Nancy Whiteman, the founder and CEO of Wana Brands, talks about launching the Wana Brands Foundation, being a parent in a challenging industry, and making a positive impact in the world
When Nancy Whiteman started Wana Brands in 2010, the landscape for Colorado’s cannabis industry looked a bit different than it does today. The state only sold medical cannabis, and the first recreational use laws wouldn’t be on the books for nearly four more years. There was also more stigma around the plant.
For a mom of two school-aged daughters who was starting a business in cannabis edibles, communication was key.
“At their ages, we gave them the information that was important to them,” Whiteman, who is now 63, says. “At that point, it was just medical, so it was easy to talk about the fact that a lot of people were getting medical relief from this product. When adult use came into play in 2014, they were older, so they were ready for a little bit of a different conversation about it.”
In developing Wana and going through countless recipes to find the ideal products, Whiteman made sure there was never THC at home. She also tried to be cautious when sharing her work with others.
“Of course, I would never want to make anybody uncomfortable at all about having their kids at my home or anything like that,” she says. “So, there was a need to be discreet about it.”
Today, Whiteman’s daughters are in their mid-20s, and Wana has grown to be one of the largest edible brands in the country and beyond. With North America’s largest distribution footprint, the Boulder, Colorado-based company’s products are available in 13 states in the U.S. and nine Canadian provinces and territories. Plus, leading global cannabis company Canopy Growth purchased an option to acquire Wana if and when federal legalization of cannabis occurs in the U.S. Canopy Growth paid $297 million upfront for this purchase option in October 2021.
At this point, Whiteman no longer has the need or desire to be discreet about her business. “Now, I’ll tell anybody,” Whiteman says with a chuckle. “I’ll talk about it all the time.”
For Whiteman, a cornerstone of her business has always been giving back.
“One of the things that we really try to do at Wana is to not have corporate social responsibility initiatives siloed off in a little corner,” she says. “We want to try to integrate them with the company as much as possible.”
Wana supports more than 50 charitable organizations in the markets where they operate. Wana also gets its employees involved through a resource group that selects a nonprofit each month to receive a $1,000 donation. This year, it’s donated to support cleanup efforts from the Marshall Fire, one of the most destructive wildfires in Colorado history. The company has also donated to Doctors Without Borders to support the work the organization is doing in Ukraine, and to ACLU of Texas to fight for trans rights.
“We really try to empower all of our team to be a part of whatever the work is that we’re doing,” says Karla Rodriguez, Wana’s corporate social responsibility director.
And, with the investment made from the Canopy Growth acquisition, Whiteman is taking her philanthropy work a step further, creating the Wana Brands Foundation, a large nonprofit that will support important causes throughout the country.
The Wana Brands Foundation officially launched in April in collaboration with Wana’s annual #4ward20 campaign, a rebranding of sorts that tries to focus the April 20 unofficial cannabis holiday on giving back. This year, the foundation and the company partnered together to donate $140,000 to 14 nonprofits in all the states Wana sells in (and two in Colorado). All of these nonprofits help fight food insecurity.
“We’re supporting a wide array of nonprofits with unique focuses,” Rodriguez says. “From food banks to urban farming to nonprofit grocery stores, it’s a wide gamut.”
Although the foundation is in its infancy, Whiteman wants it to support initiatives that are important to her and the cannabis industry. She’s also asked her daughters to be involved.
“The night I told them about the Canopy transaction, this was really the key thing I talked about with them—that this is our opportunity as a family to have impact in the world, and that I hoped they’d want to join me in that,” Whiteman says. “They were both ecstatic and immediately started coming up with ideas and sharing what they’re passionate about.”
Wana Brands regularly participates in park cleanups.
Whiteman and her daughters have a list of issues they want to address. In cannabis, they want to support research on cannabis for health and wellness, as well as education around cannabis, enabling women, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people to enter the industry. They also want to focus on food security, water conservation, programs related to mental health, and voter rights. In fact, as part of Wana’s popular Summer of Quick Tour from May to August throughout Colorado, the company will partner with The League of Women Voters (LWV) to educate and register voters before the 2022 midterm elections. Modified versions of the pop-up events will also take place in other states where Wana is sold, including Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, and Oregon.
“I’m very concerned about voter rights in this country. If we don’t have voter rights, then we don’t have a democracy anymore,” Whiteman says. The partnership with LWV will be the first of its kind in the cannabis industry.
“I hope it helps set a precedent with other companies and other folks in the industry to start thinking in the same way and to not feel so limited in their giving,” Rodriguez says.
Although Whiteman has a lot of ideas about how she wants to give back and make an impact, she’s also cognizant about helping in a thoughtful way and says it’s a learning process.
“Being a good giver is a complex topic. You have to choose your issues and then think deeply about what impact actually looks like,” she says. “I’m on a steep learning curve about philanthropic giving and what it means to make good choices and choose things that really will have impact.”
She instills that very point with her daughters, helping them see the importance of philanthropy by directing a portion of the foundation money she sets aside annually for them to manage, supporting issues important to them.
“It’s long-term learning, and I will be learning for the rest of my life, but at some point, this is going to be theirs to think through and manage,” she says.
Looking Toward Legalization
Although the cannabis industry is growing like never before, the future around the plant still remains somewhat uncertain. Federal legalization appears to be getting closer, but the timing around that, as well as what a national industry would look like, is still unknown. Whiteman is used to these kinds of uncertainties.
“The qualities of resilience and persistence are probably the two major attributes that I say you need to have in this industry,” she says. “Those will be needed in spades post-legalization. We’re going to have to be able to quickly pivot.”
When that day does come, Whiteman says, she intends to remain the CEO of Wana as it becomes part of Canopy Growth. She values Canopy’s perspective and has enjoyed the partnership thus far.
Canopy Growth “really has a global perspective on the industry, and they’ve structured their company and resources to be able to capitalize on a global opportunity,” she says. “I feel really lucky because of the unusual structure of this deal. We have this unusual opportunity to get to know each other as businesses and people prior to the full acquisition taking place.”
Since the start of Wana, Whiteman has believed in and practiced coopetition, working with other businesses in the industry to support one another and move things forward.
“We don’t have to bring a zero-sum game mentality to it,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of room for everybody.”
However, she thinks the coopetition mindset in the industry has become less important in recent years. She credits this, in part, to the limited license structure in some adult-use states, making it harder for people to start a business. The proliferation of competitors and brands can also make it less friendly. She thinks to keep coopetition a priority, individual businesses have to show up for each other.
“It can be salvaged by people making individual decisions that they are going to try and be helpful to each other,” she says. “How states choose to structure their programs is not really within the control of individuals, but how you choose to behave as a business and as a person is in your control.”
Being a Mom in Cannabis
Wana has been in Whiteman’s and her family’s life for a long time.
“It was really a part of their lives from the start,” she says. “I think they feel a lot of pride, not just in terms of the growth of the business but also just in terms of knowing the employees. Wana is, in some ways, an extension of our family, and I think it’s been a real positive thing for them.”
While Wana has been successful and created its own sense of family, Whiteman admits that working in an industry selling products that she didn’t want her kids consuming brought up some challenging conversations.
“You’re telling your children that you don’t want them using cannabis, or alcohol for that matter, or anything,” she says. “I don’t think that point was diminished at all by the fact that we were doing this, because it’s illegal for anyone under 21.”
Whiteman says parents who are in the industry have to find the approach that’s right for their family when it comes to talking about cannabis. And the amount of communication one provides can depend on a child’s age. Her main advice for those wondering how to broach the topic is to be honest.
“If you get into a situation where you’re not honest with your kids about what you’re doing, they’re going to find out eventually, and then there’s going to be a diminishment of trust,” she says. “I think honesty is really important.”
Looking back over Wana’s 12 years in business, Whiteman is proud of what she’s created: a thriving company that has good values.
“Wana has a lot of heart, that we’ve created a culture where people feel respected, valued, and enjoy coming to work,” she says. “I’ve always wanted Wana to be a reflection of my values and my family’s values, and that [my family] can be a part of that and they can be proud of it— that is really meaningful for me.”
Barbara Platts has more than a decade of experience in journalism, working in different forms of media from public radio and podcasts to newspapers and magazines. She’s won awards for her work as a columnist for the Aspen Times and currently works as the editor-in-chief for Lunch Ticket, a literary and art journal dedicated to issues of social, economic, and environmental justice.
She’s currently pursuing her MFA for creative nonfiction writing at Antioch University. Barbara was raised in Boulder, Colorado and has watched the medicinal and recreational cannabis scene blossom across the state over the past decade. She recently moved back to Boulder after a stint in Los Angeles. When she’s not working, Barbara can be found hiking with her fiancé and two adorable pups, skiing the steeps in the Colorado mountains, reading an intriguing memoir or news article, or spending time with friends and family.
Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @BarbaraPlatts.