It may be new, but the 1937 Group has already shaken up the Illinois cannabis industry. In a state where it’s notoriously difficult to land one license, let alone several, the 1937 Group is the first vertically-integrated cannabis company owned by people of color. Piloted by Chairman and CEO Ambrose Jackson, the group represents several Illinois licensed operators in cultivation, infusion, transportation, processing, and retail.
The 1937 Group is small but mighty, with big aspirations. The collective is made up of six people, each with different areas of expertise. Before diving into the 1937 Group, Jackson worked for fifteen years as a business manager in healthcare, a background that made forming the 1937 Group a natural next step in his career. In doing so, he picked a powerhouse of a team, backed by years of diverse experience.
First, there’s Sonia Antolec, general counsel for the group. A judge to the Illinois Court of Claims, Antolec is an accomplished attorney who works to remove barriers to justice for marginalized groups. And then there’s the company’s CSO, Alex Al-Sabah, who has more than twenty years of cannabis industry experience, having first worked as an owner operator under Proposition 215 in California. Eric Ice-Gipson, the CIO for the 1937 Group, is a US combat veteran with over twenty years of IT experience. COO Jonathan Valdez is a security and locksmith company owner with years of industry cultivation experience, and Brandon Van Asten, the group’s financial advisor, is a CPA, consultant, and corporate controller for Vireo Health.
It’s clear the group has a solid foundation to build from. It’s how they landed their coveted licenses. “We’re one of the few groups who successfully won every license type that we applied for: a craft cultivation license, a retail dispensary and a transportation license,” says Jackson. “We have aspirations of really taking what we’ve created in terms of this 1937 Group movement here in Illinois and kind of branching out, making it more of a midwest movement and then extending from there.”
They got by with a little help from Cresco Labs as part of their social equity incubator program, Jackson explains, “It was invaluable to have a group that was in the industry to help us to a degree with navigating the application process.” Though several parties completed the incubator program alongside the 1937 Group, only two received licenses, recalls Jackson. “And we’re happy to be one of those two.” Cresco Labs also provided some financial support to help the group see a successful start.
The driving force behind the 1937 Group is alluded to in the name. “It’s a reference to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which we see as creating a foundation for prohibition of cannabis within this country and ultimately laying the groundwork for the mass incarceration of black and brown folks over their relationship with this plant for decades,” Jackson explains.
Pointing out that social equity programs from state to state have been dismal in their results, Jackson envisions the 1937 Group paving the way for true social equity participation.
Above all else, the group sees the value in collaboration and community. From working with Cresco Labs for application support to running a contest to showcase local artists’ designs on packing for their flower brand TerpKings, the company has repeatedly demonstrated an understanding of the power of community.
Jackson points to a mantra that keeps the team going: We live good business practices with a priority on equity, inclusion, and social responsibility. And while it may sound like a general statement you could hear from any number of companies, it goes a lot deeper than that. Jackson broke down each part for me.
“The word live is very deliberate in that everything we do, we focus on making sure that we’re looking at it through the lens of is this a good business practice or not?” he explains. The word “good” means an internal conversation about whether a decision is good for the business in terms of reflecting his beliefs and seeing them resonate with every member of the team.
Equity, inclusion, and social responsibility are the final parts of their mantra, and Jackson recognizes that these terms can mean a lot of different things. “You go to any operator’s, especially the large MSO’s websites, and they’re going to have a page devoted to social responsibility and what they do for inclusion, yada yada,” he says. “But going back to that word live, I truly don’t believe that they live those values. In many cases, they’re checking the boxes. But for us, those ideals are ingrained in everything that we do.”
And it shows in, well, everything they do. The group entered an agreement to gain ownership of Helios Labs (a licensed cultivator), Parkway Dispensary (a licensed retailer), and Highwaymen Security (a licensed transportation company) back in March of this year. In their announcement, Jackson called the venture an open invitation for other social equity operators to join them. Naturally, they want to find the right fits, but that’s something a strong ethos and good communication can make a whole lot easier.
Jackson emphasizes the importance of “finding people who operate the same way that you do and value the same things from a business standpoint,” highlighting integrity and follow-through as key attributes in current and future partners. “It’s kind of like a dating game, right?” he explains. “We’ve got this dating game going on with different people who are interested in operating and working in Illinois in this space. And we’ve got a unique opportunity to really work with anybody. It’s just about finding companies that resonate with us in what we represent.”
From where I’m standing, the company’s future looks bright. We’re looking at a small collective of intelligent, dedicated, and experienced people who have clearly defined the heart of the brand and intend to stick to those values as the state’s first vertically-integrated, minority-owned cannabis company. They’re in the process of creating a genetics company and establishing a seed bank and nursery model to expand their current structure. They’re also making moves in some key states for future expansion, including New York and New Jersey, as well as Michigan and Oklahoma.
But first, they want to increase their footprint in Illinois, growing their transportation and cultivation operations, as well as hitting the allowable limit of ten dispensaries in the state. From there, they expect to hop on opportunities for partnerships as more border states legalize. Jackson’s plan is to take it slow and be intentional about their next moves. The goal is to create something that spans across the country with the 1937 Group, both through their operations and in their support of other license winners.
It’s an ambitious goal, but the team is well-equipped to work together to bring it to life. Jackson sees their work speaking for itself. As he puts it, “I want people to see what we’re doing and creating and the level of authenticity we bring to the table, and for others to want to be a part of it.”