Top Cannabis Insights From a Strategy Consultant

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We spoke with Leonid Kotlyar, strategy consultant and founder of Dewarrior, to discuss his experience in the cannabis industry. Here are the best insights.

How long have you been involved in the industry?

I’ve been involved in the cannabis industry in one way or another since 2013.

What were you doing before you joined?

In 2013, I was still working full time as a derivative sales trader on Wall Street. I had just transitioned from Morgan Stanley to Merrill Lynch and while on mandatory garden leave felt that it was the right time to start thinking of an exit plan out of the financial services industry. For a period of nearly four years, the cannabis industry was still my side hustle. Sales trader by day, and CFO and Treasurer of cannabis startups by night… weekends…as well as, during lunch, coffee, and bathroom breaks…and secretly under the desk when the boss wasn’t paying attention.

Before the financial services industry, I spent four years as an ice hockey coach, which taught me more about leadership and work ethic than arguably any position I’ve ever held. I was fortunate enough to coach and mentor young players who later became Division 1 and NHL stars. To this day, I volunteer some time to coach a few members of the Dutch Junior National team.

What was the thought process that drove you to the industry?

Having had overwhelmingly positive experiences with illicit cannabis throughout my life, I believed in the power of this plant to usher in a new paradigm of medicine, mental health care, and recreation. The emerging scientific research only confirmed my experiential impressions and when I started researching the potential of hemp, I was truly hooked! I felt that my expertise in leadership, business, marketing, and listed securities should be used for something I truly believe in. It was between cannabis and the music industry and I decided to pick both.

Based on your previous experience — what skills and expertise have you brought forward with you that has been useful?

Both coaching and the fast-paced environment of working on an institutional trade floor taught me how to solve complex problems. More than anything, I have brought a risk management approach to solutions! With ever-changing regulations, logistical complications, and push towards sustainability, the approach of growth through holistic risk management has been well-received in the cannabis industry.

What was the attraction to this space?

I guess I could say I was jaded by corporate America and saw a nascent industry, such as cannabis, as a welcome relief. An opportunity to build something on novel foundations without the capitalist dogmas that plagued well-established industries.

What were your assumptions and expectations before joining this industry?

Perhaps this is a New Yorker’s or Wall Streeter’s expectation in general, but I firmly believed that I would enter cannabis as the king of the castle, bringing knowledge, experience, and a robust financing network to move the cannabis industry forward. Some of that was certainly true, but I completely underestimated the driving force of the cannabis industry that was previously involved in the illicit drug trade, and the nuances and growing pains that came along with that antiquated approach to business.

Where did you get your information and research from before you joined?

I’m a voracious reader and love going down the research rabbit hole. I spent much of 2013–2015 reading every bit of research on cannabis and hemp I could find. That being said, I was fortunate to have a friend in the cannabis industry, Oleg Maryasis who was critical in introducing me to his network, sending me a never-ending supply of research, and talking through many of the questions that arose. I think for anyone truly interested in getting their foot in the cannabis industry, it’s imperative to find a friend or mentor who will help scale the learning curve.

Now that you’re in the industry, what is it actually like? What are the actual challenges?

In reality, the cannabis industry is an “industry” just like any other. There are big corporate players who are mostly interested in providing cheapest-to-deliver goods to enhance shareholder value. There are mom-and-pop family operations dedicated to quality and customer service. And there is a long line of both passionate canna-preneurs and opportunists looking to find their niche. More than anything, as a nascent industry, cannabis has the opportunity to build something that hasn’t been built, on foundations based on both success and failures of other industries. To miss this opportunity for creating something truly revolutionary would be a shame.

The challenges I see have to do with uncertain and often unjust regulations. Managing different jurisdictional issues such as legal amounts of THC in CBD extracts, or legalities of flower vs. extract require time and resources that could be better spent on product development. A part of me believes these challenges are a matter of education, and that once lawmakers and stakeholders are educated on the full spectrum of risks and rewards of the cannabis industry, the injustice and inequity will dissipate. Another part of me believes the injustice is by design and well funded by competing lobby groups representing tobacco, alcohol, and pharma.

Without giving away too many insider secrets, what is it that you’re working on at the moment?

As a strategy and sustainability consultant, I am fortunate to often have my hands in several cookie jars!

I’m currently very excited about a cannabis e-learning platform I’m working one. It promises to be the first 3rd Party accredited e-learning hub for the cannabis industry and I hope it could be of immense value to healthcare professions, social services, law enforcement, and other crucial professions often left out of the cannabis conversation. We will of course feature more conventional learning modules on the ECS, pharmacology, and extraction, but the goal is to go further and teach about the holistic implications that cannabis has on our entire society.

I’m also bidding to work on a few projects for full-scale cannabis grow operations which I intend to design using the latest available know-how in sustainability and adherence to UN SDG and ESG guidelines. Every project I work on is built on ESG foundations — Environmental, Social, Governance. This is the future of business, and I’m excited to present strategies that not only increase long term ROI but endear businesses to their customers in deeper ways.

On the public side, I’m drafting letters and proposals on behalf of national hemp organisations for governments to incentivise and promote hemp cultivation. I have been using a UN Agenda 2030 approach in equating hemp cultivation and processing to deliverable sustainability milestones.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to get involved in the industry?

Stay curious and open. There is abundant quality content in the cannabis space — take the time to really dig in. Connect with as many people as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of strangers, you’ll be surprised at how passionate some canna-preneurs are, and how excited they will be to have your attention. The industry is bigger than you thought! There are hemp textiles producers in Eastern Europe, state of the art cannabis extraction and purification specialists in Switzerland, organic off-the-grid flower cultivators in Oregon, and everyone in between! You’ll naturally find your calling and tribe through these open interactions and the doors to the industry will start to open.

Where do you see the industry going?

This is a two-part question. On the material side, the automobile, aeronautics, and construction industries will drastically increase their hemp-based biomaterial usage. This will drive the incentives for hemp cultivation and processing and create an enhanced value-chain along the way. The BMW i-line is already being built largely from hemp, this trend will only intensify!

On the medicinal THC side, I feel there will be several steps before we see international de-scheduling and standardisation of the industry. I think the established cannabis industry will go more towards a pharmaceutical direction. We’ll see greater capital invested in research and testing of individual cannabinoids, and the isolation and recombination of compounds to achieve a desired result. This step will be the most crucial to sway any remaining skeptics as to the efficacy of cannabinoid medicine and allow for international de-scheduling. The holistic, whole plant, medicinal cannabis industry will grow, in part, due to the investment in pharmacological research. Then it’s off to the races!

To read more about what Leo and the team have to say click here for Dewarrior’s TYLO articles.

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