Cindy De La Vega grew up in the Sunnydale housing projects, a community frequently targeted by the War on Drugs. Throughout her life, Cindy pushed through struggles to support her children. It was through community support and her own hard work that Cindy now serves as CEO of STIIZY Union Square, a prominent store in a heavily trafficked San Francisco retail center. Now, she uses her position overseeing the day-to-day operations at STIIZY to give back to that same community.
In this interview, Cindy explains how she uses her executive position to give back to her community — including her work with the youth development organization United Playaz — and offers advice to other social equity applicants interested in operating a cannabis dispensary.
Ganjapreneur: Did growing up in the Bay Area and watching the legal markets bloom alongside a robust legacy market influence how you choose to run STIIZY Union Square?
Cindy De La Vega: Growing up in, and still living in the Sunnydale housing projects, I saw the War on Drugs have extreme effects on the community. I was actually not a cannabis consumer until later in life, and up until then had been cautious of its effects and uses.
My choice to run STIIIZY Union Square is not only about creating a better future for myself and my family, knowing there is a big market for our products, but also stems from my deep involvement in community work. I have worked with, and sent my kids to programs at United Playaz for years, so to be able to own a business, create revenue and pour it back into the community is my ultimate dream.
How did you choose the Shryne Group as your partner for this retail venture? What is the mutual agreement of ownership with your partners?
I was first introduced to Shryne Group because they were sponsoring United Playaz, and as I got to know them better I could see it was the right fit. After not being able to work at the hospital due to a back injury in mid-2018, I shadowed under employees at one of Shryne’s retail locations at 3326 Mission St, gaining hands-on experience.
After becoming a verified applicant and doing a bit of my own research, I found Shryne Group to be the best match. One of the reasons Shryne Group is that right partner is because I see myself reflected in their employees and leadership, 51% of employees are Latinx, women in leadership positions. I have 40% ownership, and I am Chief Executive Officer of the store.
Does the Shryne Group play a role in choosing which cannabis brands go on shelves, hiring practices, or any other day-to-day operations?
Shryne Group owns several retail brands, including STIIIZY, so yes we get inventory from Shryne. However hiring and other day-to-day operations are led by me. I am proud to say that I was able to hire several people from my community ahead of our opening.
Is there a benefit to working with a larger company like Shryne Group as opposed to bootstrapping a dispensary? How has Shryne assisted in a meaningful way?
Beyond feeling like Shryne Group is an actual business partner, the biggest assistance came from initial capital and the ability to hold down the retail space from the point that I received my Equity applicant status, to opening, which is no small feat, especially at a prime location like Union Square.
The obvious truth is that Equity Applicants like me just don’t have the money to start a cannabis business — we need a partner. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that, with the retail license, you have to start paying rent once you’ve found a location long before the store can open, and we’re not able to benefit from the federal loans or stimulus programs that nearly every other industry can.
After your experience as an equity business owner, do you have insight into how the city and state could make the industry more accessible to promote a larger and more diverse industry of equity applicants and business owners?
It may be easy for some to criticize the Office of Cannabis, but I’ve seen how hard they’re working, and they’re so understaffed. If San Francisco and California really want to support people like me, they need to fully fund programs to help get Equity folks all the way from being verified to actually opening a business.
As a longtime activist with the violence prevention and youth development organization United Playaz, how do you plan to use your position as CEO to continue to uplift your community?
I have goals to one day be able to work on various cannabis social justice causes, including releasing incarcerated people that have been penalized for cannabis. As a survivor of domestic violence and mother of two, I also have a focus on uplifting women, which is why I feel it is so important for me to be in this leadership position now.
What have been your biggest challenges starting this business in San Francisco city? Do you have advice for entrepreneurs who might be met by these same challenges?
Two months after opening, we are facing the same challenges many other retail businesses are, but with the added obstacles that come with cannabis. On top of that, there is no access to small business loans or many banking services. We pay taxes at a very high rate, yet we are not allowed the standard business write offs other businesses are allowed.
I remain hopeful about the future of the store because we offer great products at affordable prices, but we need continued support from the community in order to progress. My advice to other entrepreneurs would be to keep fighting to accomplish your goals for yourself and your community, but also know you’re not alone. It’s important to lean on the support of your community and partners, and know when to ask for help.
Thank you, Cindy, for answering our questions! To learn more about STIIZY’s products and multiple retail locations, visit STIIZY.com.