Higher Learning: My live riff with Vertosa's Ben Larson


I invested in Vertosa after meeting founder and CEO Ben Larson, his wife, and his co-founder at an investor friend's house party in San Francisco. He made some cannabis-infused cocktails that I saw as the social tonic of the future. I immediately invested.


Vertosa is a B2B startup that creates effective and reliable active ingredients for cannabis-infused product makers. They offer water-soluble, fast-acting, tasteless, odorless, colorless THC and CBD to infuse food, beverages, and other products.


Check out our Riff below!



Highlights from this episode:


3:47: Who is Ben Larson and how he got into cannabis

5:54 Building Gateway

6:57: Inspiration for Creating Vertosa

10:17: Passion

12:43: What Vertosa does

13:34: How Vertosa works

15:27: Vision

18:30: Validation

21:00: Effects

22:16 Branch out

25:37: Viability and Efficacy

27:39: Experience

30:44 : Struggles

34:20: Expanding outside of California

39:35: Things to consider for cannabis entrepreneurs and businesses when starting a cannabis business

44:44: Survival Mechanism

48:11: Things to consider when looking at cannabis as a whole

50:15: Important elements

52:13: Fundraising

54:28: Types of problems or challenges of marijuana not being legal

58:57: The Rose, thorn and the Bud




Riff Transcript:


Angel Gambino:

Hello. It's great to be with you during an incredibly exciting week of transition. I think there are a lot of us who are just sighing with relief that we're moving on to the next stage, and there are a lot of businesses out there that have really put things on pause with anticipation around what's going to happen with this new administration. But I think there's probably no greater sigh of relief than possibly in the cannabis industry, which has been in flux for a lot of different reasons. But now 2021 certainly looks like an incredibly exciting year. We have today a leader with us who I think does an amazing job at really supporting and highlighting diversity as a core part of the cannabis ecosystem and as part of his leadership.



I think we saw some great examples of that during the inauguration. I know I cried my eyes out. I'm not embarrassed to admit it. It was very inspiring. Today we have got Ben Larson who's the founder and CEO of Vertosa, and I will be fully transparent in that I am an angel investor in Vertosa, a very proud investor. I'm really happy with the way that the business is going. Today Ben is going to share a bit about the state of play with cannabis and the business Vertosa, and also tell you a bit about himself. I'd like to welcome Ben.


Ben Larson:

Thanks. Hey, Angel. Thank you for having me.


Angel Gambino:

Yes, absolutely. Ben, I think it would be great if you would tell us a bit about you and how you got into cannabis from an entrepreneurial, because I think there are a lot of people out there that have said with all of the medicinal and then recreational loosening of regulations and a lot more clarity around the state of play in different states and nationally, still lots of questions. But with increased opportunity, I think that there are a lot of people who are looking at cannabis from an either investor standpoint and an entrepreneur standpoint, but also there are a lot of people out there that just want more cannabis products, whether you're talking about CBD or THC or hybrid, et cetera. If you could tell us a little bit about what inspired you to get into the sector and also to create Vertosa, that'd be great.


Ben Larson:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it's an incredible industry to be a part of. This week was certainly a big deal. But for those of us that have been fighting the good fight for a number of years and advocating for the industry, we know it's just a ... it's not the finish line, it's the starting line for us. It's just like this provides us the playing field to get out there and really make the change that we need. For me, I recognized that changed about five years ago. 2015, I was managing global operations for an early stage startups program called Founder Institute. Flying all around the world, starting new startup ecosystems and just loved helping facilitate the creation of people's ideas, and letting them create the companies of their dreams.


Ben Larson:

That's what my true passion was, is, and eventually what brought me into the cannabis industry. As an entrepreneur, you often take your skillsets and try to find the biggest problems that you can solve, and I recognized that the cannabis industry could use my skillset in helping build supportive ecosystems, helping guide founders and helping them validate their ideas and raise money. 2015, 2016 is when my partner and I launched Gateway, which was a startup incubator here in the Bay Area< that was really trying to not only invest in companies and grow them, but also create a sense of mentorship and rising tide mentality in the cannabis industry. It was part business, part advocacy, and it was just clear that this industry deserved to be legal, de-stigmatized and not put in the same realm of hard drugs or even alcohol and tobacco.


Ben Larson:

There's just so many benefits for many categories which we can dive into later. But in building Gateway, just realizing how early it is for this industry and how far it has to go to really achieve that mainstream appeal. So product reliability, infrastructure, just mainstream brands or appeal at least. These were all things that we've tackled as an industry in the last five years and continue to strive for. After about three years of running the Incubator, really realized that there's all these companies that were coming into the space, pitching these billion dollar ideas, but there's a big disconnect as to how you get to that billion dollar valuation. In the startup world, it's like, "Okay, what's your go to market strategy?" You could usually figure that out.


Ben Larson:

But it's like when the market isn't fully developed, how do you build a startup within a startup when so much is out of your control? That's why a lot of us in the industry as entrepreneurs, it's like if you're an entrepreneur in cannabis, you're automatically an advocate, you're automatically a lobbyist. You have to get involved because the future of your business and your personal life depend on it. In doing that, I really started to focus on what are the mechanisms that will allow this industry to grow and scale? There was this trend in California especially, to vertically integrate, to own the supply chain from seed to sale, so to speak. But that's not how traditional supply chains are established. You have role-players, people that specialize in key aspects to create scalability, to allow others to come and build off of you.


Ben Larson:

That was the inspiration for creating Vertosa. We are an ingredient technology company that speeds along those product development. It's like, you want to create a product, we will tell you how to do it, and we will make the ingredients that you can rely on that creates a consistent and approachable product. From day one, we're like we're not going to try to do more than what our specialty is. We-


Angel Gambino:

[inaudible] I pressure you occasionally, even from a-


Ben Larson:

Yeah. No, from day one.


Angel Gambino:

... [crosstalk] standpoint. Purely from [crosstalk]


Ben Larson:

Yeah. I mean [crosstalk]


Angel Gambino:

As an entrepreneur, I love that you focus on B2B because the TAM overall, the total addressable market, is much bigger and your costs are lower because we know how costly it is to build consumer brands, especially when you're still at the market making stage. Yeah. As a consumer, I can see so much opportunity.


Ben Larson:

Yeah. I know. Yeah, some of our very early investors, including you, were just like, "Oh, what about ..." I'm not going to say who, but they're like, "Oh, what about five-hour high." I'm like [inaudible] I'm like, "No, that's a terrible idea." I'm lik, "That's exactly why we're not going to do it because that branding is terrible."


Angel Gambino:

Yeah.


Ben Larson:

[inaudible] Not only that, it was just we saw the opportunity to improve everyone's products, right? And to play just a supportive role. The intel inside, so to speak. Right? We pushed back constantly in our first year of operation when we're really small. We were three of us, and we're like, "This is nice, but can we just acquire you guys? How much for exclusivity?" It's like, "No exclusivity, no acquisitions. We are building this for everyone to lift up the industry," and that's what we've been doing ever since. For two and a half years, we've been leading with science, building trust, earning trust every day, and just really excited about where it's led us. We are integral to the supply chain and we have partners and friends all around us, right?



It's like whether you're an oil manufacturer, co-packer, a brand, we're all working together to just create the best products, and that's the beautiful, full circle. Everything is that ... My passion is for helping people realize their dreams, right? People might come to us and say, "Hey, we just need to put THC or CBD in our product," and we'll happily serve them. But I love it when an entrepreneur comes and they say, "Here's my pitch deck." It's like I get to start asking questions about, well, who are you trying to sell this to? What's the experience that you're trying to market? That's when the startup kicks in, and I get to do a little bit of advising. But what comes out of that is a well-formulated targeted product that has a chance of survival.


Angel Gambino:

I think-


Ben Larson:

[crosstalk 00:10:56].


Angel Gambino:

Sure, and I think we should tell people what Vertosa is and what it produces. Before [crosstalk]


Ben Larson:

Good starting point usually.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah. So much of what you're doing, but so much of market-making in itself is co-creation, right? How I originally started to get into this space is through our Venture Studios at Co-Created. We had a big client who was looking at this sector, right? Looking at it from a beverages standpoint, but also looking at it from other potential products. In the work that we do, we'll work with big corporations who are either facing disruption in the marketplace or they see opportunity in the marketplace, but it's not core to their business and they need to stay focused on their core business. They'll partner with us so that we can create adjacent businesses and entirely new markets, right? We leverage their deep domain expertise or their distribution capacity or their brands or whatever.



I had an opportunity almost like you with the Incubator to really see a good market. Radical is one of the businesses in our portfolio, and they do something called RAB Reports. They did a complete scan of the market and looked at all of the different players from startups to investors, to big corps who are looking at the space. I felt like when we first met, I had a real unfair advantage compared to other investors to be able to go, "Oh my God, this is exactly the business that I want to invest in, but we should tell them what that business is. What Vertosa does."


Ben Larson:

Yeah. I mean, at the end of the day, we're a trusted ingredient manufacturer in the cannabis and hemp space. We focus on cannabinoids, terpenes, and we try to take the whole philosophy is one size does not fit all, and that goes from the cannabinoids and terpenes that you want to put into a product, whether it's just purely CBD or whether it's a full spectrum, sun-grown extraction out of Humboldt, California. Right? We try to provide that flexibility. We also understand that the packaging and the manufacturing process, all this influences the stability compatibility of the formulation. We focus a lot on doing the R&D to understand those impacts and the efficacy of the end product. We do a lot of product development work.


But at the end of the day, it's all driving to selling bulk ingredients so that you can create consistent products over and over again, and that you can scale. Because producing these ingredients, you might be able to do it on a bench top and you might be able to make 500 units, but what happens when you're trying to make 50,000 units. We help people get to that scale. We work with co-packers and we can deliver everywhere from, well, a small bottle of infused ingredients that we give in our sample kits up to 50 gallons to dump into a large tank. We've cut our teeth on one of the more exciting parts of the industry, and that's the emerging infused beverage category. Made waves back when Constellation invested a large chunk of cash into Canopy Growth.


But it's been developing ever since, and it's still developing. It's a very small portion of the market, and that's because you're talking about the need to build an entire supply chain. Beverage is where we really earn our name. A lot of the beverages, especially in the California market, have Vertosa inside. You might sometimes see it on a label, you might not. It's also led us down the path of how can we improve the experience in other types of products? We recently started creating fast acting gummies, where we're shrinking to droplet size and making the cannabinoids more bioavailable so that it doesn't take an hour and a half to feel the effects of an edible. We've also recently developed a powdered formulation for the hemp side of the business that creates just really beautiful, fast acting and dispersible beverage mixes or press tablets and that so ...


I guess the vision is that you have an idea for a product and that we can tell you and give you the ingredients to make it happen. Right? But we're really excited about beverage. I think what people need to know about the beverage category is that it's a completely unique experience. It's a category completely of its own. I think it's super approachable. People are just very used to consuming beverages, having beverages and the form factor itself allows you to microdose and just really control the experience. But it takes patience and persistence, building off the supply chain. Distribution, a very boring side of business typically for a consumer. But when the status quo is moving around, very concentrated, concentrates and cannabis flour, that is a much easier to justify than shipping around large amounts of liquid.


The retailers, the distributors just weren't prepared for that form factor. Along with our partners in the supply chain, just having to grow this organically and prove it, the market demand, prove the sell through and just continue to believe. But there is no better motivator than when you go to a dinner party and let people experience it for the first time, and you have people in their 60s and 70s trying cannabis for the first time, because they would never touch a joint or a vape, but they'll easily pick up a beverage and having an incredible experience, and then being like, "Wait, I'm not going to be hung over tomorrow? Like [crosstalk] this is low calorie?


Angel Gambino:

You and I first met, I think it was at Emily's house when we first met-


Ben Larson:

Yep.


Angel Gambino:

... [crosstalk] You and Harold I think made ... it was these amazing THC alcohol-free Mojitos. I think it was [crosstalk]


Ben Larson:

Yeah, yeah.


Angel Gambino:

Right.


Ben Larson:

Yeah, Mojitos and Moscow mules, I believe. [crosstalk] make it as approachable as possible.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah [inaudible] agree with. The thing is for me, having been a soccer player and playing in the English Premier League and playing competitively in college, building up to that, I wasn't going to smoke pot. It was also illegal then. Even now, I don't necessarily like the smoke, and I also don't consume a lot of the edibles because I had gestational diabetes and so I'm always borderline there, and so I like to keep my sugar down and a lot of the edibles do have sugar now. So do some of the beverages, but a lot of them don't like what I had last night, which I think is one of your products.


Ben Larson:

Yeah. [crosstalk] Lagunitas is doing a great job in the industry.


Angel Gambino:

[inaudible]


Ben Larson:

I mean, it was a ... Product's great, but just having the mainstream brands entering the space is just a huge, huge validation for all the hard work that everyone's doing. Even if you're not doing cannabis beverage, getting brands like Lagunitas into the industry is a huge just a signal for what's to come.


Angel Gambino:

For sure. I think it's a validation. It also brings more consumer brand awareness. For me, when I tell people when they come ... Well, haven't had too many guests over this period, but when I have a guest, and I say [inaudible] and Lagunitas. Lil Sum-thin is one of my favorite beers, but I don't drink [inaudible] but I tell people, "Well, you can have a beer that has no calories, no carbs, no sugar, tastes really good and you still can get a buzz," and they're like, "What? What is this?" Then when I show them the Hi-Fi and they try it for the first time, they absolutely love it. I think a lot of cannabis products, people want to try them in the kind of setting that you were describing. If you've got somebody in their 60s and either they haven't had cannabis before, or they just haven't had it in beverage form, then having it at a house is always a way that you can trust that you're going to have a great experience.


Ben Larson:

Yeah. Well, it being January and a lot of people try [inaudible] January, my phone's been ringing off the hook from my friends being like, "Hey, where do I get some of that stuff? This is really hard." I'm like, "Kelly Silver." Right? It's like cannabis is okay, but the alcohol is not, which is great because it is low calorie. One of our other collaborations recently, PBR, did their cannabis Seltzer, and it just can't keep it on the shelves and it's creating a great opportunity to give people another outlet. There's something for everyone. We've worked with House of Saka and Viv&Oak and Ricketts to create really great wines replacements. It's actually dealcoholized wine from California grapes that were then putting the fun back in and it's a lower calorie.


We're messing around with minor cannabinoids to create different effects. Viv&Oak did a red wine which was a challenge in itself from a chemistry perspective, which I won't bore everyone with. But we did a THCV formulation to create a little bit higher energy, try to reduce the tendency for munchies, and just I started to mess around with that, which I love getting into the purpose-built formulations. You mentioned sports earlier on the hemp side of the business, which we do operate, just really think about how do cannabinoids interact with other nutraceuticals to create very targeted effects, whether it's sports recovery, anti-anxiety and relaxation, what have you. It's really inspiring to see how other brands are starting to think about how cannabinoids might become a part of their journey. Not necessarily just as a category in of its own, but to create more efficacious products.


Angel Gambino:

Do you want to share one of those products or should [crosstalk]


Ben Larson:

Sure. Yeah.


Angel Gambino:

[crosstalk]


Ben Larson:

Yeah, thanks for queuing me up, doing my job. Like I mentioned, we're starting to branch out of liquid emulsions and into some powdered formats, which has led us into a really great partnership with Lucent Botanicals and creating these just very beautiful efficacious mints. It's a beautiful story. Again, for us it's about helping people create their dreams, not just ours. I will play the short video, and yeah, let Chris speak for himself.


Angel Gambino:

Right. So this is a new product extension for you guys?


Ben Larson:

That's right. Yeah.


Angel Gambino:

Great.


Chris Cooper:

Lucent Botanicals started a few years ago with me and my partner, [Anel 00:23:07]. Both of our mothers, who are now aged 84 and age 90, who have difficulty with pain relieve, some sleeping issues, things like that, and we found that CBD worked okay for them. But we also thought that we could do a better job of making products than a lot of the products that were on the market. We thought that making mints was a much better solution. Our family members really liked them, that they work really well, that they were pretty fast acting and potent. If our family members liked them enough, other people might as well.


What we found is that Vertosa makes products that will enable us to make a different, and also in some ways better product. What people notice in our new formulation with the new products is that what may have taken 10, 15, 20 minutes to hit once you take the mint, and it's a chewable mint, that now with Vertosa product takes only about five minutes. The biggest advantage is that it helps you dose a little bit easier because you get faster feedback. The faster the onset is, the faster you will be able to make adjustments in your dose to get the right amount. The second reason of course is simply quicker effects if you're looking for focus or a quicker sleep, perhaps if you're looking for sleep.


We really enjoy making CBD products, and we enjoy the benefits that it brings to people, not only our own relatives, but also our customers. We get so many testimonials from people who say that this is the only product that really solves their problem. Vertosa has been a great supplier. They have gone well above and beyond what most of our suppliers do. Making mints is not an easy thing, and working with the Vertosa people, on an interactive basis, has helped us get the formulations right and get the product to the point that it can be brought to market quicker.


Angel Gambino:

[inaudible]


Ben Larson:

Yeah.


Angel Gambino:

[crosstalk] good storytelling with cannabis products.


Ben Larson:

Yeah. Yeah, the unspoken element here is that I think there's a lot of people out there that still question the viability and efficacy of CBD. Unfortunately, because of just how slow the federal government can be, there's very few regulations on the hemp side of the business. You do still have a lot of snake oil out there, and you might try a product that you ... I don't know if it's working. But if it's formulated correctly, you will absolutely feel the effects of the hemp or CBD, and that's what's important to us. We take great offense actually to people putting bad products out on the market because it breaks down the trust of an entire industry. That's what drives us every day. It's not the profits of our company. It's actually creating an impact and an opportunity for medicine, essentially. How do we define medicine for it to be out there and accessible to people and something that they can trust and feel?


Angel Gambino:

Well, I think a lot of people, especially during COVID, have turned to cannabis because they trust it to help them, and whether that's CBD or a combination of CBD and THC, which we might want to explain for people who don't know the difference. But a lot of people have turned to those products in markets where they can because of the increased anxiety that a lot of people have had, and they find that it helps them just relax. Takes a little bit of the edge off without getting drunk and consuming lots of alcohol and having a hangover. They can just have something which just relaxes them a little bit and helps them ride out this pandemic. I don't know if you've seen that in the market in California or in other markets.


Ben Larson:

I mean, obviously seen it, but experienced it personally. Anyone that knows me, I'm a huge skeptic of everything and anything, government, startups, whatever it is. I'm just like it's my job to constantly question, and we've built our company around that. We constantly say internally that we are our greatest competition. We have to constantly push ourselves to be better. The government's not going to do it for us. A lot of times we're pushing the standard. We're the ones who took and saw the efficacy requirements that the regulations were rolling out in California. It's like we're just going to apply that to hemp, even though no one's forcing us to. This is what needs to happen. For me, I used to struggle with alcohol, right? Like many people, especially coming out of the US college system.


Ben Larson:

Not only did it accidentally win me off of that, I just realized I started having less of a need or a desire for the alcohol. But I also have just a very active mind. Again, it's like many entrepreneurs do, and I have started using it as just a tool to help me ease my mind and go to sleep. Where I used to average about four to five hours a night, I can now consistently get seven to eight hours and feel just very rested and very healthy, and that impact is intangible and it's hard to explain. What's important with all of this ... Because there are so many applications. Cannabis is really hard to put in a bucket, and especially in Western culture, we love throwing things in the buckets. It's one of those things where the only way forward is to provide unfettered access in many different form factors that speak to people's needs and let people create based on the way they see it being used.


You might use it as a social tool, right? To go out and release your inhibitions and just have a fun night. But you might also use it purely for relief. I remember my aunt was diagnosed with jaw cancer and she was in a lot of pain. She wasn't eating because she was nauseous, and she wasn't sleeping because of the pain. With one product ... Anyone in the industry would be like, "Oh, she probably needs a strong indica, spin up the appetite, relieve the pain and let her sleep." Overnight with one product, it was a vape pen. It was formulated by a company that I work closely with. One cartridge, one pen, and overnight she was sleeping through the night, she was eating again and the pain was gone.


It's amazing, but it's also very upsetting and just infuriating to know that people don't know about this, people don't have access to it because we can't get out of our own way, the government can't get out of our way, the stigma won't get out of our way, so we just have to keep fighting for those reasons, right? We have to create access for people, and there's so many applications. Athletes, like the UFC just finally took marijuana testing out of their doping testings. The athletes were begging for this for years because there's neuroprotective qualities, there's the reduced inflammation and recovery attributes, and obviously pain relief. But it's a slow process and we're making these incremental steps. Similar to how we started off the call with times like this week where we have a changing of the guard in our favor, it's not a sigh of relief.


It's like stand up and get to work, which has been really interesting from a business perspective, because you try to do strategic planning, especially as years wrap-up, and we found ourselves in December and a bit, for everyone, a phenomenally challenging year. Even if business was good, it was still hard to navigate the pandemic for 10 months. We're sitting here, it's like, "all right, let's do our 2021 planning." It's like, "well, we have this election that is inconclusive, and what's going to happen? It's like, "Well, let's plan for the worst." Then miraculously, Georgia flips and our best case scenario became our worst case scenario, and it's just like, "All right, everyone, it is time to make sure that we're putting in the hard work to create the future that we see, that we know that other people don't."


Because only the people working in the industry knows how it needs to be established. Those conversations need to be had. So we need to get in front of the legislators, we [inaudible] in front of our council people and just make sure that they're educated and creating a solid framework, and as you mentioned, making sure that we're doing it equitably and providing opportunities for those impacted by the war on drugs, this heinous war on drugs that's been lasting for decades and decades, and people still today are getting blocked out for doing something that is now legal. There's just a lot of work to be done there, and it starts with the grassroots level, with your local legislators, with the state initiatives and then on up to the federal government.


Angel Gambino:

You're in California and expanding into new markets. What's the current state of play in term from a regulatory standpoint, medicinal versus recreational or just behind the times and not catching up? [inaudible] almost really taking off, and I know Michigan has got a great company. They're called Pleasantries, and some other great companies there, and the city of Detroit is starting to look at how they should evolve, potentially their policies. What's happening with Vertosa in terms of expanding outside of California and state of play in some of [inaudible] markets?


Ben Larson:

Yeah. I would say momentum is picking up for us as a company and for the industry as a whole. You see legislation getting passed and then quickly evolving. Oklahoma is a great example. They released a fairly flexible medical program. A lot of medical patients in Oklahoma, a startling amount actually, are for being what some might consider a more conservative state. But it went so phenomenally well that they're quickly just going to roll it into a recreational market and provide just open unfettered access. Just because it's recreational doesn't mean people aren't using it for medical purposes. Right? I think that's the biggest cognitive disconnect. Some people will be like, "Oh, I sort medical, but not recreational." I'm like, "What is recreational? Is a glass of scotch at the end of a long day not somewhat medical?"


I think from a Western culture perspective, we just maybe need to change our thinking a little bit about health and wellness, which I think the new generation is fully on board with, and if we're all just patient, maybe we will get that change we need. Vertosa, in particular, last year we launched with our partner up in Canada. We are working with various co-packers up there to get approvals through Health Canada. It's a completely different system. Hemp and cannabis are regulated under the same framework. It's important for people to become exposed to those vast differences that might happen in different regions, right? We've take those learnings and have quickly spun up operations in Massachusetts with another partner, Theory Wellness in Massachusetts, and just really excited to continue to offer the same quality of ingredients across state borders.


Inherently, what that allows us to do is provide the confidence for brands to then navigate launching their brands across different states, right? Which is quite difficult right now. There's no cross state commerce, and there probably won't be even with federal legalization. It won't be like all of a sudden the flood gates open and you can ship everywhere. Alcohol took a long time to develop their framework and it'll probably be the same for cannabis. What makes this country great, the independence of the states and everything, also makes it challenging to pass broad, sweeping access for cannabis. Next on the docket, actually is Michigan for us. Michigan and Oklahoma are coming up very soon, and we were really excited to see the positioning on infused products shift in Michigan, I think just in the last two weeks.


We're going full speed ahead and excited. Every market's a little bit different, and I think Michigan out of all the states is just very deserving of this new generation of business opportunity, right? We all know what happened with the auto era and the impacts in Detroit. Man, what a hero story for cannabis to be able to come back and be a new breath of life into the community. Again, it's, as far as that, a helpful replacement for alcohol, that there's just so much opportunity there. I'm excited to, in short order, be releasing some infused beverages and some fast acting gummies coming to Michigan very soon.


Angel Gambino:

I'm very excited about that, that I don't have to hide them in my luggage when I go back home. [crosstalk]


Ben Larson:

I can neither confirm nor deny that I do the same thing everywhere I travel.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah. Yeah, TSA have better things to worry about. But one of the things that I love as an investor and somebody who's committed to social justice and gender equity is I really believe you do a great job at exposing a lot of the injustices that have happened in terms of the war on drugs and some of the racial discrimination. I also think as a leader, you've done a really great job really giving a lot of leadership opportunities and a lot of public acknowledgement also to your female employees and team members. I would just love for you to share a little bit about what you think other cannabis entrepreneurs and businesses should consider in terms of really developing the market in such a way that there is more equity, that we're starting to look at how conscious capitalism can really be a force for good beyond just profits.


Ben Larson:

Yeah. I mean, I could approach this conversation many different ways. If I was speaking to a pure capitalist, I'd be like, "There's a pure capitalist answer to that," right? There's plenty of Harvard Business Reviews that show if you want to speak to all demographics like most big businesses try to do, you have to have that represented systemically throughout your company. If it's not, it's not going to be genuine, and if it's not genuine it's not going to sell. There's that aspect. But for me personally in my way, I just don't know any other way. I was born and raised in California on Martin Luther King weekend. I think seven years out of my life journey, I've shared a birthday with his day.


Ben Larson:

He was born on the 17th, I was born on the 18th. Anyways, it doesn't matter. Not bragging. But on top of that, I grew up around women. I remember most of my childhood, I had a babysitter that had three daughters and she watched my sister and these two twin girls, and that was my friend circle. So I just trust women more. I don't know, it's natural. That's ingrained in me, but I don't know, it's our social responsibility to walk the walk and donating to LPP, which is a great organization that we support but that's not enough. Giving money is not enough. If you look at your team page and it's very monochromatic, there's some changes that need to happen and you can't ...


Ben Larson:

There's nothing to blame but yourself because it starts at the very beginning. When we started the company, it was top of mind. As we brought people in, it was top of mind. I'll say, when we first started the company, we were very male heavy, and I was like, "This has to stop. We have to find first women to bring on." I'll admit, being in California is fairly easy to be multicultural, right? A little bit harder if you're in the Carolinas or something. I don't know. Maybe not, I don't know. I don't work out there, so I don't want to judge. But if you are having that problem, start with recruiting and start with your board and start with your executive team, and put people in places of power so that you're attractive to recruits, right?


Ben Larson:

People want to work at places where they can see themselves elevating. If there's no one at the top, why would you want to go work there if you don't see a path for yourself? I don't know. At the end of the day, again, it all comes back down consumers of cannabis are coming in all different sexes, colors, identifications, and you need to be able to speak to those if you're going to build a well-rounded company. [crosstalk]


Angel Gambino:

For sure. I think there's lots of different types of diversity as well. A lot of times we think gender, race, but there's also neuro diversity. One of the things that I really loved about the inauguration is that you had this incredible inspiring poet, and I just ended up crying, and you've got this president, both who shared speech impediments, and you've got ... There's diversity in terms of all the more obvious or transparent aspects, but there's also diversity in terms of thought, in terms of class, in terms of neuro diversity, people who have had different kinds of challenges but who are also very exceptional and who can create and a lot of value and offer a lot.


Angel Gambino:

I think we really have a responsibility as ... I feel like I have a responsibility as an angel investor and also as an entrepreneur, and when I'm working in the Venture Studio, creating these startups with big corporations, I think you're absolutely right. It's easy if you just reach out to your existing network. But if your existing network looks somewhat like a mirror of you, then you do have to put a little more work in to tap into other communities. A lot of that diversity of thought and representation contributes to better products and services. Like you said, there is. There's an enormous amount of data, but I feel like we constantly have to remind people that this data exists, that when you've got more diverse teams and leadership that you end up in most cases creating more profit, better returns, and typically also higher levels of satisfaction in terms of job satisfaction. But it does require some extra work sometimes.


Ben Larson:

Yeah. I mean, to be honest, it was also like a survival mechanism coming into the cannabis industry. For me, I recognized very early on that I was an outsider. There's a lot of work that had been done, a lot of sacrifice that had been done for this industry, and me coming in and trying to profit off of it wasn't the ethical thing to do and it wasn't going to make me successful in the end. Right? I came in wearing that on my sleeve, being like, "I need everyone's help and I'm willing to help everyone," right? It was that mentality that helped me build my network in the space, right? And why I'm generally pretty recognized in the space. Outside of Vertosa, still I host the Marijuana Today podcast, periodically I continually mentor young companies or get involved with mentorship programs for underserved entrepreneurs.


I don't come from any, I guess, traditional business background. Right? I studied civil engineering at Cal Poly. I was a professional engineer for six years. I quit all that to my parents behest, and jumped into startups and just fumbled my way around until I really found what I was passionate about, and I was just helping people break down barriers. Again, I think I'm going to have a leg up on this conversation because it's just ingrained in me and into who I am. My passion is breaking down barriers for people, and I see the biggest barrier, especially highlighted last year, is just the disparities in our society. We have a lot of work to do, and if we're not actively doing it, then we're not helping.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah. I think that's what ... A lot of people say, "Well, if I'm not actively doing anything bad, then that's good enough." But no, we have to proactively do-


Ben Larson:

Yeah, nothing is bad.


Angel Gambino:

Yeah. Yeah.


Ben Larson:

Period. Nothing is bad. Don't do nothing.