Raheem Uqdah: The Importance of Corporate Social Responsibility In Cannabis

Raheem Uqdah is the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Curaleaf, the largest multi-state cannabis operator in the U.S.

Continued after the jump.

Despite the rapid and accelerating growth of the cannabis space, the industry comes from an oppressive foundation of drug war-fueled persecution. Many efforts are aimed at addressing this issue including social equity licensing requirements and similarly focused business incubators, but the responsibility also lies with current operators to help remedy the situation.

Even large cannabis companies like Curaleaf cannot ignore these unfortunate circumstances — in this Q&A, we ask Curaleaf’s Director of Corporate Social Responsibility Raheem Uqdah about the social justice responsibilities of current operators, balancing those responsibilities with brand building and outward expansion, the company’s various initiatives for social good, and more!

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Ganjapreneur: What was your background in nonprofit work and policy before starting with Curaleaf? How has this experience served you in your position?

Raheem Uqdah: Prior to joining Curaleaf I spent time with a handful of nonprofits in various roles for a couple of years. During my role with a nonprofit doing communications and community outreach was the first time in my career where I was able to intentionally blend brand building and social good into my work in a way that made sense and was meaningful to our constituents. I was able to take that grounding and have since applied it to how I approach all of our work at Curaleaf.

Curaleaf is currently operating in 23 states. Do each of its social responsibility initiatives extend into every state market?

The long-term intent of our work is to ladder down all our initiatives into each of our states and find local partners to support our work on a regional and state level. Our programs have been built to address what we think are the most important issues facing our industry today. The flexibility of our programs allows us to tailor each one to the specific populations of our communities.

How does Curaleaf balance its mission of social responsibility and its large retail footprint while competing with small businesses?

In each state that we operate, we maintain close relationships with our communities, from hiring locally to supporting community initiatives. Our scale means that we also have the resources necessary to lift up and support small businesses to facilitate a dynamic and diverse cannabis industry. Our 420×25 initiative is a great example of this, and we’ve set a goal to do business with 420 new cannabis brands, ancillary suppliers and advocacy organizations from underrepresented communities in the cannabis ecosystem by 2025.

Many cannabis industry companies are founded by people fueled by passion with a desire to do good in the world. For entrepreneurs and founders, what are the benefits of formalizing that intent with a statement of corporate social responsibility?

We believe in investing over the long term – in people, programs, and places. Each organization in the cannabis industry has a responsibility to leverage its resources and clout to create a better environment for patients, employees and the community. Formalizing that intent with specific objectives helps elevate industry standards and best practices that serve to create a fair, accessible and equitable legal cannabis space for generations to come.

Due to the historical criminalization of cannabis, many of the early activists and nonviolent offenders who were imprisoned for cannabis are still locked up despite its legal status in many states. What responsibility does the modern cannabis business/entrepreneur have in righting this wrong of the judicial system?

The collateral consequences that have ultimately impacted BIPOC communities is massive. There are organizations out there that are working with states on this topic and we support those efforts. Ultimately, we work with state coalitions to pass laws and regulations that support state level expungement of low-level cannabis-related crimes. That said, we’re choosing to most actively use our resources to provide mentoring and technical assistance for aspiring business owners, create pathways to ownership for social equity license holders, and increase economic opportunities for individuals from historically disadvantaged communities.

How have you handled Curaleaf’s social equity fund investments to best serve the future of the industry?

These investments are an attempt to intentionally build pathways to diversify the industry. By creating educational pathways for those who are interested in joining the cannabis industry we are hoping to spark economic opportunity for those from areas disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. We believe that it is only through opportunity, education, and investment that we can see an inclusive cannabis industry flourish beyond the homogenized industry that we have today.

What direct actions have been taken since the founding of the Rooted in Good program?

We launched our DE&I program starting with our DEI taskforce which was made up of 62 cross-functional team members ranging from dispensary associates to vice presidents at Curaleaf. The taskforce ensures we’re reflecting through our actions and decisions that we value diversity and inclusion across intersections between race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability status, veteran status, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Through this taskforce, we have developed our Curaleaf ERGs, which have led internal virtual events celebrating Black History Month and Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Additionally, our Women’s Cannabis Collective ERG and “CuraForce” Workforce Development subcommittee partnered with Dress for Success to present the virtual workshop, Pivoting Your Career Path: It’s About More Than Skills.

Through our social equity work, we’ve launched our 420×25 initiative, and have established partnerships with organizations like Women Grow and Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM) whose efforts support cultivating diversity in the cannabis industry. In July, we launched B Noble in partnership with visual artist, filmmaker and hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy and Bernard Noble, who spent seven years in prison on a 13 year sentence for the equivalent of two joints. This partnership is Curaleaf’s first large-scale brand venture in alignment with our dedicated social equity work and it’s an exciting opportunity to give back to communities impacted by cannabis prohibition, while also calling attention to Bernard’s incredibly harsh sentence.

Additionally, Curaleaf has hired Map-Collective, a female-founded green-tech startup to lead our Carbon Reduction Taskforce, an internal taskforce with a goal to reduce our carbon footprint.

What is the process of forming a new Curaleaf Employee Resource Group (ERG)? Does each ERG have independent leadership to represent their individual focus?

Our ERGs are employee led and are a way for our employees to manage upward and implement grassroots change in our organization. Leaders are often members of multiple ERGs, but each group works to bring the wishes of their membership to life.

What are the goals of the 420×25 initiative and how does this play into the bigger picture of social responsibility?

Curaleaf aims to create a diverse and vibrant cannabis industry. We believe that in order to meet the needs of our patients and customers, we must increase and broaden representation to accurately reflect all backgrounds. As part of our supplier diversity program, Curaleaf aims to do business with 420 new cannabis brands, ancillary suppliers and advocacy organizations from underrepresented communities in the cannabis ecosystem by 2025. Since we announced this commitment in February 2021, we have partnered with 60 of these businesses. One example is Rolling Bouqé, a premier rolling paper brand, whose products are now featured in all Curaleaf Maryland locations. Purient Bedroom, a brand of intimate personal lubricant and massage oil, is another example that joined our Massachusetts ecosystem in early 2020. We aim to achieve our own corporate diversity goals while also enabling the growth of diverse businesses in our communities.

Why did Curaleaf choose to partner with Women Grow for the 420×25 initiative? What kind of value does the partnership bring to the mission?

Our partnership with Women Grow is a key step forward in ensuring that our values are reflected at every level of the organization’s supply chain. From cultivators and manufacturers to ancillary businesses within cannabis, we have set a critical goal of diversifying our supply chain, and we look forward to working with Women Grow to make that goal a reality. Through our partnership, we look forward to connecting with women, BIPOC, Veteran and LGBTQ-owned business owners and building with these cannabis leaders across the 23 active legal states that we operate in.

How important is mentorship when forging a future cannabis industry with true social equity? How does Curaleaf support and initiate true mentorship?

The Executive Roundtable mentoring program at Curaleaf expands the economic opportunities in cannabis by providing entrepreneurs from across the ecosystem, access to the most senior leaders in Curaleaf. Protégés of the mentoring program include entrepreneurs in the CBD space as well as other ancillary business.

Entrepreneurs involved in the program have expressed that these relationships are game-changers for them, the access to networks and knowledge alone is well worth their participation. In addition to direct access to industry leaders, the program includes in-kind benefits from Curaleaf suppliers such as Brightfield Group which will provide technical assistance and access to consumer data at no cost. Some entrepreneurs will have access to scholarship dollars to fill a gap in their knowledge and expertise beyond what their mentors can provide.

The Executive Roundtable takes a 360 approach to mentoring by centering the needs of the individual participants designed to maximize their resources.

What is First Friday and when will this Curaleaf initiative officially launch?

First Friday is an education seminar that Curaleaf will offer for the underrepresented communities on the first Friday of each month. We are inviting BIPOC, women, LGBTQ+ and other communities in to engage and connect. Participants can expect to connect with leading voices in the industry, network for business and employment opportunities, and learn more about today’s cannabis culture. The program officially launched on June 4 with Minorities for Medical Marijuana.

Thank you, Raheem, for answering our questions! Learn more at Curaleaf.com.


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