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NECANN Illinois recap

Updated: Jun 10

Since I was so impressed with NECANN in Boston, I thought I should check out the Illinois conference to get reacquainted with the market. My first experience in the legal cannabis industry was working with my brother in Illinois on license applications both in 2014 when their medical bill passed and in 2019 after adult-use passed. The market has been pretty disappointing after all the work my brother and others put into what many called, the best social equity implementation in the nation. Covid and lawsuits delayed the industry from really kicking off the way it should and initially all the licenses went to MSOs. After several years and a governor that really cares about helping the industry, I am now seeing glimmers of hope that Illinois will be the vibrant diverse market that we all were promised.

Before I get into the overview of my conference experience, I wanted to share a picture I posted on Instagram after arriving at the conference hotel. The first thing I do when I arrive somewhere is wash my hands and I got to my room, go to wash my hands and hear someone talking. There was a TV in the mirror that turns on when you turn on the bathroom light and it just so happens that I arrived shortly after our former president was convicted of 34 felonies. Had to capture the moment and share :-)

I changed my flight last minute to get in a little earlier so that I could attend a networking event hosted by Tony Paolella where my friend, Steph Woods, from Headset was on the panel. It was a really interesting conversation moderated by Laurie Parfitt who is outstanding! I'm pretty sure I've been to panels she's moderated before but I saw a few on this trip and she strikes me as one of the best. She does a great job of steering the conversation to important topics while giving people space and also rephrases like a boss. So good!

The panel with marketers from several Illinois dispensaries had a lot of good information. It demonstrated the huge differences in the areas in Illinois outside of Chicago and how the shops in them have adapted. They talked about brand relationships, promotions and of course data! I was incredibly impressed with Sarah Zelman from Hatch Dispensary. She comes across very personable while also sounding intelligent and demonstrating how well she knows her domain. I was impressed with everyone on the panel and it was well worth the cost to change my flight!

I met up with a fairly new connection, Mike Mangi, who works for Seed Technology along with his colleague, JR, and another connection, Bethany Semeiks. Bethany and I know so many of the same people and have a ton in common and I'm so glad we met and can't wait for the next conference meet up. I thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with all of them and we grabbed dinner after the event. It was a great start to NECANN Illinois getting to spend some quality time with quality people and an early night to kick off the conference on the right foot.

Friday morning I attended a few talks and checked out the exhibits. Everything was much smaller scale compared to Boston but still well done and a lot of the right people got to share space with each other. Another great panel moderated by Laurie with Tony P, Jessica Velazquez and Victoria Williams talking about social equity and how we can support and redefine its success in the industry. Three very different professionals shared what it means to them and how they help support social equity in the industry.

The next panel I attended was about marketing and competing with MSOs. A group of powerhouse women comprised this panel with really interesting stories and ideas for standing out in a tough space. I was a little surprised to see a woman from Kiva on the panel since they are an MSO, but also, they are a great brand that has been successful in many markets. I know enough about Kiva as a company to be a proud consumer of the brand and it didn't seem like an overt conflict but thought I should mention it. Jim Belushi gave the keynote which was more of a fireside chat with the audience. He took questions and shared his opinions on everything from rescheduling to the Illinois market, to psilocybin and his docuseries. It was a lively conversation and not only entertaining but educational.

To conclude the day, I attended Luna Stower's talk 'Love is Lucrative - How being people-centric is profitable.' I met Luna at Cannadatacon in Miami at the beginning of the year and she is lovely and such an important figure in the space. She told me this was her first solo talk at a conference, which I could not believe. The talk was well put together, thoughtful, and supported by data. It makes a lot of sense and is important for all businesses but even more so for cannabis. We need to do the best when it comes to operating businesses that do good and care about maintaining diverse employees and treating them well as part of social equity. The data shows it matters. During Q&A, Luna had the opportunity to speak directly with some of the young women in the industry and answer their most pressing questions. It was really special to witness how Luna can reach young people but no surprise with her teaching background!

After the conference wrapped for the first day, I spent a little time in the hotel lobby with Luna, Bethany and few others chatting and taking some dabs and then we headed over to the afterparty. It was an interesting scene at a dance club in Schaumburg, IL. I guess I'll take this as an opportunity to make clear my position that this was NECANN Illinois, not NECANN Chicago. I saw it written a few places as such and it's just wrong. Schaumburg is pretty and green and lovely in it's own right but it's not Chicago and the 'club' where the party was held was more of a restaurant/patio situation (but I only stayed until 7p so maybe I missed out). Now that I got that out, it really was well done and a nice afterparty.

They had hemp drinks alongside alcohol at the bar, several activations and plenty of opportunities to smoke. The weather was nice and I got to chat with a bunch of cool people. One person I met teaches at the local community college where I grew up. They have cannabis courses now, which is so cool! There also was a crafting opportunity thanks to Vape n Prop. They make these little vape holders that you can brand or in this case bejewel! Like I said, a nice party, I enjoyed myself and went back to my room for dinner and another early night.

Another set of talks on day two with the highlight being a room dedicated to showcasing The 1937 Group as part of the social equity track. It started off with a panel moderated by Willie McKenzie showcasing three brands that are a part of the 1937 lineup. Kush League, Potli and Bloom all told their stories and I was there for every second of it. Minority and women-owned brands that have stories and real connections to the cannabis industry are the kinds of brands I want to support. Felicity Chen who founded Potli told a relatable story about how her mom would never try cannabis but when she added it to her tea with infused honey and her mom felt better from the effects, she wanted more. I love niche products like hers that people will become obsessed with and in a market like IL where there has been a real lack, it's really nice to see. Another thing that has really been lacking in the IL market is real cannabis culture and for that, Kush League was the light at the end of the tunnel for me. Alex Al-Sabah went to UC Santa Cruz and is bringing real Cali weed culture to IL and that's what I'll be buying when I'm shopping back home!

The keynote given by Ambrose Jackson, CEO of the 1937 Group was emotional, thought-provoking, inspiring, it was really everything IMO. His story will really stick with me. Growing up in Chicago with the odds against him but never losing his fight and relying on his intelligence to give him a better life. I'm not going to retell his story because I don't think I could do it justice but I remember almost every part. Ambrose said this was the first time he gave a talk that was so personal and I really hope it isn't the last. If you have the opportunity to hear him tell his story, do not miss it. I am grateful for his vulnerability and also for everything he is doing for the 1937 Group and my home state!

A couple of final comments about the show before I wrap up. I heard a bit of a talk about the Cook County Cannabis Development Grant and it makes me so proud to hear that these things are still happening especially from where I grew up. Social equity is critical for the cannabis industry and so many mistakes have been made. These license holders often don't have the funds to conceptualize their businesses and these types of programs are necessary to help them succeed.

The last talk I attended was from the CEO of Rank Really High who I started partnering with after the Boston conference. Dan Mondello gave a compelling argument for how dispensaries should be maintaining their websites and things that can be done to increase transactions. He is a bundle of energy hopping off and back on the stage to speak to his slides. The talk really resonated with me and I think it's good advice for any shop that can give it's website some love. Or you can hire Dan's team to do it for you! But it wasn't a sales pitch, just good advice.

Overall NECANN Illinois was worthwhile. I got to reconnect with some good people. I got to meet some new good people. And I got to see a market that is important to me moving in the right direction. Can't really the say the same for California...but that's a whole other topic.


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