Hope Wiseman, owner of Mary & Main, a medical cannabis dispensary in Prince George’s County, Md., is excited about the future of her business.
Wiseman and company are in the process of introducing Mary & Main’s parent company, Wise Co., to the world with an eye toward expansion to a future adult-use market in Maryland, as well as national expansion through industry partnerships.
“I think we’re ready for people to start looking at us as more than just a medical dispensary operator because we have aspirations and plans in the works that are going to position us as much more than that,” Wiseman tells Cannabis Business Times.
A key component of these plans is creating opportunities for other Black entrepreneurs, and especially Black women, to operate cannabis businesses.
“As far as women in the industry, there’s been a pretty steep decline of women involvement from an ownership standpoint, in the C-suite, … but I’m excited to see women jump back in [and] take the reins, and there are some really strong women who are doing great work in the space right now,” Wiseman says. “I’m proud to be among those ranks, and at the end of the day, Wise Co. is looking to create opportunities for other Black operators and other women operators in the space. Me, as a young Black woman in the space, I realize that there are not very many like me. … I’m focused on making sure that Black women have a space in the cannabis industry, and that is a pillar of Wise Co. and our mission. That’s definitely who we look to partner with as we are building this national ecosystem.”
Here, Wiseman details her journey to launching Mary & Main, lessons learned, the company’s broader goals and more.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.
Melissa Schiller: How did you get your start in the cannabis industry, and how did it lead to founding Mary & Main?
Hope Wiseman: I started my journey in the cannabis industry in about 2014. I had just graduated from Spelman College with a degree in economics, and I was planning on pursuing a career in investment banking. I was working full-time at an investment bank in Atlanta, but around that time, I started to see talk about the cannabis industry on a mainstream, national level. I’d seen it on the cover of TIME magazine, Forbes [and] CNBC. I realized it would be one of the largest and fastest-growing new and emerging industries in my lifetime. I wanted to be a part of it.
At the time, I didn’t know how deep the racist history of cannabis prohibition was, but I did know that a lot of people that I knew that influenced cannabis culture and their families had been affected by the war on drugs, a lot of them were Black. I was also seeing the stats on how there weren’t a lot of Black owners in this space, as it was then.
It really inspired me to figure out what was going on in the industry, and I realized that my home state of Maryland had just passed a medical cannabis bill that created a program. I read that bill, I understood that they had an application process coming up within the next year, and that’s when I began. I mobilized, I got my mother on board, and we found a very small team and applied for a dispensary license in Maryland. We were awarded that by December 2015.
MS: While you were on that journey, or maybe since you’ve been operating the dispensary, what have you found is something most people don’t realize about working in the cannabis industry? What was particularly surprising to you about the industry?
HW: In the beginning, it was really surprising the regulatory hurdles that you had to go through to open a cannabis business—not just a dispensary, but really any plant-touching business. In some cases, it’s highly competitive. Even when it’s not highly competitive, there are a lot of things you have to disclose. It’s just a lot of work to be awarded a license, no matter what state you’re in.
I think a lot of people initially believe, “Oh, I want to open a dispensary,” and it’s as simple as incorporating the company and starting operations. And it’s not. That process of being awarded a license is very difficult and sometimes even competitive, so you’re just piling the hoops on top of each other. I wish I knew that in advance because I wouldn’t have been so shocked as I was doing the work.
Also, it just takes a long time. This is a regulatory process, and it’s not something where you’re going to turn in the application and you’ll get notice that you’ve been approved within a week. Sometimes, it takes months [or] sometimes even years to hear back about approval.
And it’s also very costly to go through the process, too. You have to have funds, some of which is completely at-risk capital, and if you don’t win a license, you’re not getting any of the money that you spent on your legal work back—or with consultants, you’re not getting any of your money back. So, that’s very difficult.
Then, [you have to get] your business up and running. Even a dispensary, which I would say out of all the plant-touching verticals is probably one of the most affordable—even that, it can cost, depending on the state, somewhere between $750,000 and $2 million to get started. So, it’s really cost-intensive and it takes a lot of time [and] a lot of effort. You have to build a really good team.
And back in 2014, there were not a lot of examples and not a lot of playbooks. Even today, there’s not a lot of it, but there are more people, like myself, who share our experiences and consult with other people.
MS: Of those challenges that you faced, what would you say was your biggest obstacle? How have you worked to overcome this challenge?
HW: I’d say, for me, our team’s biggest challenge in the beginning was just a lack of information and experience. We had never done anything like this before, and we didn’t know where to go to find that information. We were hiring a lot of consultants. Some, we realized, didn’t really know what they were doing either. There weren’t a lot of vetted, real consultants back then, so that was really difficult. There was a lot of trial and error. We wasted a lot of money doing things. We made a lot of mistakes.
Nowadays, I think people looking to get into the space have an advantage. They have people who have already made all these mistakes, so they don’t have to do the same thing. I’d say the biggest mistake and hurdle that we had at the beginning was hiring consultants for every little thing and not properly vetting them, or we thought we vetted someone, and we realized that they misrepresented what they were really able to do or their capacity.
[It’s a challenge] finding the right [consultants] and just finding the experience that you can leverage in an application process or even [when you’re] getting up and running—because once you’ve won [a license], you have to run the business that you said you were going to. It’s difficult to get these businesses started. I think even a lot of legacy retailers, people who have been selling cannabis for years, there’s another layer of compliance in this regulated industry. Compliance is not easy. It’s costly. It’s difficult to implement [and] to achieve. That is definitely a hurdle that I think a lot of people have to anticipate and nowadays, there’s a lot more help and information out there than there was back in 2014.
MS: What are some of the biggest opportunities that you see for the cannabis industry this year? Is there anything you’re particularly excited about, whether it be retail trends, legislation or regulatory changes?
HW: When it comes to anything with federal legalization, I stay away from it. I don’t even pay attention to it because I’ve had my hopes up over all these years, thinking by now we’d have some movement. I’m kind of just waiting to see what happens there. But I’d say that’s a big thing in cannabis—you’ve got to be nimble [and] ready for change because it could happen at any time, in many aspects.
I’m really excited about all the new states coming on board. All these MSOs are building separate operations in every state. What does that mean once there is interstate commerce allowed? What does that look like as some states figure out that maybe they can do their own version of importing and exporting between them, even before federal legislation?
I think creating a long-term strategy is really something important to think about right now. If you’re just interested in getting into one piece of the business—like maybe you just want to own one dispensary and that’s it—you can think about, are you going to try to be a mom-and-pop on your own? Are you going to try to build it up and sell it to a larger company, and that begins your journey to building generational wealth for your family? I think there are so many different options, and now is the time to look at what’s happening, but take it with a grain of salt, and look at all the different ways your business can survive 10 to 20 years from now, or how you will exit before then. A lot of it is anticipation and having plans A, B, C and D, depending on how things shake up legislatively.
But I’m really excited about all the new states coming on board, and I am preparing my parent company to be able to mobilize in multiple states. We definitely believe that brands [and] CPG is going to lead the way. We believe the plant is going to be commoditized. We’re seeing it already—prices are dropping. The cost per pound drops in every state after a few years, so that just means to me that brands are going to be the winners. That’s definitely what we’re focused on right now.
MS: What are some of your shorter- and longer-term goals for Mary & Main?
HW: Mary & Main is a really awesome retail brand that we built in Maryland. We’re so excited about the potential of expansion in Maryland. Maryland is contemplating adult-use right now. That looks like it’s going to be a ballot initiative in November. How quickly it gets implemented is still up in the air right now. There are some bills that could pass that would create a program that would go alongside the ballot initiative if it’s passed, or potentially, they’ll develop those regulations after the ballot. So, how quickly it happens is still up in the air.
But essentially, Mary & Main’s parent company is Wise Co. We’re in the process right now of introducing Wise Co. to the world and introducing our strategy, like I said, as a real brand builder. We’re looking to create a national ecosystem to bring uniform brands to different states, and that’s our real goal.
Mary & Main is our baby and how we got started in the industry and it is our retail brand. As we look to other states as Mary & Main, we’re doing that through partnerships with other operators, essentially building somewhat of a franchise model.
In addition to Mary & Main, Wise Co. is looking to acquire licenses to be able to build products. So, that’s what we’re really focused on right now. Our hope is that in 10 years, we’re looked at like a Johnson & Johnson of cannabis. We’re creating different product, we’re a brand house, and maybe we’ll take it public one day. Maybe we’ll sell it one day. We’re kind of just building right now, and we’ll decide what the right exit is going to be when the time is right.
MS: What kind of cannabis retail trends are you seeing in your store? How have these trends evolved during your time in the industry, and how do you envision cannabis retail evolving as the industry matures?
HW: The Maryland medical market, it’s stabilizing right now. We’ve seen a lot of growth over these last four years or so that the program has been live. It’s been about five years actually—the first dispensary opened in 2017. So, it’s been a lot of growth.
COVID just shot it up in the air. However, now we’re seeing the industry stabilize, and we’re really starting to see what patients like and what they don’t. We believe these trends will carry over into adult use.
Some of the retail trends I’m seeing are patients being open to trying new products. Flower is still king, no matter what. I think, at the end of the day, almost every dispensary around the country is going to say that their best-selling product category is flower. But you’re seeing patients try other categories.
Edibles are definitely growing. People are wanting to try cannabis a different way, and edibles seem to be the first go-to after flower. Then, next, I’d say vape cartridges. We had the vape crisis back in 2019 and we saw a slowdown in vapes, but now I think usage and public trust around vapes has come back, and vapes are another favorite for those that like cannabis, but maybe they want to try something different, a little bit more discreet, or maybe a little bit less harsh on them. So, vaping is strong.
Then, if I look at it from a gender perspective, I think a lot of women are trying products that are not flower. I believe women are really going to drive the CPG market in cannabis. Women are going to want to try products and brands that are different than your typical gummy or flower. They’d be interested in tying a topical that is supposed to tighten your skin that has some sort of cannabinoid in it. They’d be interested in a product that has CBD in it that helps to clear up eczema. These types of products, I think, are going to become more prevalent in the cannabis industry, and I believe women are going to lead that charge in creating them and buying them.
MS: What advice would you offer to new or existing cannabis operators who want to succeed in this industry?
HW: My first piece of advice that I’d give you is don’t try to do it alone. You cannot do it alone. At this point, some of the people that are competing against you are very strong and well-capitalized, so you need to seek out knowledge on best practices and how to best position yourself. Sometimes, that may mean partnerships with other people, but make sure you vet your partners very well.
When you go into a cannabis business, you have to go through all types of background checks from a criminal standpoint, financial standpoint—you have to disclose a lot of information about yourself. You want to make sure that anyone you go to partner with is able to do the same and that you guys are comfortable disclosing this information even with each other.
I’d say those are big things to figure out even well in advance of going after a license. Can I work with this person? Do they have a clean background? Or, if they don’t have a clean background, what can we do to figure that out in advance? You’ve got to be up to date on your taxes. You have to disclose all your taxes. You have to disclose your criminal background history. You have to disclose any licenses that you have. Oftentimes, if you own businesses in other industries, you have to disclose information about that.
It’s a lot to do, and I’d just encourage people to start today, but seek out help and seek out information. And do not try to do it on your own because at this point, there are a lot of people like myself that have made the mistakes for you, and you can avoid spending the time and money by just seeking their help out.
Editor’s note: Hope Wiseman serves on the Cannabis Conference 2022 Advisory Board, which is comprised of cultivators, and dispensary and business professionals who were carefully selected for their industry leadership, expertise and passion for the advancement of the commercial cannabis market. Cannabis Conference 2022 will be held Aug. 23-25, 2022, at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.