“There is an analog between retail politics and retail cannabis,” explains Ameya Pawar, former Chicago alderman and candidate for Illinois governor who today is principal of the Chicago area’s first social consumption retail chain OKAY Cannabis. 

Like most who transition to cannabis for their career, Pawar incorporated skills derived from previous lines of work to address opportunities and complications that come with building enterprise value in quasi-legal industries. In Pawar’s case, it’s about harnessing the energy of people who come together from varied backgrounds and points of view.

In this Careers in Cannabis Q&A, Pawar discusses his inspiration for joining the cannabis industry, why he chose social consumption as his way into the sector, and why public-private economic partnerships should be coupled with a new market predicated on social equity licensure.

Also in this column, we introduce you to the new Visiting Community Engagement Manager of Discovery Partners Institute (the University of Illinois innovation center standing up Chicago’s Cannabis Research Institute) and share deets on a District Manager position from vertically-integrated Illinois operator nuEra Cannabis. 

Grown In: What motivated you to transition from elected politics to cannabis?

Ameya Pawar: When I was running for governor of Illinois, we came out with legalizing recreational cannabis as part of our criminal justice platform. During and prior to that campaign, the 47th ward of Chicago in which I represented was the only one in which to open a dispensary. That was Dispensary 33 in Andersonville. 

I did not know much about cannabis since my days in high school and college. But when I met the Zises brothers, who owned Dispensary 33, and learned more about the issues I decided to put it on my statewide platform. 

Later on, Governor J.B. Pritzker passed the most progressive law in the country. I thought about ways to begin to do some good. When I first began learning about the industry, the wife of one of my best friends passed away from cancer. During that time, my friend was driving to Michigan to pick up products. The idea of him having to smuggle things in from another state just didn’t make sense. So when I left office, I knew this was an industry that I wanted to pursue.  

GI: Explain how you leverage skills cultivated in other professions to your work in cannabis today.

Ameya Pawar: There’s an analog from retail politics to retail cannabis. It starts with developing trust with who you are talking to. Building community, bringing people together, shaping narratives, normalizing what people didn’t previously feel normal about. 

I’m a trained social worker and disaster manager. The common things you do in Emergency Management and in social work is that you are pulling together various resources and people to solve a common problem. 

In social work, you’re not bringing together business leaders and entities. But you are connecting people to various resources available to them or guiding them through those processes to address a problem or a mental health issue.

How do you get people to work together to work for a common cause? If you look at the teams we put together from Okay!, it includes people from all walks of life. Some public sector, some hospitality, some from other backgrounds. They didn’t know each other, the common link was me. We built teams and friendships based on that. 

The other skill important in cannabis retail is being a people person. In politics, when you go to somebody’s door and they challenge you, you need to adapt or push back. In many ways, a retail business is not that different. 

GI: In your entrepreneurial efforts, why do you focus so much on the social consumption aspects of cannabis?

Ameya Pawar: When I left office, I thought about creating a hospitality-focused cannabis chain.

Scott Weiner from the Fifty / 50 Group is a dear friend. My office worked with him doing a Lawrence Avenue Streetscape project. Hospitality is a high-volume and low-margin business. He figured out how to make money on those margins at scale. I said hey, I’m going to put different teams together for this venture and I want you in.

GI: What can we expect from Okay! Cannabis in 2024 and beyond?

Ameya Pawar: We’re really excited to open our third store in Evanston in early January. Will have a bakery, bar, and place people can gather – whether they like cannabis or not.

From there it’s about building efficiencies in the business once all three dispensary licenses have opened (Okay! aAlso has a Chicago location). If we stabilize all three stores and create real pathways toward profitability, then we will look to expand either in Illinois or have our eyes on Wisconsin. Among the highest grossing stores in Illinois are on the northern border, and we believe that medical stores will be opening salvo.  

GI: As a Senior Advisor to the Economic Security Project, share with our readers broadly how public-private economic partnerships can address funding challenges in the cannabis industry today.  

Ameya Pawar: It’s important to know, when we think about social equity, that we’re talking about licensees who most likely live in formerly redlined communities. Redlining was a risk management tool shaped by government policy and market forces that said lending to black and brown communities was an investment hazard.

That is not risk analysis, but rather a function of systemic racism. When you deny that, and force them to invest in capitalism, you end up with communities that face every kind of economic desert simultaneously. You don’t see loans going into communities to buy homes or small businesses. People had to participate in capitalism without capital. You can’t solve this issue just with tax credits and corporate philanthropy.

If we take an industrial policy lens – which in Illinois is to regulate a market where cannabis companies need to be social equity – you need a public-private economic partnership model to fund that industrial policy. 

Ameya Pewar will be a speaker at the 1871 Cannabis Innovation Lab Showcase November 16th, and will host Grown In’s 4th Anniversary Party at OKAY Cannabis in Wheeling, IL on December 7th.  

Discovery Partners Institute hires Visiting Community Engagement Manager for Cannabis Research Institute

Consensus building – a critical catalyst to cannabis normalization – is a function Christina Sansone brings to the newly created position as Visiting Community Engagement Manager for Discovery Partner’s Institute.

A Chicago innovation hub of the University of Illinois, Discovery Partners Institute will soon announce an Executive Director for its Cannabis Research Institute. In the meantime, Sansone will begin building infrastructure, capacity and programs for the Institute among other DPI initiatives. One immediate area of focus, she said, will be “delivering more factually accurate information to consumers” through budtender information and other initiatives. 

“I’m looking at these issues from the community lens and policy perspectives,” she said. Sansone started her position November 1. 

NuEra Cannabis seeks Chicago area District Manager  

NuEra Cannabis, a vertically-integrated cannabis company with operations in Illinois and Michigan, is hiring for a District Manager hybrid position operating in the Chicago area.

The District Manager’s role entails overseeing dispensary operations and management within the designated territory. They play a pivotal role in supporting various aspects of the management process to ensure the consistent achievement of short and long-term goals and uphold our mission statement based on our core values.

More information about the position and how to apply can be found here.

Participate in the commercial cannabis conversation 

On November 16, Grown In along with our friends at 1871 and Cannabis Innovation Lab invites you to participate in one of several concurrent in-person and virtual small group conversations focused on normalizing and commercializing the cannabis sector.

Register for Cannabis Innovation Lab Community Kick-Off that will take place between 2pm and 6pm Central Standard Time on November 16. Part of that program will include facilitated small group conversations focused on capital options and growth in our ascending industry. 

We are convening a mix of established cannabis operators, investors, new licensees, government officials and canna-curious corporations and nonprofits to be part of the conversation. This is also a great networking opportunity for those professionally committed to cannabis.

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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.