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Seun Adedeji had $50,000 and a dream when he started planning his entrance into the cannabis industry. 

“Cannabis has always been a part of my life,” Adedeji said. “I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was a kid selling candy in school. Then I upgraded to cannabis and got arrested for possession at a young age.”

That didn’t stop his precocious ascent. As he tells it, at 23 he became the youngest African-American to open a cannabis retail store when he launched Elev8 in Eugene, Oregon. A few years later, as he began expanding into other states, he became the youngest African-American to head a multistate operator (MSO). 

Adedeji, a board member of the National Cannabis Industry Association, says he’s on a mission to ensure that business owners from communities of color receive the help they need to get their enterprises started. And as someone who lived on the premises of his retail establishment before being awarded a license, he believes we should eradicate requirements for any type of cannabis license to be tied to owning or leasing real estate. 

“I do a lot of social equity work,” Adedeji said. “I’d like to see tax revenue used to provide capital injections to help minority business owners help get their businesses started.”

Now 28, Adedeji has three  dispensaries — two in Oregon and one in Massachusetts, where he’s in the process of opening two more locations. He’s planning to expand into Illinois, but didn’t win a license during the first round they were awarded. New York is next on Adedeji’s radar.

“Our goal is to be in all states where recreational cannabis is legal,” Adedeji said. “We have a unique strategy because we’re not big. We haven’t raised big VC capital, and we’re still considered a mom-and-pop business.”

That strategy includes opening stores in high-traffic, street-fronting locations in towns bordering states where cannabis is not yet legal. 

“Property acquisitions are a lot cheaper in those places, and we want to get into those markets without losing who we are,” Adedeji said. “As more states open, we’re looking to get into bigger cities while still using our border strategy and leveraging it.”

Adedeji said that while his customer base hasn’t really changed much in the past five years, people who had previously been more discreet about their cannabis consumption have  become open about it as more states moved to adult-use.

“People are just normalizing it more now,” Adedeji said. “We’re seeing more professionals. The negative stigma is dying away little by little.”

Elev8 builds customer loyalty by asking a lot of questions to determine what the best products for each person it serves are. Questions range from, “How are you doing?” to “What ailment are you looking to solve?”

The company strives to stay engaged with the communities it serves through activities like bringing in DJs, hosting mini concerts, and inviting vendors into the stores to educate customers about their products. 

“We like to make eventful occasions to get our community excited and want to come out,” Adedeji said.

Elev8’s customers determine which brands the retailer stocks on its shelves. 

“We look at how the brands are doing in terms of growth,” Adedeji said. “We look at our customers for feedback — is this working for you? We might like it, but do you like it? We want to make sure we have the products our customers want to interact with, so we ask probing questions to make sure every transaction is personalized.”

Want to learn more from Seun? He’ll be speaking on the panel “How to Replicate and Localize your Retail Store in New Markets” at MJ Unpacked in Las Vegas this October 21-22. Register here.

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