Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, Candace Clark has had a lifelong interest in science and technology. She was accepted into a specialized school at a young age and in high school, she studied Information Technology. At the time, she was the first female student to obtain multiple professional certifications before graduating high school. Candace also realized that not everyone had access to the same technology.
The young tech talent moved on to study in college before obtaining an IT position with the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. This was her very first IT position and Candace was often the only Black woman in the room. She was inspired to look for ways to help others develop skills allowing them to break into the tech space. That mission has driven her career and she now resides in Chicago, Illinois, where she embraced her passion of empowering Black women and other marginalized groups through the use of technology.
Now, the cannabis industry is her vehicle. Candace has built an online cannabis community resource platform with her husband, worked with Chicago NORML, and now serves as Chief Compliance & Regulatory Officer for S.E.E.N. as they work to elevate social equity applicants in the cannabis industry.
Ganjapreneur: What is LinkUp and how does it serve the cannabis industry? Who should use the platform and why?
Candace Clark: LinkUp is a community resource and education app for Impactful brands and organizations in underserved communities who may or may not deal directly with cannabis or its ancillary industries but they are doing the work to help reverse the negative impacts of the war on drugs. Oftentimes information isn’t readily available to the low-resourced demographics who could benefit the most. We are going straight to the source, giving the non-profit organizations and culturally responsible entrepreneurs a platform to connect – both virtually and in real life – with their target audience to amplify their voices, expand their networks, and give community members the opportunity to get involved.
When did you first have the idea for LinkUp? As this idea solidified, how did you pursue outside help from accelerators like the Founder Institute?
My husband is from the South side of Chicago and participated in the informal economy. Even with legalization, it’s clear the same rules don’t apply to us or our communities. He recognized early on that we don’t have the resources to realistically play the game that is the legal plant-touching cannabis industry – “but what about us?” From that question came the idea for LinkUp.
I had worked in Federal Government IT Contracting for years. At the time, Hi Tech Consulting was my “side-hustle” where I provided Consulting and Digital Support Services for small brands and social media influencers. So he was one of my first case studies in the industry. I was able to walk him through the process of consciously designing a business plan and model that allowed him to use his transferable skills in the informal market to realistically enter an industry that has been against his community while simultaneously helping to repair the damages amplified by the war on drugs.
You built LinkUp with your husband, how has the experience of being life partners affected the path as business partners? Do you have advice for other couples with joint entrepreneurial ambitions?
I can honestly say it’s unlike anything we’ve ever done before. I would say the #1 piece of advice I can give is to clearly define your communication. Am always your wife but there has to be a time and a place to step away from the business. We have three kids as well and, as you know and many can relate, covid-19/quarantining with kids is a challenge in itself. Add homeschooling and multiple businesses and it can easily get overwhelming. Having a plan, setting goals and celebrating the small wins in your personal life, relationship, family and business is a must. Self care always.
How did you first get involved in government, and more specifically, lobbying for cannabis social equity and delivery access in Illinois? Do you have plans to continue this work?
We attended a lobby day workshop here in Chicago in preparation for lobby day in Springfield at the top of this year. That preparation was critical to our success. Understanding how lobbying works helped us ask the right questions to get the information we needed to ensure our eligibility in the Illinois R3 application process which is being funded by the cannabis tax revenue specifically to rebuild the communities that were most negatively impacted by the war on drugs. LinkUp was the basis of our application because, in addition to providing a platform for these grassroots organizations, we will also be working on the back end to ensure that they are operating as efficiently as possible when applying for and maintaining funding, increasing business capacity, and providing technical assistance.
In this learning process I’ve been able to connect with an amazing group of social equity applicants to form an official 501c6 trade association, the Social Equity Empowerment Network or S.E.E.N.™️ S.E.E.N. is a consortium of cannabis businesses and ancillary service providers working to create a diverse, equitable industry that’s a vehicle for positive economic development by removing barriers to entry, provide resources, and cultivate networking opportunities for cannabis entrepreneurs. Lobbying will be a major part of that. As the Chief Compliance and Regulatory Officer of Co-Chair of the Legal and Compliance Committee of S.E.E.N.™️, I will continue to be involved in the lobbying efforts and I’m excited to learn more.
Has the social equity licensing process application process been transparent in Illinois? What challenges have applicants faced and how could these challenges have been avoided?
The licensing process in Illinois has not been transparent on the part of the State of Illinois, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), or KPMG, the entity contracted to review and score the applications. Firstly, the legislation called for “top-scorers” to be included in the lottery process, however, the tie-breaking rules announced hastily at the end of the application window created a situation where only “perfect” scores were included or considered. I feel that if equity was the true intent of the legislation, a lottery process is not only counterproductive but exclusionary. In addition to this, there were many challenges faced during the application submission and scoring process. The largest issues are at the heart of transparency, or in this case, the lack thereof. Many applicants never received deficiency notices, a process which was written into legislation to give applicants, especially true social equity applicants due process in correcting any missing, inaccurate, or unclear information in their submissions. I spoke about this and other issues in my Op-Ed piece entitled, “Illinois Illusion of Social Equity” which I shared on LinkedIn.
I feel that an electronic scoring platform with real time updates and progress tracking would be most effective in streamlining this process, which is a prediction we made as a company far before applications were due. Many of the reasons why my husband and I decided not to apply and to take the route that we did was because we identified a gap that some may not have considered. We understood, because of certain experience we’ve had in federal contracting, that these application processes are very technical and can lead to many sleepless nights and frustrations for the average small business owners that were targeted throughout the excitement of this process. Whether intentional or not, it is our hope that more resources be put into providing certain technical support and training for minority business owners so that they can take advantage of the opportunities being presented to them – that is, in fact, equity right?
What are the barriers to entry for social equity applicants? How is S.E.E.N.™️ working with social equity applicants to succeed despite these barriers?
Lack of technical support, lack of training and education as it relates to the industry, specifically around zoning and taxes, lack of access to affordable capital, lack of buying power, small margins to name a few.
S.E.E.N.™️ is working with social equity applicants, as well as other ancillary businesses to create a network of resources to help close these gaps. This is being done through advocacy, specialized education, training and workshops, networking events, access to financial and risk management resources, and lobbying. We understand that there is power in numbers and much more can be accomplished when we work together and stand collectively on the principles that promote our very best interests and achievements as a community.
S.E.E.N.™️ supports the passage of HB5527. How would the passing of this bill make the cannabis industry more accessible? What other goals have been set by the non-profit trade organization?
Yes we definitely support HB5527 and the amendment stating that “At least half of all cannabis and cannabis-infused products sold by a cultivation center must be sold to independent dispensing organizations.” This amendment helps fight against the smaller independent organizations being frozen out of the market. This is an industry that has been built on relationships and one of the barriers to entry we see with the true social equity applicants is not having a seat at the right tables. We already see this issue arise in the application process so as we look forward to craft grow license announcements we want to be proactive in carving out our place in that regard with hopes of vertical integration. At the end of the day, that’s how money is made in any industry. We aren’t looking for handouts but more so demanding the equitable opportunity to do the work and prove ourselves.