Shining Light On AAPI Month: Asian American, Native Hawaiian And Pacific Islander Cannabis Executives Speak

May 16, 2024

Read the full article on Honeysucklemag.com!

May is officially Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which means we need to pay it forward. This was created to honor, recognize, and celebrate the contributions, influence, and achievements from Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) all across the country.

How Can We Celebrate AAPI / AANHPI Month In The Cannabis Industry?

When it comes to cannabis, it’s important to do the same. There are thousands of AAPIs working tirelessly behind-the-scenes in the cannabis community, whether they’re an executive, a budtender, or simply a team member. While most may view AAPI as the minority, the beauty lies in the fact that representation continues to grow each and every day.

In fact, AAPI / AANHPI is one of the fastest-growing racial groups across the world, similar to the growth and potential of the cannabis industry as a whole. The beauty also lies in the fact that cannabis consumers range from all walks of life, from all over the world. There truly is no discrimination when it comes to the flower, and that’s what makes it beautiful!

Honeysuckle reached out to some important AAPI leaders and executives in the cannabis space to share their thoughts on heritage and the industry.

Collin Lam (C) PAX

Collin Lam, VP of Commercial Growth at PAX

At PAX, Collin is focused on driving commercial strategy and business development efforts, as well as expansion within the Consumables category and launching new markets. Given his operating experience in the legal cannabis industry, his expertise spans cultivation, extraction and manufacturing, brand sales, marketing, distribution and retail.

Previously, he served in a multi-state leadership role at Curaleaf, the world’s largest cannabis company.

Why is AAPI representation important in cannabis?

Representation is important in all facets of life. Representation is essential, to honor our cannabis legacy and to support future generations of consumers, stakeholders and decision makers. The AAPI community has been tied to the plant since its inception—some of the earliest records of cannabis consumption have been discovered in Ancient China and we know that landrace strains have originated from the Hindu Kush region of South Asia. AAPI leaders are positioned to make a valuable contribution to the liberalization of cannabis globally and normalization locally, as we touch all aspects of the supply chain, in both regulated and traditional markets, and we should be represented as consumers, as employees and as leaders driving the industry forward.

What do you think the cannabis space needs to become more equitable and inclusive?

Cannabis is nascent and we have a unique opportunity to build it from a place of equity and inclusion, ultimately creating an industry that is vibrant and weaves a tapestry of all the cultures this plant has touched over time. While some of the more formal social equity programs have struggled to find their footing, we can all still make the business decisions every day that prioritize equity and inclusion, from hiring decisions and selection of vendors and partners, to the retailers and brands we choose to support. Cannabis means so much to so many and we’ll all be stronger the more diversity of voices we have at the table.

Christopher Louie (C) Made In Xiaolin

Christopher Louie, Co-Founder of Made in Xiaolin 

Christopher Louie is the co-founder of Made in Xiaolin (Shao-lin), a high-end cannabis and lifestyle brand specializing in craft hand-rolled products. Created alongside his wife Chongsi Chang, the couple took their legacy market experience in New York to Colorado’s newly legal adult-use market in 2018. Made in Xiaolin instantly disrupted the hand-rolled product category with its top-shelf ‘Cannagar’ (cannabis cigar), along with their unique collection of hand-rolls that display unmatched creativity and integrity.

Born in Brooklyn and raised on Staten Island, New York, Chris’s journey took a left turn in 2002 when he was incarcerated on Rikers Island. In 2003, he was shot in the back, leading him to explore cannabis for pain management.

Why is AAPI representation important in cannabis?

The color of your skin should not be a barrier to entry in any industry. AAPI representation is very minimal in the cannabis industry and it matters because it shows people who may look like us or come from a similar background what is possible and inspire them to go after their dreams. Coincidentally, several cannabis cigar brands around the country are founded by Asian Americans.

What do you think the cannabis space needs to do to become more equitable and inclusive?

By normalizing cannabis, the industry will naturally become more equitable and inclusive. Being a Schedule I drug federally still presents challenges and prejudices that create hurdles for anyone – especially minorities who don’t have the same access to capital and other resources.

Vince C. Ning (C) Nabis

Vince C. Ning, Co-founder & Co-CEO of Nabis

Vince C. Ning is the Co-founder and Co-CEO of Nabis, a leading licensed cannabis wholesale platform, distributing over 300 brands to thousands of retailers across the country. Previously working at Microsoft and in his prior company (later sold to Amazon when he was 23 years old), Vince is a technologist and entrepreneur who’s shifted his focus to accelerating cannabis industry growth compliantly.

Vince is a Forbes 30 Under 30 executive, previously holding the position as Board Director of the Cannabis Distribution Association (CDA) to help shape regulations for the betterment of the cannabis supply chain.

Why is AAPI representation important in cannabis?

AAPI representation is important for dismantling stigmas and stereotypes about cannabis use in AAPI communities. By actively participating and leading in this space, we are ensuring that the industry is accessible and inclusive to our communities.

Beyond visibility, AAPI representation is also about creating equitable pathways for our communities to benefit from the economic opportunities the cannabis industry provides. It’s important for us to leverage the full spectrum of our skills, knowledge, and innovations to help this industry thrive and ensure our voices are heard in shaping its future.

What do you think the cannabis space needs to become more equitable and inclusive?

To create an equitable and inclusive cannabis industry, we need robust social equity programs that provide resources and support to communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. We must prioritize diversity and inclusion at all levels, from entry-level roles to executive leadership positions.

Access to capital for diverse entrepreneurs is also crucial, which means more equitable lending practices and investment funds dedicated to underrepresented founders. Building an equitable industry requires an ongoing commitment from all stakeholders to prioritize social justice and diversity, only then can we ensure the cannabis space uplifts all communities, and reflects the vibrant diversity of our nation.

Samuel Soong (C) Grön

Samuel Soong, Chief Revenue Officer at Grön

Samuel Soong is the Chief Revenue Officer at Grön, a leading woman-led producer of tasty, handcrafted cannabis-infused edibles. Soong reels in over 15 years of expertise in selling and managing high-end cannabis consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands, straddling both wholesale and retail aspects of the industry.

Not only is Soong dedicated to delivering high-quality products, he emphasizes the importance of exceptional customer service, which in turn fuels his ability in identifying consumer trends early. This has allowed him to create the most innovative products for Grön, who have proven themselves as a leading edible company in North America.

Why is AAPI representation important in cannabis?

Those teenage years still echo, a time when my mom found a bong hidden away and I blamed it on my cousin. “He’s hiding it from Aunt Wendy,” I lied. Years have rolled by, and those words have settled into a silence that stretches between my mom and me. She knows what I do—leading a top cannabis company—but the truth of it remains unspoken. It’s a delicate balance, complicated in its simplicity.

If only the silver screen had Michelle Yeoh sparking up a joint, maybe then the tides of our cultural conversations would turn. Stories have that power: to open doors we thought were sealed shut and reshape even the most private family dialogues.

Growing up, I was straddling two worlds, often finding myself lost in the space between. “Not Taiwanese enough,” some said; “Too foreign,” thought others. So, I did what worked, depending on the day and the crowd. I chose what was convenient, though I knew, even then, that taking the easy road sometimes meant trading away a piece of myself.

Now, at the helm of one of the most respected edible companies, I carry forward the work ethic etched into me by my heritage. We’re painted with broad strokes—diligent, unwavering, pursuing excellence. Yet, here we are, questioning whether this is the time to break molds. Are we the generation to raise our voices, to defy age-old taboos, and dare to be different?

What do you think the cannabis space needs to become more equitable and inclusive?

The representation of Asian Americans in cannabis isn’t just about adding variety—it’s about bringing our own stories to the table and enriching the narrative.

I haven’t figured out how to bridge that gap with my mom just yet, but in the cannabis space, I’m all in. We’re crafting a landscape as diverse as our customers, and as multifaceted as our stories. And maybe, just maybe, the ground we gain here will pave the way for conversations I hope to share with her one day.

Lulu Tsui (C) On The Revel

Lulu Tsui, Co-Founder & Chief Experience Officer at On The Revel

Lulu Tsui is the Co-Founder and Chief Experience Officer at On The Revel, the parent company for a collection of educational and networking experiences offering information and resources for those interested in entering the cannabis industry. Their events (known as Revelry) arrive in the form of conferences with one goal: fostering an inclusive, collaborative, and flourishing cannabis sector.

Lulu is seasoned in Experience Design (XD) and User Experience (UX) with over 15 years of experience leading research, strategy, and design for enterprise software, Software as a Service (SaaS), mobile, and touchscreen technologies. Her vast XD and UX expertise is applied across verticals in the cannabis industry, while championing ways to normalize and destigmatize cannabis.

Why is AAPI representation important in cannabis?

For most AAPI communities, the use of cannabis carries a huge stigma and is more often than not associated with morally unacceptable and criminal behavior. Even though in the earliest history of Asian, cannabis was used as medicine. Many people are unaware of the historical context of why there is such great fear surrounding the use of cannabis. China was crippled via colonization in the 1800s when Britain and European powers took control and dominated China by flooding the country with opium, resulting in a century-long opioid epidemic. The complete destruction of a country due to a heavily addicted population is still something that Asians carry with them.

Therefore, seeing Asians in the cannabis industry promoting accurate information and education about cannabis, including its potential benefits, risks, and legal status, is essential in helping to normalize and break down these stigmas for Asian communities. Not only for cannabis use, but also business and financial opportunities in a new industry.

What do you think the cannabis space needs to become more equitable and inclusive?

To foster equity and inclusivity within the cannabis industry, it’s crucial for cannabis companies to integrate diverse hires into C-Suite and leadership positions. This industry is particularly complex, requiring constant pivots and innovative thinking. A leadership team enriched with diverse backgrounds can offer a variety of perspectives, experiences, and skillsets, which are essential for effective problem-solving and decision-making in the multitude “oh-shit” moments. The transformation of the existing challenging landscape will only be possible when leaders from diverse backgrounds collaborate to drive change. Cannabis companies need to start being intentional in selecting who fills their leadership role, as leadership invariably trickles down and establishes the values and tone across the entire organization.

Barry Vuong (C) Monko

Barry Vuong, MS, Chief Operating Officer at Monko

Barry Vuong is a seasoned entrepreneur with extensive experience in product manufacturing, retail, and B2B distribution. His background in business transformation and strategy has allowed him to grow multiple startups to over $10 million in revenue within the cannabis industry. Vuong currently holds the position of Chief Operating Officer at Monko, a luxurious lifestyle cannabis brand dedicated to social equity.

Previously, Barry was a multi-store franchisee of 7-Eleven and continues to own and operate multiple retail stores, and a distribution company. Barry holds a MS in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics from the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, and BS degrees in Finance and International Business from the University of Maryland College Park.

Why is AAPI representation important in cannabis?

AAPI representation in the cannabis industry is crucial for several reasons, particularly from a social perspective. In many Asian communities, there is a deep-rooted cultural stigma surrounding cannabis and other drugs. This stigma is often tied to the notion that Asians should pursue “respectable” professions, such as becoming doctors or lawyers. These stereotypes are especially prevalent among older generations, whose upbringings and values are passed down to younger generations, perpetuating a cycle of bias and negative stigma towards the cannabis industry.

Increasing AAPI representation in the cannabis industry, particularly in diverse senior-level roles, can help encourage more participation from the community. When members of the AAPI community see their peers in leadership positions within the industry, it can help shift the perception of cannabis from something to be avoided or associated with shady individuals to a legitimate and promising career path.

By showcasing the opportunities for safe, sustainable employment and growth within the cannabis industry, the AAPI community may become more receptive to the idea of working in this field. As more Asians from “traditional” career tracks begin to view the cannabis industry as a viable option, it can help break down the cultural barriers and negative stereotypes surrounding cannabis within the community. Ultimately, increased AAPI representation in the cannabis industry can lead to greater diversity, inclusivity, and understanding, while also providing new avenues for professional growth and economic opportunity within the AAPI community.

What do you think the cannabis space needs to become more equitable and inclusive?

To make the cannabis space more equitable and inclusive, I believe several key changes need to occur. As someone who strongly advocates for social equity for all minorities and women’s empowerment in cannabis, business, and higher levels in the workplace, it’s essential to address the current disparities and challenges within the industry. One of my observations is that a significant portion of the AAPI community involved in the cannabis/hemp industry has been engaged in the legacy space for an extended period or are returning citizens, similar to my business partner Terrence.

Which other AANHPI leaders in cannabis would you like us to spotlight? Tell us your favorite experts at @honeysucklemagazine on Instagram!

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