While some cannabis CEOs are working to shatter stoner stereotypes, others are shattering stereotypes about CEOs altogether. Think the old trope of the suited up white man leading a corporate company feels passé? Then meet Jessica VerSteeg, Miss Iowa Beauty Queen (2014), entrepreneur, blockchain genius, cannabis advocate, and even a penpal to the NFL (we'll explain later). As founder of cannabis blockchain company and coworking space Paragon, VerSteeg goes above and beyond what you'd expect from your average CEO as she leads the cannabis industry into the future. In an interview with VerSteeg, Civilized caught up with the cannabis industry's leading power woman to learn about her ambitions, her background, and how she keeps life balanced amidst all her work and achievements.
Civilized: What was your motivation to get into cannabis?
JV: So originally it wasn't motivating. The first time I heard [my former boyfriend] talk about cannabis was while he was in the NFL. He asked if he could use marijuana instead of painkillers for his pain. At that moment, I thought he was trying to vent to me because the other guys were using it so he thought he should, too. It wasn't convincing because I knew it was federally illegal and against NFL rules. When we broke up — and our break up was really due to me finding out that he was addicted to these painkillers — I started looking up alternatives to painkillers and kept seeing marijuana come up over and over.
I didn't become as active in the cannabis community publicly, but I was pretty active in San Francisco, which led me to start AuBox, a monthly [cannabis] subscription. While I was running AuBox and keeping kind of quiet outside the realms of San Francisco, Tyler had passed away, and that's when it really hit me that I should have been more vocal about this. I should have just come out and said I believe in marijuana as an alternative to painkillers. I didn't realize anyone could lose their life from opiates, so after his passing, I decided to come out and talk to more people about cannabis and promote the idea of it being normal, which was the whole idea behind AuBox. That's how I got into [cannabis] and that's how he influenced my role in the cannabis community.
Civilized: I heard you write letters to the NFL. Can you tell me a little more about that?
JV: I don't know if they're reading them, as they've never responded, but also from time to time, I've written on Instagram and Twitter and tagged them. It's in hopes that they'll understand that [their cannabis policy] is something that needs to be changed. Sometimes it's just about the use of medical marijuana for players, just to give them the option if they're in pain or to let them have the option of choosing opiates or medical marijuana. Or sometimes I write on topics of CTE and how cannabis can help them afterward. How it helps them become calm and relaxed, and not become more addicted to opiates when they're out of the NFL.
Civilized: So tell us about your previous work with AuBox.
JV: Au stands for the element of gold. I wanted it to be the gold standard, the best quality I could give. The idea was to create this subscription box that I could deliver to anyone from a soccer mom to a teacher to an athlete to a senior citizen in the privacy of their own home. Sometimes it's for a medical reason and they can't leave their home, sometimes they're an athlete or teacher and don't want to run into their fans or students at a dispensary. The idea was to create this box that they get every month with the best products on the market that are beautifully packaged, so that it doesn't feel like drugs. The products have lab results that give more information than what Big Pharma gives, as well as instructions and information that they may be overwhelmed with on the internet. It's a box of information and a box of experimenting. It's modeled after Chanel. I put AuBox on pause, and Paragon grew out of AuBox.
Civilized: So how exactly did Paragon grow out of AuBox?
JV: With AuBox, we provided lab results for all the products in that box, but I started seeing some lab results that were photoshopped back then, and I started tracking those lab results on the blockchain. You can't print your entire lab results on a pre-roll, but if you scan a QR code, not only can you view the cultivation data, how it was grown, where it was grown, did they use solar lighting, but also review the lab results for all the terpenes, to what it tested positive or negative for [like] pesticides or mold. It allows the consumer to really know what they're putting in their own body.
Civilized: Where is Paragon at right now?
JV: Right now we've got Paragon split into two sections. One is real estate, where we have a coworking space for cannabis businesses. If you go to work at any other coworking space and a new law is passing and you're in the cannabis industry, you can't turn to the person at your right or left and say, "What do you think of this new regulation? What are you doing about it? What has your lawyer advised you on?" You can't bounce these ideas off Joe Schmo, you don't know who you're working next to. At our space, you know every person here is in the cannabis industry in one way or another. Maybe they're a lawyer or a cannabis cultivator who didn't want to have a meeting at a farm, but in a nice office environment.
On top of that, at our coworking space, if there is a company that needs help finishing a business plan, if they need help finding the best cannabis lawyer, if they need help with marketing, if they need help raising money, we can connect them to all those people. We help them finish business plans, or connect them to the best PR. We want to be the hub that cannabis companies come to grow.
The second thing is our tech, our blockchain technology, our app that allows cultivators to log all their data: how they grew it, where they grew it, how many times a day they water their plants, are they using grey water, recycled water... Then [the data] passes through a lab, and then distribution does the same thing, all the way down to the end user. The information is in a smart contract. Now the supplier can just place the QR code on the product so the end user has an app with a QR code scanner that allows you to view the smart contract. They can know it wasn't ever altered, so that's where the blockchain comes in. It makes everything immutable and transparent. The app for our coworking space is already available. The app for cultivating is being finalized now, the app for distribution is being built now, and the lab app is being built. I would say it's a few more months away and it should be rolling out.
Civilized: How has being a women been both an asset and a challenge for you as a professional in the cannabis space?
JV: I'll start with the positives. The benefit is that I understand I won the genetic lottery, [which] gives me the opportunity to say something and know people will stand there for an extra five minutes to listen to what I have to say because I'm easy to look at. I'm somewhat thankful for that. It gives me the opportunity to be a voice and help the industry in anyway I can. I want the industry to use that part of me. I use it on my Instagram and try to remind these tech CEOs about how positive the cannabis industry is and there there are other tech CEOs who use cannabis.
The negative side is that, yea, oftentimes people may sit there for an extra five minutes to listen, but they will question what I've said, knowing very well they would not question it if a man were to have said the same thing. Some people think I memorized what I'm telling them, they're not sure I really know what I'm talking about so they ask five extra questions just for me to prove I do know what I'm talking about. Because I am a woman and because I was a model in the past, I am constantly having to prove myself. It is hard for some in our society to cope with the fact that one can be feminine, smart, and hardworking at the same time. It's a hard stereotype to break.
Civilized: Where do you hope to see the cannabis space in the next few years?
JV: In general, I'm hoping to see the cannabis industry in the US federally legalized. I think Trump understands that to get re-elected, he needs to persuade democratic voters and the youth, and the only way to really persuade those two categories is to say he's considering legalizing marijuana. I think growing up in the US, you're taught that the US is number one at everything and I think anyone in office is understanding that Uruguay already legalized, Canada already legalized, and is the US waiting to take third or fourth or fifth or sixth place moving forward and getting over the opioid epidemic?
Civilized: What helps you stay balanced while achieving all your goals?
JV: I know it seems so cliché to say that this isn't a job, but honestly, I didn't get into this space because I wanted to make money. I already had a job and was financially comfortable. I got into it because I lost someone I love. It became my passion. When it's your passion, you want to do it and don't feel like you don't have time for something else because you're already doing the thing you want to do. The second thing I think is that a love life is very important. My husband is in the same industry as me. He jumped on board with Paragon as a partner. When it's important to your partner, it's important to you. At the end of the night we can bounce ideas off each other, and in the mornings over breakfast we can talk about blockchain technology and where it's going. I think those two things have helped me stay grounded and normal.
Photo courtesy of Paragon