The difference between a cannabis start-up and a start-up in any other industry can be described in two words: Ginger Rogers. You know that famous line, ‘Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.’ Well, take all the daily hurdles, hoops, potholes, pitfalls, and burning rings of fire of any other start-up company in any other field, and then add the inherent chaos of a semi-legal nascent industry. That’s the difference federal legalization makes: it’s like dancing backwards in high heels. And if you’re a woman running a cannabis start-up, think Ginger Rogers, doing everything Fred Astaire does, except backwards, in high heels, while juggling chainsaws. Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration; let’s say tennis balls. But still, it's a treacherous business.
Which brings us to Amy Margolis, founder of the Oregon Cannabis Association, and a 17-year veteran of the Drug War by way of being one of the foremost cannabis lawyers in the United States. For all the promise of a truly progressive 21st-century industry that will provide equal opportunities and equal numbers of female CEOs, that is not the reality. Far from it, Margolis decried the sad state of affairs in her recent Forbes article, “The Top Cannabis Companies Are Dominated By Men. We Must Do Better.”
And she does mean we. Facing the prospects of a new cannabis industry that looks a whole lot like old tobacco, Margolis took matters into her own hands last August, when she opened The Commune. Located in downtown Portland, this airy, light-filled, 4,000-square-foot newly renovated private floor is the world’s first WeedWork space, a place for Oregon’s craft cannabis industry, social activism, and community engagement converge.
Working hand-in-hand with The Commune, Margolis has also launched The Initiative, the “world’s first business accelerator established to help female-founded businesses succeed and access funding.” Through The Initiative’s various programs and mentorship, Margolis intends to catapult the best female-owned and female-operated cannabis brands into the national spotlight. Civilized spoke with Amy about creating an entirely new space—physically, legally, conceptually—and the fancy footwork required to be a female cannabis entrepreneur.
Civilized: Let’s go back to October 2017. What was the state of Oregon’s cannabis industry one year ago? And where do things stand today?
Amy Margolis: In 2017, Oregon was just on the brink. We had really just completed the first full year of adult use and had not yet seen the second outdoor harvest. I think the feeling was pretty optimistic about the program overall. Portland was struggling to license growers and processors, but retail was in full swing.
Where did you get the idea for The Commune, and which came first, the actual physical space or professional initiative? For that matter, did The Commune come first or The Initiative?
The Initiative came first and it became clear that The Initiative needed somewhere to live and that the cannabis industry really needed a gathering space. The Initiative was born out of a long-simmering feeling that even though women had plenty of ways to socialize and network in the cannabis space, they really were, fundamentally, missing any sort of business training and funding opportunities. While there certainly was an a-ha moment, my ongoing frustration with women’s inability to raise money and grow as fast as their male counterparts triggered this decision.
At the point you realized you needed to find a space, what sort of specifications did you have? And what challenges did you face in simply securing a space at all?
I knew I wanted a big, open space. I wanted it to have one big room for a classroom and smaller rooms for businesses to breakout into and work quietly. I also care very much about what my spaces look like, so I knew I wanted it to be beautiful. I also got really lucky. The Commune was one of the first spaces I found. I happened to be connected with the landlord, even though we had not met before, and did not experience the usual challenges businesses working with people in the cannabis industry face.
Every build is full of surprises, and I’m sure yours was no different. So, first, what did you have in mind to start?
The space was really lovely on its own even though it was, and still is, very raw feeling. The best part about the space is all of the light and the warm wood everywhere. I really wanted to make that the focal point of the space, so we put glass everywhere so the light could go from the front of the space to the back. Where there is not wood, glass ,or brick, we painted the walls a stark white to reflect the light. The biggest challenge was the bathroom. I wanted it to be beautiful, but we were on a tight budget. I think everyone was exhausted by the time the bathroom was finished, so it was the most tension-filled.
What was your design inspiration for the space?
The space informed the inspiration. It feels like a big loft and we tried to take it from industrial to modern and clean without losing the feeling of an old Portland space. We also tried to create contrast with the industrial feel by painting the walls with the clean white, installing the glass and using furniture sparsely, but efficiently.
I’m interested in the parameters and/or possibilities for designing in an age of Prohibition, even within legalized states. How does Prohibition and/or its shadow play a role in what you can do with your space?
Social consumption in Oregon is, at best, a grey area and at its worst, primarily illegal. There are a number of social clubs operating now, but only because there is a lack of enforcement. We designed this space with future consumption in mind, while also respecting the law as it is.
What’s the vibe of the space in your own words?
Modern, urban loft. Warm and welcoming with lots of room to breathe and work.
You mentioned the grey area of public consumption. How comfortable are you about talking about consumption in your space?
We do need to address, at the very least, walking the line. I am comfortable talking about it, but the law is grey. We try hard to allow for the type of consumption that is permitted, never violate any of the liquor laws, and do our very best to stay within the parameters that exist now. It is not easy, but it’s important to us to be good stewards.