Wendy Berger has served as a Director of the Board of Green Thumb Industries since February 2015. Wendy brings decades of experience in strategic planning, execution, and exits for rapid growth start-ups. Ms. Berger is CEO and Founder of WBS Equities, LLC, a real estate development firm she founded in 2004, which specializes in ground up construction, renovations, and sale lease back transactions of food manufacturing and food distribution facilities. In addition to a tenured career in real estate, Ms. Berger spent 10 years launching and building high tech start-ups. Wendy co-founded and was COO of Neoglyphics Media Corporation, one of the country’s first website development firms where she was integral in successfully scaling the organization before it was sold. Ms. Berger was employee number 11 at Orbitz, the travel website founded in 2000 by American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United Airlines, where she was Director of Strategic Enterprise Planning. Over the last 28 years, Ms. Berger has been involved in the real estate business as a lender, property manager, broker and consultant, as well as an investor. Wendy began her career at American National Bank and Trust Company of Chicago (a subsidiary of First Chicago, now JP Morgan Chase) in Commercial Lending and then several years as a principal with Berger Realty Group, an 80-year-old family owned real estate business where she focused on residential and industrial property management and development. Wendy earned her MBA in Finance and Real Estate from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She received a B.S., cum laude, in Finance and Marketing from Syracuse University. Wendy is an avid triathlete, having completed 33 Olympic distance triathlons and 13 half marathons. Wendy is a frequent speaker on Cannabis related real estate.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
In early 2000 I was diagnosed with Mal De Debarquement Syndrome (MDDS), a Vestibular Disorder. Known as the Rocking Disorder, my vestibular system functions at ~10% of the normal level. This leaves me with a rocking sensation that is somewhat akin to what most people feel like after getting off a boat. You feel as though you are still on waves. I can measure my days by the size of the waves. If I did not tell anybody about the disorder, they would never know. I have learned to cope and obscure the symptoms. One of the side effects of MDDS is a constant low-level feeling of nausea. Shortly after my diagnosis, I was fortunate to find a Neurologist/Otolaryngologist, one of two or three doctors in the United States who actively researches and treats this disorder. He has become my partner in exploring how to live a big life with this disorder. The class of drugs commonly used at the time of my diagnosis were drugs used to treat epilepsy. They left me unable to function at a high level and can have long term kidney and liver side effects. In addition to being a CEO of a real estate development company, on the Board of Directors of Green Thumb (GTI), a serial entrepreneur, and very active on several non-profit board, I am an endurance athlete, having completed 33 Olympic Distance Triathlons and 13 half marathons. I love to and need to function at a very high level so I knew that the traditional approach with drugs would not work for me. I have always believed in an approach to wellness which combines eastern and western medicine, traditional and non-traditional approaches and most importantly, plant-based medicine. Marijuana is, in my opinion, the perfect plant-based medicine – no long-term side effects, and the ability to manage dosing to both match my symptoms and function like an athlete.
In addition, I have a home in the Palm Springs area. Fifteen years ago, I began to explore some of the dispensaries in the area in search of products to help treat MDDS. The experience of going into a dispensary was awful. The stores were dark, dreary, poorly lit, and in rough locations. I used to joke that I was not sure which made me more uncomfortable, walking into the stores with cash or walking out with product. I immediately began to believe that there was an opportunity to create a better retail experience. I used to think of most of the staff in these dispensaries as high functioning stoners. In hindsight, I now think of them as low functioning stoners. They knew very little about the products they were selling and knew less about how to create a great retail experience that would draw repeat customers and engender customer loyalty. There was no such thing as product education, or a relationship created between dispensary and customer. I very quickly decided I wanted to invest in the business to improve the experience. I searched for eight years for an opportunity to invest in a dispensary operation in California but found the industry to feel like the wild west.
When it became clear that a medical marijuana program would become legal in Illinois, I met with 19 different groups forming companies to apply for dispensary and cultivation licenses in Illinois. After nine months of due diligence and countless meetings, I made a large bet on Ben Kovler and his newly formed company, Green Thumb Industries (GTI). The GTI team won three cultivation licenses and one dispensary license in Illinois. The rest of the story is still being written. Today, GTI is among the largest multi-state operators in the United States, is publicly traded on the CSE, has operations in 12 states across the United States, 41 dispensaries, licenses to open 96 dispensaries, 13 cultivation facilities and owns brands including Beboe, Dog Walkers, Rhythm, incredibles, The Feel Collection, and Dr. Solomons.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
For many years, a goal of mine had been to serve on the Board of Directors of a publicly traded company. When I imagined this, I never thought I would serve on the Board of a company in a Federally illegal business. I clearly was not imagining big enough.
I am a serial entrepreneur and have been a part of and on leadership teams at several explosive growth startups including Neoglyphics Media, which was either the first or second web site development company in the U.S. started in ~1994, then was one of the first employees of Orbitz, the travel web site. I love the explosive growth start up phase of these companies. With GTI, the new part of the experience was the combination of explosive growth startup, a complex regulatory environment, and an entirely new industry. For a serial entrepreneur, this industry is energizing and exciting – it is like life on a rocket ship, explosive growth combined with uncharted territory.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have made so many mistakes along the way, but I quickly put them in the rear-view mirror. You cannot drive forward looking in the rear-view mirror. This past January when Adult Use Recreational sales became legal in Illinois, I spent a few Saturdays working in our dispensaries in Illinois in order to supplement our amazing team members who were working 7 days per week to keep up with customer demand. I worked in our intake line trying to help customers place orders on ipads and answer questions. I thought because I had many years of retail experience in high school and college, that I would be a natural and could help. As it turns out, my customer service skills are great but my use of technology and ability to answer questions and manage lines were not so great. My experiences were awesome, and I loved every minute of listening to our customers, but I was reminded how hard it is to work in retail. Long exhausting days of being on your feet. Working in our dispensaries allowed me to see our business from different perspectives, those of customers and our team members. These were long and humbling days. Even after 30 years of a successful career, you can still be pushed out of your comfort zone and challenged in unexpected ways. I think all Board Members and leaders should spend time on the front lines. Friends laughed and analogized my experience to the TV show Undercover Boss – except I was only undercover to the customers.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
Everywhere I go, to meetings, speaking events, conferences and dinner parties, people ask if I brought along product samples. I do not. My family reacted very well from the beginning. I think being in the business has elevated my cool factor among my niece, nephews, cousins and certainly my friends. I have been very open and “out of the closet” about my involvement in the industry for the last seven years. I still think some are shocked as they still have an expectation of what someone in this business looks like – and I do not fit that expectation.
Its great fun to walk into a room and have someone ask, “What do you do for a living?” or as a woman I am still sometimes asked “Do you work?” I look straight into their eyes and respond; I am in the legal marijuana business. The range of reactions is so much fun to anticipate and respond to. I get lots of giggles but most often there is a long pause before an answer. I do not think most people know how to react.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have been fortunate to have many mentors throughout my career, but I did not truly understand the importance of having mentors until I was in my 40s.
When I was getting into the business and getting to know Ben Kovler, Founder and CEO of GTI, Ben trusted me and that is what has allowed me to take on a strategic and advisory role at GTI. I have loved every minute of my role with GTI. I get to direct all of the knowledge gained through all my years of experience in banking, real estate, and technology startups into growing a new company in a new industry. I am deeply grateful to Ben and all the GTI team members for my role on the Board of Directors. I am so proud of the way the company has been built. We have a strong foundation and never stray from our core values and mission. I remember sitting around a room, with just four of us saying that a strong balance sheet would be key to thriving in this roller-coaster ride of a business. That early philosophy is critical today.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
As a company, Green Thumb is continuously working to expand access to its branded cannabis products such as Beboe, Dogwalkers, Dr. Solomon’s, incredibles, Rythm and The Feel Collection, which help the well-being of so many people. Green Thumb is also working to open new stores across our markets, including one in Niles, Illinois which will be our eighth store in the state. I’m very involved in the real estate end of the company’s expansion.
I am also working on three really exciting new projects in the industry outside of my Board role at GTI. All my new projects have an emphasis on providing safe and responsible access to marijuana and enhancing the user experience. I am navigating through chaos in hopes of reaching clarity.
In Illinois, I serve as an advisor to two Social Equity Applicants applying for dispensary and craft grow licenses under the Illinois Adult Use Marijuana Program. The Illinois program has the potential to be game changing in terms of bringing more minorities and women into the industry. Supporting social equity applicants as they get into this business and helping people who have not previously had opportunities in this industry is probably most important thing I am doing right now.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to this report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?
People – not just women, like me, on Boards or in leadership positions must continue to stand up and speak out about the statistics. As board member of a publicly traded company, it is imperative talk about this with every opportunity I am given. It is critical to lead from the front on this issue.
According to my own recent research, among leading MSOs in the cannabis industry, less than 12% of board seats are held my women. Less than 6% of board seats are held by African Americans and less than 10% are held by minorities.
People at the C-Suite and Board level must believe that diversity of thinking leads to much better outcomes. Data supports this. Organizations that all look the same are creating an echo chamber within their Board rooms. Innovation and creative problem-solving demand that people with diverse backgrounds and life experiences are involved in leading this industry forward.
In 2015, I co-founded Illinois Women in Cannabis, along with Dina Rollman, to spotlight opportunities for women to get into the industry. Today, the organization’s events consistently draw more than 500 attendees and it has become the most well-known and respected networking organization in Illinois for convening people, men and women, in the cannabis industry and those who want to get into the industry.
You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each.
Do not make assumptions about anything in this business – particularly about the pricing and the financial structures of businesses in this industry.
Do your due diligence – the people you are getting into business with matter. When I was first meeting with groups to invest in, most of the “experts” were people who had been in the illegal business – they were some of the few who knew how to grow and operate at scale. Understanding their background and establishing trust was key. Ultimately, I chose not to get into business with anyone with that type of background.
Risk assessment – there is risk in investing in startups, in a new industry as it transitions from illegal to legal. Many have suggested I was taking on too much risk by getting into the business. My view is that if you know how to properly assess risk, you can make informed and better decisions.
Capital – there is a lot of talk about capital flooding into the business, and it’s simply not true- there is a lot of talk about people wanting to invest, but when it comes time to actually write checks, there is still hesitancy. At all levels, this industry remains capital constrained.
Education – do not assume that just because someone has used marijuana that they know anything about how to consume marijuana safely and responsibly.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
Chaos – there is an enormous amount of chaos in the industry. My view is that from Chaos comes opportunity.
Opportunities – there are so many new and exciting opportunities for people to come into this industry and bring their creative thinking, knowledge, and experience from other industries.
Innovation – I am very excited about the innovation in product categories, delivery mechanisms, and automation. We are just scratching the surface on in this growing (pun intended) industry. It seems to me we are only in the second inning, perhaps the bottom of the second inning.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
Banking reform. Being deemed federally illegal, cannabis businesses are unable to receive financial services. The SAFE Banking Act, which would create protections for depository institutions that provide financial services to cannabis companies, would help pave the way for federal reform.
Social justice. We have seen the impact the war on drugs had on disenfranchised communities. With cannabis legality expanding throughout the country, we need to address how those communities have been impacted and the role those affected can play in the legal space. GTI has a mentoring program called LEAP that assists social equity applicants applying for new cannabis licenses in Illinois and we’re excited to see a new generation of successful entrepreneurs.
Supply and demand. Cannabis products are in high demand and can outweigh the supply of products available. With smokable flower being the most in demand and the hardest to produce, prices are often impacted. As build outs occur and supply increases, we will see prices level out.
What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?
Green Thumbs’ mission is to promote well-being through the power of cannabis. We believe this applies to both those suffering from major medical conditions or adult-use customers who are seeking an alternative to manage other aspects of their well-being. With legalization comes accessibility to safe, regulated cannabis products.
Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?
Tax it and talk about it. Whether people are supportive of the industry or not, I do not try to convince them one way or the other. But I do quote statistics about the size of the illicit or illegal market. People must stop pretending that it does not exist at the scale it does. Tax, regulate and talk about responsible adult use.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Big thinking proceeds great accomplishments. I gave a TED talk and a PetchaKucha talk on this theme.
I suffered two very personal tragedies that have re-shaped my thinking and how I live my life. In a span of just over three years, beloved brother was killed in a plane crash and my husband of 24 years committed suicide. After experiencing two tragedies in a short amount of time, I was broken, and my world was shattered. When I started to rebuild my shattered world, I knew that I had the gift of life, but I had to find the courage and the right mindset to build a brand new life – a life not defined or limited by my past. This took Big Thinking and not letting my past define me or the pain hold me back from living a joyful, meaningful, and purposeful life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Do not let yourself be defined by your past and let go of the fears that do not serve you. Ask yourself, what would you do if you had no fear?
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!