Cindy De La Vega’s voice breaks as she recalls what it was like to grow up in San Francisco’s notorious Sunnydale Development. Known as “The Swamp” or “The Dale,” the 50-acre tract of dilapidated public housing still makes up the city’s poorest and most isolated neighborhood. As a little girl, De La Vega says she fell asleep many nights on the floor curled up next to her mother on a mattress. It was the only way to guard against the stray bullets they worried would pierce their bedroom window.
As an aimless teen in mid-Nineties, De La Vega nearly dropped out of Balboa High School until a compassionate guidance counselor intervened. He encouraged her to join United Playaz, a local mentoring program where she could count on a hot meal and a willing ear. Later, when she struggled with domestic violence at the hands of a partner, her older sister helped her escape from her abuser and begin to rebuild her life.
Although she and her family eventually moved out of their Sunnydale apartment, they stayed in the old neighborhood. Her zip code was one of the reasons she became a prime candidate to apply for a shot to open a business in the city’s flourishing new cannabis industry under an entrepreneurship program aimed at helping the city’s poorest citizens. Through sheer will, assistance from the San Francisco Equity Program and financial backing from vertically-integrated cannabis company, The Shryne Group, De La Vega made history this month as the first Latina to operate a cannabis retail shop in the city.
“My message is you have to be strong and keep fighting and do not give up,” the 38-year-old mom of two said in an emotional telephone interview the week before the ribbon cutting for her glossy new Stiizy storefront in busy Union Square.
De La Vega’s foray into the legal cannabis industry is notable at a time when states that have commercialized the drug in recent years have struggled with how to make the wealth-generating opportunities of cannabis more equitable, especially for people of color, families affected by incarceration or convictions for low level pot crimes, and those who have ties to neighborhoods disproportionately targeted by prohibition like De La Vega. The potential profits could be life-altering. The Marijuana Business Factbook estimates that legal sales of both medical and recreational marijuana in US will exceed $15B in revenue in 2020. But a majority of the industry’s biggest players are run by white, male executives and boards.
With this in mind, the city and county of San Francisco set out to diversify its local pot businesses and to repair the harm of the cannabis criminalization on communities of color. In a 2017 report, the city’s Human Rights Commission stated, “poverty, education gaps and criminal records are the vestiges of explicitly and implicitly racist enforcement policies.” The local government created a program to cultivate economic development opportunities for San Francisco’s most impoverished neighborhoods and its residents. De La Vega, whose family originally immigrated from Mexico, qualified under several criteria. The program has been criticized for its slow roll-out. Eleven equity licenses have been granted over three years with 277 applications still under review, according to a recent story by SF Weekly. This, as other cities around the California, including Los Angeles and Sacramento, continue to work through the challenges of issuing specialized permits under similar initiatives.
“We need reduced costs for licenses. We need to give them (applicants) special training in technology and the applications process,” explains Gina Kranwinkel, president and CEO of the National Association of Cannabis Businesses, which conducted a recent study of ten social equity programs across the US and offered new guidelines to help local governments make the initiatives more transparent and accountable. Challenges to help marginalized groups move into the industry have persisted in other states including Massachusetts and Illinois. Colorado lawmakers only approved a program to prioritize minority applicants in July. And the issue is on the 2020 ballot in Arizona and New Jersey, where voters are considering referenda to legalize adult-use including provisions to make the industry more equitable.
One of the biggest hurdles for social equity applicants, including De La Vega, is access to low-interest loans and also guidance when assessing potential investment partners says Kranwinkel. The federally illicit status of cannabis has kept most banks on the sidelines and financing options are scarce for entrepreneurs who, like De La Vega, don’t come from money. Without the net worth and collateral to lease property for her potential business as she waited three years to line up the approvals to open, De La Vega was forced to look for partners. She says the process was overwhelming, confusing and intimidating. There were times she thought she might just give up.
“How was I supposed to secure a location in 2017? I had no money. And then I had investors and companies throwing money at me,” she explained of trying to navigate a cut-throat and complicated business she didn’t fully understand at that time.
She says if it wasn’t for advice from the Equity Program, she would not have found investors who wanted to help educate and train her in all aspects of the business so she could run it. De La Vega owns 40% of the new shop and The Shryne Group retains the balance. Prior to opening, she shadowed the company’s employees for close to two years to gain hand-on experience in management.
“My message to equity applicants is don’t sell out. This is an important platform and you have to do the work,” she advises to other people who may qualify for the program in other states and cities.
With the dispensary doors open, De La Vegas says she looks forward to helping the community where she grew up. She serves on the board of the United Playaz, the program that kept her from becoming a high school dropout and will help raise money to support the charity. More than anything, she hopes her story will inspire her two daughters, her neighbors and other women struggling with poverty and domestic abuse.
“Look, Cindy De La Vega made it,” she says with pride to future applicants, “I came from the same place that you guys come from. I look like you guys. I don’t have millions of dollars. Look, I am a CEO now. I am a business owner.’ And they are going to look at that and say, ‘This is possible. This can work because it is already working with me.”