Wendy Bronfein is a co-founder and the director of marketing and product development at Curio Wellness. With a diverse background in creative services, business, and writing, Wendy most recently served as creative director for the Emmy-award winning, Live with Kelly & Michael. Previously, Wendy lent her talents to global entertainment brands, including MTV, BBCAmerica, and NBCUniversal. As an integrated marketer, she has seamlessly connected Fortune 500 companies through innovative, effective, brand-defining campaigns. Wendy earned her MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business, specializing in entrepreneurship, innovation, and marketing. She received her BA from George Washington University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
I spent the better part of a decade in marketing in network television and although I’d built my career in both LA and NYC, I always remained a Baltimore girl at heart. When working on television, my job was focused on the voice of the brands I represented — a voice and brand identity that already existed. After almost a decade of this work, I wanted the chance to build my own brand and work on something I could shape from the ground-up.
I knew how transformative medical cannabis had been for patients in other states, and after finishing my MBA at NYU and with medical cannabis newly legalized in Maryland I saw an exciting opportunity back home. I pitched my dad on my vision — with my passion for and experience in marketing combined with his entrepreneurial and investment background along with his management experience in healthcare we had the potential to create something great.
In 2014, my sister and I boarded a flight to Denver to meet our parents and begin building what would soon become Curio Wellness. We reviewed existing markets in the U.S. and abroad, learned about the plant, connected with respected scientists and physicians, and heard the impactful stories of patients — all signs kept pushing us forward.
A year later, the first business meeting with our founding members was a day I will never forget. We came together and defined the company we wanted to build. We talked about patients and how to take cannabis out of the shadows.
From day one, we decided this would be a family business that we would build and operate for generations to come. So, I was particularly passionate about creating a legacy workplace — somewhere Marylanders could not only get a job but also build a career. I wanted to change lives not just for our patients, but for our employees, too.
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?
There is a certain entrepreneurial spirit that is required when starting a business in any industry. This spirit, takes a large amount of time, commitment and drive. Through the birth of Curio, I learned firsthand that when you seek to do anything on your own, you have to be prepared for it to consume you and it helps tremendously to have your immediate community of friends, family, and mentors understand and support that commitment.
I learned this firsthand. At the same time that I returned to Maryland to launch Curio Wellness, I met my now-husband. I was quickly balancing new love with a new career where often concessions were made in my personal life for the demands and drive of our new company. My husband’s patience, respect, and pride in what we’ve built allow me to be unabashedly committed to Curio Wellness.
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?
Early on when testing a new medicinal product, we’d gather confidential feedback from a select group of certified patients. One evening, I was sitting in my kitchen reviewing the results and I couldn’t make any sense of the data — comments seemed to be contradictory, and the information was erratic.
It then dawned on me that patients were recording responses and feedback after consuming the product. While clinically limiting, it gave the entire office a good laugh! Needless to say, we now request patient surveys to be completed during and after use, in order to accurately assess product effectiveness, onset, and duration.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
With the burgeoning normalization of cannabis over the last few years, I am grateful to say that no one has ever been judgmental, but rather just inquisitive. Some of my former marketing colleagues who I’d always thought of as more conservative, surprisingly were either the most curious or were already using the plant for medicinal purposes. It goes to show, you really can never judge a book by its cover.
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?
From a young age, my father has played an instrumental role in my life. He instilled in me a strong entrepreneurial spirit and drive. When I was 13 I received a few small shares of Disney. And after learning about an upcoming shareholder’s meeting, I asked my dad to take me to New York City so I could attend as a proud new shareholder! To this day, I will never forget that meeting at the Waldorf Astoria — as Michael Eisner presented, I said to my dad, “that’s what I want to do”. You see at the time, I was just a Disney obsessed child who thought it would be fun to be in charge of all that “Disney magic”. My dad responded, “well then you’ll need to study business and media”. In a bizarre twist, it’s exactly how my education and career played out and I only connected the dots years later.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re always brainstorming and developing new products but most recently I’ve been liaising with our scientific advisory board to finalize our product line architecture. At Curio, we’re focused on creating condition-specific medicinal products derived from cannabis. For example, a product to address sleep-related issues will begin trials in early 2020.
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?
Encourage a healthy work-life balance for all employees through implementing comprehensive benefits policies and programs that support a healthy culture in the workplace.
Create strong mentorship programs at work for employees at every level. These programs should involve systems, training, and timelines for employees to understand the path to professional growth and help them to develop sustaining and rewarding careers.
Grow a diverse leadership team that reflects diversity in gender, race, age, and sexual orientation.
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.
Everything will take longer than you expect.
Regulation is reality — you must be ready to innovate within the bounds of the regulation.
You will work harder than you’ve ever worked.
Funding is competitive in the industry — make sure your financial plans account for this.
Belief in the virtue of medicinal cannabis is not enough, you need to define your brand, your mission, your products and deliver on that every day.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
Proximity to a patient — As a result of being such a new industry, there are so many products that have been put to market that don’t have a quantified or measured efficacy yet. At Curio, as a provider (and in addition to being a grower and processor), we have the added benefit of speaking to our patients every day and hearing firsthand how products work for them and, in many cases, are changing lives.
The trajectory of medicinal adoption — It’s an exciting time to be a part of this growing industry. Every time I turn around, new health professionals have become vocal advocates, and regulators and lawmakers are creating smart, patient-driven laws.
Constant innovation — There are always new products being developed and traditional delivery methods being adopted. It’s fascinating to speak with our Curio scientists and researchers and learn about new products.
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?
The speed and scale of the industry — Just as we must walk before we run, the cannabis industry needs to be smart about how quickly we move and at what scale. While I have no interest in standing in the way of my fellow cannabis entrepreneurs who are betting big on recreational marijuana, I personally believe that we shouldn’t lose sight of why this industry got started in the first place — to provide an effective alternative to many of the country’s top medical challenges.
Government Legislation –While legislation is improving every day, there are still multiple gaps in the law and as a result, employees working in the industry are the ones impacted the most. For example, there is no law that protects federally-backed banks in order to accept payroll checks from employees of medical cannabis companies. The SAFE Banking Act, which passed the House and is now in the Senate, is a step in the right direction. It would make accessing banking easier for cannabis-related legitimate businesses and service providers and would also prohibit regulators from taking action against financial institutions that provide services to cannabis businesses. But as this industry continues to grow, legislation at every level needs to improve dramatically.
Consumer awareness — There is still a huge gap in consumer understanding about the benefits of medical cannabis. As an industry — and as a society as a whole — we have a long way to go in education and awareness.
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?
At Curio, we believe that the next step in federal cannabis regulation is for the descheduling of cannabis with regulation under the United States’ Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). Oversight by the FDA will restore the balance between Federal and State governments and ensure that cannabis product regulations are consistent with other drugs and dietary supplements. We view the cannabis industry first and foremost as a medicinal industry. Our number one priority at Curio Wellness is to provide patients in need with superior care and access to safe, effective and reliable medicinal cannabis products.
Additionally, there are other gaps in the current laws that impact other aspects of the industry and the people that work in it. We need to see more laws passed like the SAFE Banking Act, which helps thousands of employees throughout the country who work in the cannabis industry cash their paychecks, obtain mortgages and lead healthy financial lives. Without laws like the SAFE Banking Act, these employees and businesses would have no protected access to banks and their financial assets.
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?
Cigarettes and cannabis are completely different and should not be compared. Cigarettes are a danger to our health and should be regulated as such. On the contrary, medical cannabis helps address mental and physical health conditions and ailments. As a result, as I mentioned above, we believe medical cannabis should be regulated under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I once got a fortune cookie with the message “Do things excellently or not at all”. My husband found it quite appropo given my perfectionist nature. While perhaps extreme, it is a statement I live by as it doesn’t seem worth your time to endeavor on something if you aren’t going to give it your all.
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. 🙂
I encourage people to reach for the stars. I so often see people decide not to aim for things that are beyond their reach because they are afraid of failure. So many unknown opportunities missed. I believe there is truth to the adage that failure is what makes us stronger. It can be hard and there is a lot of risk in launching something brand new, but I would always rather fail than not try at all.