Four years after applying for multiple licenses in Illinois, J.T. Stinnette and her team at Community Cannabis in October went to market with one of the first African American-owned brands to serve the maturing Illinois adult-use market.
“My journey as a serial entrepreneur is filled with triumphs and setbacks which have contributed to a unique skill set,” said Stinnette, a Harvard Law School graduate who previously started an eco-friendly affordable housing development, a virtual call center and a travel concierge company before getting into the cannabis-infused chocolate bar business.
“There is no way you can participate in the cannabis industry as an entrepreneur without the ability to persevere!”, she said.
In this edition of Careers in Cannabis, Stinnette explains how Community partnered with an established Illinois operator to get to market, her organization’s collaboration with Chicago Urban League, and the therapeutic benefits of Lion’s Mane and Reishi mushrooms, “which set our bars apart.”
Grown In: Walk us through your journey from Harvard Law School graduate to licensed cannabis edibles entrepreneur.
J.T. Stinnette: What a journey. I started at Harvard Law School directly after earning my accounting degree from University of Illinois at 22 yrs old with intentions to be a tax lawyer. Best laid plans. During law school I realized I had absolutely no desire to practice tax law but instead had an entrepreneurial spirit. After practicing commercial real estate law for four years with a large law firm, I branched out to focus on making my entrepreneurial dreams a reality and started developing affordable housing. We created a sustainable approach to building affordable housing called Green Urbanism focused on retrofitting existing housing stock and creating green jobs. I’m proud of the work we did but after the economic downturn of 2008, I was forced to pivot.
Fast forward to 2013, my late husband and I owned and operated a virtual call center. We were still very much focused on green job creation. My aunt, Desiree Tate, and her dynamic colleagues were in the process of applying for a medical cannabis license here in IL and we had the opportunity to assist with some of the community organizing and advocacy efforts. It was a marvelous opportunity to see the birth of the legal cannabis market here in Illinois and I knew then that I wanted in. Little did I know that the time would come but it would not be for another 6+ years.
Unfortunately, in 2018 I lost both my late husband and my aunt Desi. It was a very hard time for me. My aunt’s daughter Ashley had just returned home from her position as Director of the White House Travel Office for President Obama. She was strategically thinking about ways to turn her very unique skill set into a business and I jumped in to assist. We founded Fortis Global, a travel concierge company focused on bespoke travel services and private aviation. It was a way to work with family and advance my skills as a serial entrepreneur. My cousin (who is more like a sister) and I channeled unimaginable grief to create a disruptive travel company that would later survive the pandemic. I continued to hone my ability to be tenacious and my aspirations to participate in cannabis still lingered.
CREATIVITY & TENACITY
In 2019, my dear friend from high school Anton Seals Jr. reached out to me about an opportunity to build a hemp company. He was working with Revolution Global and wanted me to take a look at the opportunity. After the initial meeting I knew that this was my chance to get into the burgeoning cannabis industry. We assembled a group of close friends with aligned interests and OURS (Organic Urban Revitalization Solutions) was born. We applied for all four available licenses in 2019 and buckled in for what we knew was going to be a heck of a ride.
Grown In: How do you apply skills derived earlier in your career to your job today?
J.T.: Stinnette: My journey as a serial entrepreneur is filled with triumphs and setbacks which have contributed to a unique skill set that I apply to my existing role as OURS’ Co-CEO. There are a few skills that stand out as essential to my ongoing success: perseverance, coachability, and the ability to pivot. There is no way you can participate in the cannabis industry as an entrepreneur without the ability to persevere!
After applying for our licenses in 2019, it wasn’t until October of 2023 that we launched our first product – Community – through a collaboration with Nature’s Grace & Wellness. If I didn’t remain committed to our success and embody that commitment in a palpable way, I may have given up along the way.
Another skill I have acquired that is essential to any entrepreneur is the ability to pivot. While strategically you have to set goals and desired outcomes, you must be flexible and open to the way the outcomes will be achieved. For example, OURS is committed to having a brick and mortar infusing operation and producing a full product line of cannabis infused products for the Illinois marketplace but currently capital requirements have delayed us from accomplishing that goal. In the interim, we had to pivot a bit and realize that we could still remain relevant in the marketplace while setting up our infusing operations, by launching a product through collaboration. Our collaboration with NGW allowed us to do just that by successfully launching OUR first product – Community.
Grown In: Share with us the origin story of Community, and how your company’s mission and product differentiate from what is currently in the market.
J.T. Stinnette: Community is a powerful partnership between OURS and Nature’s Grace and Wellness. OURS’ founder Anton Seals Jr. has a demonstrated commitment to expanding urban agriculture and acts as Lead Steward for Grow Greater Englewood. The O’Hern family owns & operates a family farm in West Central Illinois that is committed to growing and producing the finest quality grown cannabis products in the market. Through organic conversation between the OURS & NGW teams, it was apparent that our collective values were aligned. Together, we share a common vision of promoting purpose-driven and accessible cannabis within the community. Our values revolve around unity, wellness, and supporting Black, Brown, local, and rural farming efforts in Illinois.
The result of the collaboration is our first product – Community Mushroom Infused Chocolate Bars. A dark chocolate infused bar with Lion’s Mane mushrooms and a milk chocolate infused bar with Reishi mushrooms. Chocolate, Cannabis and functional mushrooms make for a powerful blend of adaptogens. The bars not only have THC but other cannabinoids, CBD, CBG and CBN that lend to an entourage effect (cannabis compounds working in harmony).
The wellness benefits that the mushrooms pack are undeniable and set the bars apart. Lion’s Mane is known to provide improved brain function, anti-inflammatory benefits and to be high in antioxidants. Reishi mushrooms provide immune support, reduce fatigue and regulate mood.
The addition of the functional mushrooms and their added wellness benefits makes the Community Mushroom Infused Chocolate Bars beautifully differentiated. We are currently the only mushroom infused chocolate bar in the Illinois marketplace. The Lion’s Mane Vanilla Dark Chocolate Bar was recently reviewed by Michael Lasley for Illinois News Joint. He described the bar’s effect as a lightness setting in at his core that spread to his extremities with a noticeable mood enhancement. We call that the OURS Embrace! I couldn’t have described it better myself!
Grown In: What are the biggest challenges and opportunities you see today for social equity operators in Illinois and other states with similar regulatory structures.
J.T. Stinnette: Two of the biggest challenges for social equity operators here in Illinois also present fertile opportunities. They are access to capital and the need for tangible mentorship. After OURS applied for all four licenses in 2019, it was apparent early on that social equity licensees were going to need resources to not only participate in the industry but to thrive in it.
We approached the Chicago Urban League (CUL) with the issue and they agreed to collaborate with us to form a solution. Together with CUL, we formed the Equity & Justice in Action Compact (EJC) with a focus on assembling cannabis industry stakeholders and providing resources to social equity licensees and ancillary businesses to participate in the industry. We were successful at providing seminars and business diversity fairs that fostered conversations between licensees, MSOs and ancillary businesses and provided tangible resources for success. The work continues and EJC’s plans to assemble funding resources to address access to capital for social equity licensees remains as an opportunity to explore and develop a solution to this existing barrier to tangible and lasting social equity industry participation.
Grown In: What are your goals for 2024 and beyond?
J.T. Stinnette: We want to continue to advance Community’s market exposure by working with all dispensaries here in IL to get the product in the hands of the consumer. We’re excited to move forward with establishing our brick and mortar infusing operations as well as using our transportation license to provide jobs in the communities we live in and serve. We’ll also continue to bring wellness products to the market through our existing strategic partnership with Nature’s Grace & Wellness. All in all the future is very bright and we can’t wait to continue to show the market that OURS is here to stay.
I also echo Jackie Cahan’s sentiment in her recent Careers in Cannabis interview – “With forward-thinking women entering cannabis, we will remove the stigma that plagues cannabis to this day.” I’m committed to being one of those forward-thinking women.
Individual tickets available for Grown In’s January 11 Illinois Wholesale Conference
Grown In’s quarterly Illinois wholesale conferences offer the opportunity for newly licensed cannabis retailers, infusers and craft growers to meet and develop purchasing relationships with established cultivators including Curaleaf, Green Thumb Industries, Cresco Labs, Ascend Wellness Holdings, The Bettering Company, Kaviar, Enliven and more.
The event is free for Illinois social equity license holders. General Admission Tickets can also be purchased here. If your organization is interested in sponsoring this highly relevant event – which will culminate with an afternoon on the Sesh Bus, email Marcy@grownin.com for more information.
Last Call for to Apply for the 1871 and Grown In Cannabis Innovation Lab Business Accelerator
Running a startup in any sector, cannabis specifically, can be a very lonely enterprise. If you are a startup founder seeking canna-camaraderie, Grown In in collaboration with our friends at 1871 invite you to participate in a three-month business accelerator. Here you will collaborate with other companies at your stage, benefit from strategic mentorship, and perhaps make a deal or two along the way.
The deadline to apply for the 2024 Cannabis Innovation Lab Business Accelerator is this Friday, January 5. Apply here today!