparency (because things are changing so rapidly), and a clear vision for the future of the company. I am very honest and upfront with my team, keeping them in the loop of why we are moving in a certain direction and how that will benefit the company. We also provide stock options, health insurance, and paid time off.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

We have a Willow Industries Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Definitely reach out to us!

Thank you for all of these great insights!