People are naturally intrigued to learn that cannabis entrepreneur Shane Terry was once an actual Top Gun fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force – something he’d dreamed of since his father took him to see the Tom Cruise movie, ''Top Gun'', when he was nine years old.
Terry flew combat missions during his decades-long career in the Air Force, and became not just a pilot in the Top Gun program, but an instructor as well. For a time, he was also in charge of the program to figure out how to install nuclear weapons on an F-16. His stories from those days are captivating.
But the time he decided to leave his dream job for a career in the cannabis industry is a great story too.
Terry was on the runway, preparing for take-off in his F-16, when he got a text message from a friend. “Yes, unfortunately, pilots text and fly, just like people text and drive,” he joked.
The friend was a physician and he was starting a cannabis company. He wanted Terry to join him on that journey.
Terry’s cannabis career didn’t quite take off at that point. He was sceptical of the people who used marijuana, even those who said they were doing it for medical purposes.
“I remember thinking, ‘Absolutely not, that’s ridiculous,’ ” says Terry of his friend’s initial overture. “For one, I thought people were using medical marijuana were hippies doing it under a medical pretence. So I wanted nothing to do with it.”
But it didn’t take him long to change his mind.
Like many people at the time, Terry was inspired by Sanjay Gupta’s documentary on cannabis that came out in 2013. And as he began speaking with his friend about the opportunity, and doing more research, he very quickly came to understand the medicinal benefits of cannabis, and discard false ideas about consumers.
“The biggest revelation was seeing how my stereotypes of the industry changed with education and the different perception that I now had of who the cannabis consumer is, and who it will be in the future,” he says.
It also helped to have the blessing of his mother.
“The litmus test for me was when I had to tell my mom,” he says. “She was extremely proud of her military son. [But] she saw the opportunity and has been very supportive ever since.”
And so, a few months after receiving that first text message on the tarmac, Terry left the military and joined NuVeda, which operates dispensaries, and cannabis cultivation and production facilities.
Terry was serving as the company’s CEO until he left in the spring of last year, and became the founder and CEO of Nevada-based TapRoot Holdings, which provides strategic services to companies in the cannabis industry.
The company is also working on developing a line of products that for people – be they athletes, artists, or executives – who believe cannabis can be a tool for self-improvement.
“We want to be the first company to rebrand cannabis as a performance enhancing substance,” says Terry. “Instead of being siloed into purely medical or purely recreational we are trying to address the middle market of health and wellness and develop some products we feel are performance enhancing.”
The fighter pilot turned executive
So here you have this F-16 pilot who leaves the military after two decades to become a cannabis industry executive. It begs the question: what experience did he gain in the Air Force that was applicable to the world of medical marijuana?
Terry says his military experience has been useful in often surprising ways. For example, he says, consider his experience as the Project Manager for the F-16 nuclear weapons program. “I would never have thought that this would have translated into anything in the realm of cannabis,” he says.
But the cannabis industry needs a very strict “seed-to-sale” inventory-control system, which is not unlike the rigorous security requirements for tracking nuclear weapons systems, he says.
“It’s ironic because you’ll hear a lot of people in the cannabis space say, ‘why does the government need to handle marijuana like a nuclear weapon.’ For me, that actually does resonate. I actually used what I learned from inventory control of nuclear weapons to write some of the first applications where we won medical marijuana licenses in Nevada.”
Terry also finds that his military background resonates with people he’s working with or lobbying – as is the case when they need changes or approvals in a highly regulated industry.
“When we would go talk with city councilmen or political officials like senators most people wanted to talk about [my military background],” he says, “so I realized it did start to open up doors with government officials…in their eyes I was somebody they could relate to.”
Many of the officials and politicians come from conservative backgrounds. They might not know much about cannabis, but they know they need to create and enforce the laws for this new industry. Dealing with someone like him makes them feel more at ease, he says.
“They have their own stereotypes and…they [seem to] feel comfortable talking to someone that is familiar with politics, familiar with government affairs, and it’s a comfortable conversation they can have with someone they think is on their level,” he says.
A new mission
Terry is excited by the transformative potential of the cannabis industry and the challenge of moving it into the mainstream.
“This is the most significant social revolution I’ve seen this country go through in decades,” he says. “I love the excitement of being able to push something that has been scrutinized, has been stereotyped, [experienced decades] of prohibition, and being able to push this into the mainstream and shift perceptions.”
Terry says it’s important to speak with people about the benefits of cannabis, especially those who are unsure about, or against the industry.
“All of us have a responsibility. We’re not just entrepreneurs. We’re activists, we’re in some sense politicians, we’re community leaders. We have a responsibility to educate [people].”