Anna Kaplan, Co-founder and CEO of SugarTop Buddery
Anna Kaplan is the CEO and co-founder of SugarTop Buddery, a company devoted to cultivating and processing cannabis, where she supports a vibrant artistic community with concerts and other events.
Trained as an artist at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, she earned her MFA in ceramics and painting. She serves as president of the non-profit Women Leaders in Cannabis and sits on the Oregon Cannabis Association Board of Directors.
Anna Kaplan graciously agreed to an interview in April 2023, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] Anna, you are the co-founder, the CEO, and the artistic creative behind SugarTop Buddery. You also took part in The Initiative, and you’re on the Board of Directors for the Oregon Cannabis Association. What got you into the cannabis industry?
[Anna Kaplan] Cannabis has been a part of my life since I was a teenager, and it’s always been a very positive and well-loved plant throughout my childhood and as I came of age as an adult.
As far as the industry goes, my brother had entered the medical cannabis space as a traveling musician out on the west coast in the late aughts and early 2010s, when he stopped touring and got out of Cirque du Soleil. I was on the east coast in grad school, and it was clear that recreational cannabis was on people’s minds in Oregon. Colorado had recently gone legal, and Washington as well. We were looking at it, and we had a few conversations.
Outside of my art career, restaurant and hospitality management was where most of my work experience came from. Those powers combined led me to start the business once Measure 91 passed in 2014.
Measure 91 happened in July; my brother and I had a conversation in September, and I moved to Eugene in December. It was probably one of the quickest decisions I’ve ever made, but it was a very open landscape of opportunity.
My first step here was learning how to cultivate cannabis. I was mixing bins of dirt and watering plants, and that all led to developing the brand and launching it in 2015.
[OnlineEducation.com] And how has this been unique compared to the industries that you worked in prior?
[Anna Kaplan] The art world and restaurant hospitality management are pretty established systems. Specifically in the art world, my experience was rooted in misogyny. One of the reasons I left my art career behind was my experience with sexual harassment and misogyny in gallery spaces, with professors, and in the essentially male-led organizations out on the east coast. That put a bad taste in my mouth. I still love art, but the systems in place at that time weren’t my cup of tea.
In restaurants, I enjoyed connecting with people and talking about products I like, and the fast-paced nature of the hospitality industry lent itself well to my constantly moving personality.
Those pieces were a good recipe for how to move into the fledgling cannabis space because it was an industry that was completely undefined by structure. It had been operating literally in the dark, and so everyone was just growing, cultivating their practices; all of the growers who built the industry that we now have are the masters of this plant, if you will, but the systems for actually making it in this business, they didn’t exist: rules, regulations, retail outlets…none of those things existed. It was all part of a different paradigm of sales.
And so what this industry has built for me, and what I think has been the most exciting piece of it, is the development of a brand from the ground up and the development of a culture of education around cannabis. Education on cannabis did not exist, either! Brand and education, I think, were developed through recreational cannabis.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s such a huge part of it. It’s an industry that is uniquely stigmatized still, especially in the states that don’t have legalized adult-use. In the beginning, the leadership percentages were more equitable. More women and minorities were starting businesses. It peaked in 2019, and those figures have fallen in the last couple of years. There’s now a smaller share of female and minority-owned cannabis businesses. Why do you think that is?
[Anna Kaplan] The first few years here in Oregon, there was no system of capital to establish something that we’ve come to know in every other line of business: the patriarchal systems of how capital gets into markets—essentially, how the structure of boardrooms are created. All of those pieces didn’t exist in cannabis yet.
And so you had small family businesses, small business owners, women, and people of color who didn’t have any structural barriers from the traditional business landscape. Then, the rules started to be defined; there started to be some mergers and acquisitions—some actual fiscal value to cannabis and not just this excitement of starting the enterprise. Money came in, and with that came all of the male-led boards and the big money structures that have always kept women and people of color out of the room. Once boards turned over and once businesses got sold, the leadership started to look like what any other business would look like.
And so it’s been a fight for small businesses, specifically who started with the wind beneath them of an emerging market—it was a completely unwritten book for how this industry would play out.
That’s what was so exciting about the cannabis space to me. I didn’t have to prove myself other than just knowing that I was passionate about it, other than being willing to learn, being creative, and deciding that I was going to hustle; that was enough to get started, and that is something that doesn’t exist in any other industry, other than ones that are also fledgling. I can’t even think of another industry that’s that way except for psilocybin or another market where the industry hasn’t emerged yet…
There are still tens of thousands of people behind bars because they had the wrong skin color at the wrong time, pre-legalization. They are still incarcerated for cannabis, while I’m here trying to build a business and hopefully profit off of it. There is definitely still a very large double standard that this country hasn’t reckoned with.
Oregon’s done a decent job. Oregon has expungement programs, and they have passed legislation that has tried to wipe records and take those steps, but more is needed. And then we talk about things like reparations and how we can go much further into uplifting marginalized communities affected by the war on drugs.
[OnlineEducation.com] You’ve taken part in The Initiative, which is a female leadership intensive, and you have participated in Tokeativity events. You obviously recognize the importance of women in the space. Have you ever faced sexism or misogyny working in cannabis?
[Anna Kaplan] Oh, 100 percent. My business partner is my brother, so I do have that mirror to myself in this industry; if we were in the same room trying to do a sales pitch, especially early on, the eye contact I would get was probably 10 percent of what he would get as far as being taken seriously. Assuming that I was the majority owner of this company—which I am—that was never the immediate reaction in those meetings.
So when we talk about the downfalls of moving from an emerging space to a more established space, in many ways, that’s been great because it’s allowed for the old-guard toxicity of the black market cannabis culture to go away in some respects. We’ve eliminated, in my mind, this idea that women are only trimmers—the ganja girl aesthetic—which some women embrace, and that’s fine.
But this idea of women being a sexualized part of cannabis culture and not necessarily the leaders of the cannabis space, that’s something that I’ve personally been much more interested in. I’ve encountered business owners from the legacy space, who have literally said things to me like, “Oh, your brother is what built this.”
Because I am younger or a woman, I still have not been taken seriously in the past by the legacy community. There’s also the idea that if you’re the woman in the room, you must be someone’s sister or wife—you can’t possibly be the majority owner. So that’s been my experience.
[OnlineEducation.com] And what about your experience raising capital?
[Anna Kaplan] That was really the foundation of what The Initiative was, which is such a unique space because there are tons of business accelerators in this country, mostly focused on tech.
Amy Margolis started The Initiative in 2018. I was in the 2019 cohort, and what she created was a space for women business owners to have access to VCs—to have access to a map of what it means to raise capital.
I had no idea what that entailed. I didn’t go to business school. I don’t have people in my immediate circles who have raised capital for businesses…And so literally, from the words “pro forma financials” to “pitch decks,” the accelerator introduced me to many concepts for the first time. That was invaluable: having someone teach you that when you’re 30 years old. I have a master’s degree, but it’s not in business, so I could learn those things and talk with leaders in the space like Emily Paxhia or other VCs. The program ended with Demo Day, where we actually did build pitch decks with the goal of raising capital.
Then the pandemic hit, so I didn’t embark on my capital-raising journey for another year or so. But it was a huge experience for me as far as understanding what the next steps in my business could be.
[OnlineEducation.com] Now that you’ve been working in cannabis for several years, what is the most important issue in the industry right now?
[Anna Kaplan] Choosing one is difficult. Right now, I think the most important thing we could focus on is continuing to build a craft culture around cannabis that doesn’t leave small businesses in the dust.
Because there’s so much capital coming into the space and federal legalization is a looming topic, that’s where we have to be careful. Once Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol, and Big Pharma come in…if we don’t cultivate respect for craft culture the way we have a craft beer culture, then all of the businesses, brands, and the legacy cultivation methods of the plant will go away. We’ll be left with Marinol® and—nothing against them—but the Anheuser-Busches and Marlboros of cannabis.
There is a reason why tobacco doesn’t have any warnings other than “This will kill you,” and cannabis has every other warning that tries to tell you what’s in it. There’s a public safety side to cannabis consumption. That’s really important to maintaining craft culture—actually knowing what you’re consuming—the same way that there’s differentiation with organics and having that type of understanding of how things are cultivated because this is a plant.
That’s been a big point of conversation lately because testing rules continue to be updated and changed as we embark toward a path for a more unified federal approach to testing cannabis. Those issues are really top of mind for me right now: maintaining craft culture and making sure that we don’t lose what’s special about plant medicine to big corporations.
[OnlineEducation.com] What would legal consumption spaces look like in an ideal world?
[Anna Kaplan] There are a few different ways that that can work. One is just prioritizing the consumption of cannabis in open-air environments, utilizing outdoor spaces that we have and love.
I say this because I understand Oregon. The OLCC already regulates bars and liquor stores here in Oregon. Saying that there’s no space for people to consume alcohol other than buying it at the liquor store or the grocery store and going home is the paradigm we now face for cannabis consumption.
If we were able to introduce “cannabis bars” into the already normalized system of bars, then 1) you’re creating a secondary retail outlet for those consumption spaces, which means more dollars in purchases going out into the community in tax revenue, and 2) you’re creating a normalized culture around cannabis consumption, meaning that it’s not vilified and stigmatized.
You’re creating something that is a safer alternative because I don’t care what anybody says, you are far more likely to kill someone drunk driving than you are stoned driving. That’s a personal opinion…But that being said, intoxicated driving should always be a conversation, whether it’s cannabis or anything else.
The point is, if we have legal access to bars and recreational spaces for alcohol consumption, we should also have the same access to recreational spaces for cannabis. Open-air spaces are the easiest way to do it because we’re worried about the Clean Air Act. Or, look at places like Vegas with such sophisticated air-filtration systems that they still allow cigarette smoking indoors in casinos. There are already established ways of cleaning the air, so go one way or the other.
[OnlineEducation.com] Is de-scheduling the drug the first step toward even moving towards something like that?
[Anna Kaplan] Not here in Oregon. In Oregon, it’s the Clean Air Act that is the biggest hurdle. It is more of a public health issue than anything else.
[OnlineEducation.com] You mentioned the social equity piece in terms of who can start cannabis companies. I know that states have had a potpourri of ways that they have rolled out who can start cannabis companies. Are you aware of any models within this country or abroad that you think we should emulate here in terms of creating cannabis companies and promoting diverse leadership?
[Anna Kaplan] As far as equity programs for cannabis, Oregon did not do a good job of building that—they didn’t do one at all. The difference between Oregon and other states is that Oregon’s financial barrier for licensure is very low. The average cost of a license is about $5,000 annually. In states like Florida or Michigan, you have to show over a quarter-million dollars in your bank account even to be able to apply for a license. So other states have different barriers.
Oregon didn’t set that one up, which is why Oregon’s leadership thought it was already an “equitable” program. But the fact is that just because you don’t have to show a massive bank account doesn’t mean that it’s equitable. We’re looking at people with access to funds through friends and family because once you get that license, how do you do it? How do you build a business without funds?
When we’re talking about equity, there need to be programs for the state—funding and equity licensure—so that these people who have been disenfranchised or marginalized not only just get the license, but have the funding to build the business. No state’s done an excellent job of actually getting these programs off the ground, but from what I’ve seen so far, New York State’s done a better job than any of trying to actually build it.
Chicago tried to do equity licensure, but what happened there was the wrong approach, which was, “Okay, let’s just tokenize a person of color and put them on our license, but really, this is just a white-owned business with a single person of color on our cap table.”
And so there are different ways to do it, but New York actually had a good structure.
[OnlineEducation.com] Who is your biggest hero or mentor in the industry?
[Anna Kaplan] I definitely have several. As far as heroes in this space, my female colleagues who have persevered since the beginning are the foundation of my ability to succeed here. That is also something that I did not have in any other industry: a supportive network of women who were that “girls’ club” rather than the boys’ club. We hear all the time about in business how the networks stem down from the fraternities in college and how men constantly lift up their brothers through the ranks. I feel very supported in this space by the women who are my colleagues and have survived this market.
I will always tip my hat to Amy Margolis for The Initiative and for the opportunities that she put in front of me over these years. And then the other women who have paved the way. I think you spoke with Jane West. Jane founded an organization called Women Grow, which was one of the very first women’s groups in this space. I could list pretty much every woman I feel is either in front of me or beside me, but it’s hard to name just a few.
[OnlineEducation.com] What is your advice for women or other underrepresented folks interested in starting cannabis-related ventures?
[Anna Kaplan] Don’t be afraid of rules. I think the biggest asset that anyone can give themselves—but specifically women because we need to figure out ways to get ahead—is know the rules. Knowing the rules allows you to have power, utilize them to your benefit, and understand what is and isn’t important. That’s for any regulated space because cannabis is by far the most regulated system I’ve ever been a part of.
Don’t be afraid of raising capital. It is still something I struggle with every day, with impostor syndrome, but it is the way to succeed because, without money, these things aren’t possible.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. These are like small business ownership moments because that’s really what cannabis is if you’re stepping into the space now and starting your own company. Tap into your peers: ask questions, ask for support, and share resources.
Know that this isn’t something that comes overnight. There are waves and troughs. There are highs and lows, and the line is nothing but curvy. Understand that this is something that you have to love and be passionate about doing. I’d recommend that to any small business owner.