The largest cannabis operator in the United States is investing nearly a million dollars in six Illinois entities designed to provide workforce development programming to mostly entrepreneurs of color who aspire to work in the budding industry.

Last month Grown In detailed how Illinois-based operators including Cresco Labs, PharmaCann, and Bedford Grow are funding the development of cannabis-specific tracks in community colleges to fulfill state mandates for recreational expansion. Wakefield, Mass.-based Curaleaf, which last month officially began operating 10 newly-purchased Illinois dispensaries, this week shared details on the social equity programs it is funding.

As part of its nationwide “Rooted in Good” corporate social responsibility initiative, managed from Chicago, Curaleaf committed to donate $250,000 to Olive-Harvey Community College on Chicago’s Far South Side, $100,000 to Cara Chicago, $100,000 to Growing Home, $100,000 to Greater West Town Community Development Project, and $100,000 to an undisclosed “North Chicagoland Community College”. An additional $300,000 was donated to a state-managed Cannabis Business Development Fund.  

“We are trying to wrap our arms around setting the standard for how multistate operators should increase access to the industry,” said Raheem Uqdah, Curaleaf’s Hyde Park-based Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives. “We have to work really intentionally to provide real opportunity for these folks.”

Uqdah, 27, and a native of Ohio, began working in the marketing department of Chicago-based Grassroots Cannabis in February 2019. Twenty months later, following Grassroots’ prolonged acquisition process by Curaleaf, his professional portfolio now includes Curaleaf’s national initiatives on environmental sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion. This includes mentorship programs to give aspiring cannabis executives and entrepreneurs exposure to “C-Suite” leadership decisions as well as a supplier diversity program that allocates shelf-space to a diverse pool of manufacturers. 

“A lot of folks who have been in this industry have a lot of expertise around the plant,” he said. “We need to give them a place to shine. At the heart of this is diverse ownership.”

Curaleaf officially entered the Illinois market last month when Illinois regulators approved its acquisition of a combination of ten former Greenhouse and Windy City Cannabis-branded dispensaries. Curaleaf originally announced the $840 million deal in 2019. 

Illinois law limits ownership to five medical dispensaries and five “plus one” recreational dispensaries, so a sale of assets was necessary. An additional provision in the 2019 Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act requires operators who own medical licenses to make payments to the state’s Cannabis Business Development Fund, or to organizations approved by the state that provide cannabis workforce development training.

While a spokesperson would not confirm the identity of the North Chicagoland Community College, Oakton College received funding from Cresco Labs, PharmaCann and others to develop a cannabis cultivation lab and is the only known entity to operate state-approved cannabis workforce development programming approved. 

Curaleaf is also addressing a growing unionization movement for cannabis professionals in Illinois. On March 31, organizers for the  Union Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) announced that workers at Curaleaf’s North Side Chicago Windy City Cannabis location voted to organize

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.