Editor’s Note: This profile is part of a new series, “Her Perspective,” on the experiences of Black women business owners.
As a Black woman starting up in the cannabis industry, the odds were already stacked against Katrina Thompkins.
The burgeoning field — think oils, edibles, and topicals containing cannabidiol, or CBD — isn’t known as female-friendly, and it’s always been racially fraught. And that was before the pandemic. Throw in the fact that Thompkins is a traveling cardiovascular nurse presently working in intensive care in New York, and getting a fledgling business called K’dara CBD off the ground seems … well, impossible.
But she’s committed to doing it. And since launching in February, K’dara CBD has already garnered attention in publications like Forbes and Black Enterprise. Thompkins heavily features her healthcare bona-fides and her products’ organic ingredients in the company’s branding, the hope being to set her brand apart as a “premium-quality” seller of pain-relief products.
When we caught up with Thompkins recently (she’s still saving lives by day in Gotham, though her business is formally based in Dallas), she sounded grounded but optimistic. “Things aren’t always going to go the right way, or the way you’re envisioning,” she says. “Being flexible and adaptable has been at the heart of this entire launch.”
It’s an especially hard road to travel now — but the journey would’ve been tough for her either way as a Black woman in cannabis. In this space, “we are a super-minority,” Thompkins says.
Being Black in the Cannabiz
Even as the cannabis industry rapidly expands, leadership roles for women are falling. Dope Magazine, among others, attributes that in part to male executives migrating from other industries and into those C-suites. And perhaps more troubling: only 4.3 percent of cannabis businesses are Black-owned.
The legalization and commodification of cannabis has long been problematic. Overall, most drug-related arrests in the U.S. are related to marijuana, with those arrested 3.6 times more likely to be Black, regardless of whether the arrests were made in predominantly Black areas.
Those arrests are not blips on individuals’ records. As the American Civil Liberties Union points out in its 2020 report, “a marijuana arrest can carry life-altering collateral consequences” like losing custody of children, public healthcare benefits, housing, and employment opportunities. And Black people are statistically more likely to suffer those losses.
Adding complexity to the situation is the varied status of legalization. According to federal law, cannabis is a Schedule I substance; but at the state level, cannabis is approved for medical use in 33 states, and for recreational use in 11. While that’s resulted in a decline in overall arrest rates, the racial disparity in those arrests persists.
Simply put, it’s an unsettling backdrop for starting a business in cannabis if you’re Black. “There’s a lot of interest, and a lot of people with brilliant ideas who’d love to get into the cannabis industry,” Thompkins says. “But we need, as (Black) people, a whole lot more opportunities.”
One of the biggest pain points is funding — it’s a challenge for women and minority entrepreneurs in general, and the cannabis industry is no exception. “CBD is a very capital-intensive industry,” says Thompkins, who bootstrapped her startup. “There are no federal loans or funds — it’s either people self-funding or getting private investors.”
Along with the lack of fellow Black female founders, the experience left her feeling adrift. “You don’t get much help in this industry,” she says, especially when it comes to accessing advice on “everything from patents to manufacturing.”
A Pandemic Startup Story
In all, between learning the legal ropes, gathering the necessary funding and partnering with a manufacturer in Colorado that she found through her healthcare connections, it took Thompkins about a year to go from idea to launch.
And then an unprecedented disaster hit, in the form of the coronavirus crisis.
The pandemic has, of course, taken its toll on Thompkins’ startup journey — especially being stationed in New York City, which meant working in one of the most devastated parts of the nation while trying to keep a brand-new business going and growing.
To be sure, the spread of Covid-19 has affected the whole cannabis industry. Though sellers were deemed essential businesses in 29 states, basically all federal legalization efforts have stalled. Meanwhile, the pandemic has disproportionately hurt Black-owned businesses across the board, with roughly 41 percent of American ones closing by April of this year — by comparison, just 17 percent of white-owned firms shut their doors in the same time period.
For Thompkins,“mainly what we missed out on were a lot of PR opportunities — meeting people personally at conventions, and networking,” she says. “These have been difficult times.” But she’s finding a silver lining in K’dara CBD being an e-commerce business, taking advantage of the fact that “everyone is online … looking at their phones, and everyone is focused on their health.”
CBD as a pain-med alternative is initially what inspired Thompkins to launch. As a nurse, “I would see a lot of people who suffered from chronic pain.” Many of them, she adds, turned to CBD-infused products to manage that pain. Seeing firsthand how it seemed to help patients, Thompkins decided to take a deeper dive — and found an entire industry of possibilities waiting for her. “For a long time, I’d really been contemplating a more entrepreneurial path (than nursing) — this was the perfect opportunity to do something I really care about.”
That passion is keeping her going through the difficult months. She says her priority right now is increasing brand awareness — “it’s just about trying to get known, and trying to grow,” she says — and has been relying heavily upon social media to get the word out thus far.
Thompkins is hopeful that she and her fellow Black women entrepreneurs in cannabis will weather this storm — and when they do, she hopes they will band together. “I love the saying, ‘If there’s not a seat at the table for your, form your own table.’”
More in the “Her Perspective” series
As a Black Business Owner, She Hid Her Ethnicity. ‘It’s What I Felt I Needed to Do’
Judi Henderson, owner of Mannequin Madness, now hopes for a sea change for Black people in the business world.
Her PR Firm Has Succeeded By Amplifying Voices That Are ‘Ignored, Dismissed and Muted’
Dreena Whitfield launched WhitPR with a hyperfocus on Black-owned businesses, individuals and organizations.