“We believe that a primary understanding of the product is essential, and so 420 in our office is R&D time,” says Joyce Cenali wryly — almost scientifically.
A decade ago we’d likely never hear a venture capital partner utter such a phrase — at least not in public. But times have changed. For some cannabis brands, in fact, these are “high times,” and coincidentally counted among Cenali’s investments through Big Rock Partners is the media conglomerate, High Times.
Grit Daily caught up with Cenali to get the full scoop on how she went from music to cannabis — and who and what are powering Big Rock’s latest investments.
Grit Daily: You’ve had your own interesting ventures before Big Rock Partners. Share those.
Joyce Cenali: I’ve used cannabis in my own wellness practices for half of my life. I grew for personal use in my home in San Francisco and later joined forces with some masterful cultivators to produce an outdoor project. The opportunity to grow a cannabis plant from seed sprout into a 5+ lb beauty is truly a marvel.
Every cultivator in California that grew under the medical market will have an abundance of varied stories to share, and I am no different. But for all the tumultuous moments, we experienced many highs, and our pinnacle was winning an Emerald Cup for the dry sieve category several years ago.
I also co-chaired Women Grow Sonoma for a year or so, which opened me up to some great friendships and allowed me to gain a bird’s eye view of so many sound operators in that rich agricultural region, and I balanced that with my own navigation of the sales side of bringing a product into retailers. I decided to pivot away from operating my own business and I began angel investing in other best of class operators who I knew faced a better set of circumstances to drive success than my own path was affording me, based on shifting regulations.
The core folks at Big Rock were already friends and when they pulled the trigger on their first cannabis investment, we decided to go all in together. I have an extensive network and an understanding of what operators are navigating, and that couples extremely well to other Big Rock team members experience in capital deployment across tech, bio-tech and hospitality sectors.
This partnership is a union of folks that love this plant and this rich Northern California environment that we’ve chosen to call home, and we are dedicating ourselves to it for the long haul.
GD: Ten years ago one would’ve guessed you’d stick to a career in music management and licensing. What drove your move into cannabis?
JC: I was driven into the music industry by passion, and driven out by diminished opportunity. I started in the music industry out of college with the goal of representing artists from emerging markets, namely South America. I worked for an eclectic independent record label and managed some amazing bands from varying genres.
My artists were top local draws, toured the world and played the biggest festivals, and were courted by strong indies and major labels. But just as my company was beginning to see success, pirated streaming hit like an avalanche and killed the economic viability of the industry. The first American record label was formed in 1925, but something like 80 years of foundation didn’t preserve economic viability for the industry in the face of Napster. The industry was demoralized and some of the artistry was sucked away.
I transitioned into the technology sector and retained some roots in music. I spent a good chunk of my career working in the e-commerce sector, licensing intellectual property, images, and brand identities onto emerging technology platforms. All the while, I was starting to engage in my other passion, cannabis. It was a natural transition for me and my previous experience – some days I feel like an A&R rep.
And as it relates to the major disruption which in our case in California has been the shift to the regulated market – I do not want to see a perpetually demoralized cannabis industry. The artistry and innovation must and will persist – there should be room for small, medium, and large sized businesses to thrive.
GD: Most consumers follow the intersection of cannabis and food but how does hospitality work into that equation?
JC: Hospitality is inherent to San Francisco and hospitality is inherent to cannabis. The promise here is to rediscover our agriculture practices, our daily supplement practices, and our hospitality practices in how we interact with each other. Cannabis causes us to smile and look another human in the eye.
I personally can’t think of a more hospitable greeting than that of smoking a joint with new friends. The number of great people that me and my colleagues have met smoking a joint more than likely adds up to the number of great people that we’ve met at a bar or over a meal with friends of friends. We need to conform the actuality of our interaction with this plant in a future chapter, and truly evolve it into hospitality settings.
The regulations as they stand right now have us over-packaging and over-processing the plant. That is changing one step at a time as lounges and event consumption begin to open up, and we’re excited for the upcoming Outside Lands where Lagunitas/Absolute Extracts Hi-Fi Hops will be consumed onsite. Still, we’ll be satisfied only when someone can harvest a flower fresh and integrate it into a smoothie, onto a dinner plate, or into a meditation ritual with no thought or worry.
GD: Big Rock’s portfolio looks like a potpourri (no pun intended) of cannabis-related opportunities. What are some of the highlights?
JC: Big Rock’s first and crucial measure is quality control. I can honestly say that all of the companies that we’ve worked with offer up products that are staples in our daily experiences. I don’t understand operators or investment groups that do not personally use and consume their own products — we believe that a primary understanding of the product is essential, and so 420 in our office is R&D time.
GD: Name those names.
JC: Henry’s Original are consistent and the best quality pre-roll that you’ll find for the cost – their Spyrock OG is an office favorite (and the name speaks to the source — a rich cannabis region along the Eel River in Mendocino). Our fridge is re-stocked with Lagunitas – Absolute Extracts Hi-Fi Hops, Kikoko teas and Plant Magic once a week or more. My go-to gift for friends are Garden Society gelees or Juna tincture drops. We believe topicals to be the true gateway for new consumers — Sweet Releaf and Xternal are constants for our aches and pains.
Petaluma Hills Farm is a brand we’ve spent a lot of time helping to build from the ground up. In April, the Sonoma County BZA approved the first full Conditional Use Permit for cultivation to the farm (though an appeal has stalled its issuance). Leading the way out of prohibition has been a wild ride, and my partners and others in wine country that are seeking permits are experiencing a steep climb.
There’s unrest among NIMBY neighbors, and extremely rigorous regulations. The land surveyor that we work with cited that her previous highest was number of special reports necessary to complete an application for an energy plant was ~70, we’re forced to do 120+! The ride makes us resilient. We often say that the class of cannabis operators that make it through the rigor of this industry all wear capes. Cannabis founders enter with caution: recruiting only super heroes.
GD: High Times is far from a “new name.” How did you end up participating there?
JC: While High Times isn’t a “new name”, they’ve evolved into much more than the magazine we’re all familiar with. When you consider what they’re doing in events and digital media, they feel like a shiny new media company versus a dusty old print publication.
Furthermore, High Times has captured the history of this movement and counterculture unlike any other media company, paving the way for Dope, Vice, Herb, and others. They are pioneers. Our participation came at a great time in their growth cycle and was an easy decision.
GD: For the uninitiated, what’s the story behind the Oaksterdam scholarships?
JC: Education opens minds, and cannabis education is no different. Someone would be hard pressed to truly study this plant and not come away with a strong sense of its medicinal, nutritional, and cultural value.
In late 2017, Big Rock supported scholarships for under-represented groups in the form of scholarships to America’s first cannabis college, Oaksterdam. It’s an honor to be in a position to help folks educate themselves and step into this industry. We want to see diversity in the market – we find that a homogeneous environment is not a great business practice, and that it’s ideal to reflect the diversity of your environment in your workplace. Moving forward, we’ll also support some scholarships at Females to the Front, which is put on by the Initiative, and fosters growth for female founders.
We make sure that our investments are targeting companies with values and an interest in building a collaborative ecosystem, so in addition to our direct support, we are happy to see our companies work community building into their marketing budgets.
GD: We’ve heard about your coworking space in Hayes Valley, San Francisco. Who’s in there now?
JC: Big Rock HQ is a fun mix of cannabis professionals. We have a lot of traffic in the office for our direct investment interests, and we hope that the co-working community forms in part around the stickiness of meeting best of class folks in our environment. We share the building with suite mates Chefs Feed, an influential app for over 6000 chefs and mixologists and with over 1.5 million subscribers.
We share our suite with entrepreneurs and professionals across the cannabis industry, and the office is personal consumption friendly. Some of our co-workers include Roshi, an inventory management software for manufacturers which was started by former pharmaceutical leaders, Proposition Cocktail Company, which makes yummy adult leaning CBD cannabis beverages, professional service providers like Gateway Property Group and Epperly & Elam, and marketing groups like Footraffik and Spaceback.
We also host pretty awesomely elevated private events, pitch series, and fundraisers for the policy makers that are drafting the critical laws in our state and in Washington DC. Big Rock hopes to serve as stewards for economic development of Northern California cannabis as a whole.
Looking for more cannabis brands coverage at Grit Daily? Check out why Nanogen wants you to try its weed beer.