Amidst the chatter in the brand exhibit floor, the podcasters conversing in their booths, and the panelists sharing insights from across the industry, a competition was brewing at MJ Unpacked NYC 2022. More than a dozen burgeoning cannabis brands looking for capital set out to pitch their company to a room full of accredited investors eager to collaborate in advance of federal legalization. The judges–experienced investors from across the industry–sat ready to hear what made these brands stand out and more importantly, what made them worthy of investment.
Judges listened as eloquent entrepreneurs discussed weed-infused barbecue sauces, an AirBnB-esque platform with cannabis lodging, and brands built around loyal music fans. While each pitch was well-executed, one brand in particular caught the attention of the accredited investors: Barbari. Co-founders Meryl Montgomery and Valarie Sakota won over the judges with their line of tobacco-free, herbal spliffs and smoking blends, and of course, their impassioned pitch.
Montgomery and Sakota officially launched Barbari in 2019 with three signature herbal blends. The two have been friends since college, where Montgomery watched Sakota smoke herb mixtures on the regular. Years later they were catching up over drinks and talk turned to business. The conversation was the inception of Barbari. Today, the company produces their classic herbal blends: Muse, Car Sex, and Airplane Mode, alongside herbal blunts, pre-rolled botanical spliffs, and botanical tea blends. Their products are designed to appeal to new and low-dose consumers as well as those quitting tobacco or looking for more control over their consumption.
Barbari took home the $5,000 prize plus a credit for 10 hours of consultation with Canna Advisors, experts in maximizing business development. Not expecting to win (and charmingly humble), Montgomery said she had a moment of clarity heading back to the stage to accept the oversized check. She called out to the room stating that investing in BIPOC cannabis brands is where it’s at. “I hope that message was heard throughout the group, because it’s very rare to have a microphone and a group of active investors,” she said afterward with a laugh.
To create greater value for brands, MJ Unpacked organizers built upon the original Money Stage concept, which debuted in Las Vegas in 2021. This time around, organizers wanted to have a fixed audience in the room with judges from a diverse cast of experience and industry backgrounds–and they wanted it to be packed. The room ended up filled with ten investor companies from ten different investment funds, all with different objectives and a wide range of viewpoints in the industry. “I was exceptionally pleased with how packed the rooms were,” said George Jage, MJ Unpacked’s CEO and co-founder.
Meryl Montgomery agreed. “The room was really engaged. The questions were incredible,” she said. She was particularly excited to hear two unplanned questions about customer product testimonials, as well as get into the money-related questions. “It’s always a good sign when people want to get into the numbers with you.”
The pitches began at 1 p.m. Thursday, May 19th and carried on until 3 p.m. Friday. Each time the room was filled with judges, presenters, and a diverse cast of accredited investors, including AFI Capital Partners, Arcview Ventures, Delta Emerald Ventures, Emerald Park Capital, Equitas Partners Fund, JourneyOne Ventures, Keneh Ventures, Satori Investment Partners, The People’s Group, and Treehouse Global Ventures.
“It’s such an honor to work with these seventeen companies in various stages of development as they strive to raise funds for their continued growth,” said Deborah Johnson, the Investor Program Manager at MJ Unpacked. “Everyone did an amazing job presenting, but Barbari clearly stood out for the judges.”
Montgomery emphasized that staying true to their ethos is key to Barbari’s success. The company is women-owned, majority-BIPOC, and focused on the customer. “That really resonates and comes through,” Montgomery said. “Even when it comes to things like our investors and our marketing partnerships, and the people we partner with outside of that space,” she explained. “We really keep those ethics at our core.”
Barbari had been preparing their pitch for over a month before it came time to present. Both Meryl and Valarie are mentors at Our Academy and have worked with various entrepreneurs who have gone through their cohort. As with everything Our Academy does to help social equity and BIPOC entrepreneurs succeed, the crew had practiced their pitches again and again until they knew exactly what they wanted to say, and it clearly paid off for Barbari.
“We were really a team. We showed up as a team and we were there for each other as a team,” added Montgomery.