Heidi Fikstad, Co-founder and CEO of Moss Crossing
Heidi Fikstad co-founded and serves as CEO of Moss Crossing, a multi-award-winning dispensary in the Friendly Street neighborhood of Eugene, Oregon.
She has over 20 years of experience as a designer and brings her creativity to the store’s advertising, brand identity, and unique retail space. She sits on the Oregon Cannabis Association Board of Directors.
Heidi Fikstad graciously agreed to an interview in April 2023, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] Heidi, you are the co-founder, the CEO, and the creative mastermind behind Moss Crossing, which has been voted the best dispensary by Eugene Weekly and The Register-Guard, among other accolades. This is a high compliment because Eugene has a very bustling cannabis culture! How did you initially decide to start a cannabis company? And how has the experience been different from working in other industries?
[Heidi Fikstad] Oh, boy, I could talk about both of those things for a while. So deciding to get into the industry, I go back as far as you can go. I started as a trimmer in Humboldt, and at the time, I didn’t smoke cannabis. The few times I tried it, it did not sit well with me. That was before we had testing and we understood about terpenes—you just kind of got what you got in your bag.
I spent a few years working during the fall season down there and started learning more about the plant, how it was grown, its medicinal qualities, and why some of the people I was around smoked it. Almost everyone had some kind of medical reason, whether or not they called it medical cannabis. It was like, “Oh, it’s stress relief,” “it helps me sleep,” or “calms my anxiety.” There was always this medical backdrop.
The grower I worked for asked me when Oregon went legal, “Why aren’t you growing in Oregon? You could just keep growing there.” And I explained that it takes some capital to start even a small garage medical grow. And he was like, “Oh, well, I’ll front you the money to get all your equipment. You can just pay me back within the first year, and we’ll be good to go.”
That got me interested. We talked more about it, and I learned more about what that would entail. I poked around up here at some of the medical dispensaries and figured out that, yeah, you actually could sell medical cannabis at the time. My partner at the time, who is now my business partner, Sylvan…he and I lived together, so he ended up getting involved, too, from the beginning. And right around that time, we’d been growing medically for maybe a year, and Oregon went legal for rec.
At that point, Sylvan had been diagnosed with MS, and instead of going the traditional pharmaceutical route, which was what his neurologist suggested, he decided to try plant medicine first. He did all of these lifestyle changes and started incorporating cannabis into his wellness routine: a lot of juicing, a lot of tinctures, things like that. And it worked! He got a new neurologist who supported him in this journey, and he’s been on that same path ever since.
So we knew that this plant could help people—we had solid proof right in front of our faces and also had been in the community of people trying to heal more holistically. We knew that cannabis had worked for many people, and that was really exciting. It still is really exciting.
When Oregon went recreationally legal, we decided, “Okay, what is the best way to help the most people?” And it seemed like retail was the way to go. And even that was a bit of a journey because we have this amazing location tucked into such a sweet little neighborhood in Eugene. Getting that location was a big piece of the puzzle. Had we not gotten a really good location, we might have considered a farm or something along those lines. Retail seemed the obvious choice because we could be face-to-face with the public, share some of those anecdotal experiences, and help people find the right product for them.
With my background in design and marketing, it seemed like a good match. Sylvan could help the business aspect and then I could help get us on the map as far as our visual language and our brand, attracting customers that we wanted to attract. We were very specifically aiming for people who might not have been comfortable with cannabis before it became recreational, like my parents, people’s grandparents, and people who were kind of afraid to step into a dispensary. We wanted to create a unique experience that was more like traditional retail for people.
[OnlineEducation.com] The store is beautifully designed and has your creative handprints all over it. How has this been different than working in other industries?
[Heidi Fikstad] I come from a heavy service industry background and then print. Those two industries are very different.
Service is the one that most closely relates to the retail experience, but everything is still different. You have a customer, and you’re trying to give them the best possible experience they can have in this space. So that’s the similarity, but as far as a retail business goes, the taxes and the stigma are insane—it’s taken several years in Oregon for people even to admit that they consume cannabis.
[OnlineEducation.com] Some folks in the business can’t even talk to their families about it, right? The green closet.
[Heidi Fikstad] Plenty of people are still in the green closet, and running a business in cannabis has been challenging in ways that I didn’t even foresee. I didn’t understand how much restriction we would have around marketing. Like we can’t gather customer information without their explicit permission. Also, running loyalty programs: there are certain discounts that we can’t do. Like we can’t do “Buy One, Get One Free.” We just can’t.
And so there are these marketing tactics that are really successful in other industries that we can’t really use in our industry. And our taxation is off the charts. Our margins are really slim.
But then, as far as the more corporate side of things, I don’t know that there’s a huge difference other than our lack of access to banking. So if you’re looking for funds in any other industry, keeping your business family-owned is much easier. In cannabis, you have to get the capital from somewhere, so unless you already have a bunch of capital in your family, you’re going to be looking at private investors—you can’t go through a bank and get a loan. That’s been a huge difference, and I think that lack of access to regular capital exposes the industry to some of the challenges other industries face, especially being a woman.
[OnlineEducation.com] Tell me more about that. How’s your experience been trying to raise capital, and, in particular, would that be different if you were a man?
[Heidi Fikstad] Oh, it definitely would be different if I were a man. Even just within the last few months, it’s been interesting how even though I’m the person who is presenting the business, who’s answering all the questions, who’s the main contact, and I have CEO in my title…it’s amazing how many of the people that we’re talking to, whether it’s private capital or VCs, will respond and address one of my male business partners. We’ve even had contracts come through with my business partner’s name.
[OnlineEducation.com] And they omitted your name? Oh my God.
[Heidi Fikstad] It’s things like that where it’s like, “Oh, yeah, it’s true: there’s still misogyny in this industry.” But even beginning this journey, when we were raising capital just to open the store—and it was a relatively small amount—I could not get anyone interested in this business. But as soon as one of my male partners started asking around, suddenly, there was interest!
It can be frustrating, but I know a lot of women, both in this industry and in others, and our experiences are really similar. Having that support system has been really helpful, where we can commiserate on the one hand, but we’ve also created our own network.
[OnlineEducation.com] Regarding women’s associations, you participated in The Initiative, a leadership intensive specific to the cannabis industry. You’re also a Tokeativity chapter organizer and past president of Women Leaders in Cannabis. You obviously recognize the importance of having women’s networking groups. Can you tell me some of the other unique challenges you and other female founders have faced within the industry?
[Heidi Fikstad] It’s definitely been different as we’ve moved through stages. I think initially, in the old cannabis days, we could all relate to women being presented in the industry as accessories. If you remember the old magazines, it was always scantily clad women, and they were “sales reps.”
And so coming from that, where you’re seen as a marketing object versus an entrepreneur, it was an interesting start in the industry. There were so few female growers at the time just because the industry was so male-dominated when it was not legal.
Legalization has opened up the door to a lot more women, so that’s great, but as we just discussed, finding capital has been a challenge, and being taken seriously as a business person, as a woman. It takes a little bit extra. People don’t just assume that you know what you’re talking about. Even if you know more than anyone else in the room, that’s not usually the assumption. Part of that might be because of the history of cannabis being so male-dominated and the assumption that growers are all male. Beyond that, we started out as an industry with a higher percentage of female entrepreneurs.
[OnlineEducation.com] It was 20 to 30 percent only a few years ago, and now it’s 8 percent. Why did that happen?
[Heidi Fikstad] That is because there was no access to VC firms and traditional capital initially. It was too scary, and I’m speaking mostly for Oregon. I’m sure that Colorado and Washington experienced similar stuff.
Now that it’s getting a little bit bigger, I think there’s more interest in traditional capital in cannabis.
[OnlineEducation.com] Has that benefited men?
[Heidi Fikstad] Yes, we were seeking private investments and private loans. We’re looking to friends and family a lot more, and there’s just a lot more trust in that environment. If you’re looking for people who know you to invest in you, then you don’t face as many of the same challenges as a woman because they know you and your business acumen.
But if you’re going the traditional capital route, you get all of the traditional stereotypes. As capital has become more interested in cannabis, there’s been less investment in women and more in white men.
[OnlineEducation.com] Fourteen of the 15 top-paid CEOs are all white men in cannabis companies. How do you think that having diverse leadership affects a company’s outcomes?
[Heidi Fikstad] There are all those studies now about women-led companies actually performing better. I want more data about all of the minorities, but in all honesty, it seems to dwindle as we start talking about Black women. How many Black female entrepreneurs are there? There are just not that many. I would love to see more data, but we need people to invest.
In the industry in general—in any industry in general—more diversity brings more understanding of where everyone is coming from. When you’re looking for solutions to problems—which cannabis is rife with because it’s such a new, young industry—make sure that your solutions are going to be good for everyone as a whole and not just the people unaffected by the underbelly of the drug war and the industry before legalization.
It’s really important to get all those voices into the mix because there’s no way anyone can understand someone else’s experiences that they’ve never had to go through themselves. Having a variety of voices, we’ll come up with better solutions.
[OnlineEducation.com] You’ve been in the industry since adult-use became legal in Oregon. Right now, in this day and age, what is the most important issue for you within the cannabis industry? What is something that you think about a lot?
[Heidi Fikstad] I personally think about banking a lot. That is one avenue to give more access to more people. Having access to capital where you don’t have to necessarily convince some rich white guy to invest in you.
And I’m sure there are still barriers within the banking industry and who they choose to give loans to and who they don’t, but that’s a huge barrier for minorities, in particular, trying to enter the cannabis industry.
[OnlineEducation.com] What specifically would need to change in order to open up capital for the industry on a federal level? De-scheduling?
[Heidi Fikstad] De-schedule.
[OnlineEducation.com] Why is it that Big Pharma gets access to banking, but plant medicine companies don’t? It’s not fair.
[Heidi Fikstad] I’m not sure exactly what the barrier is to banking because, across the board, everyone is for it, anyone you talk to. It’d be so much easier if we could have cannabis not be such a cash-heavy industry. It’s dangerous on several levels, and it’s also exclusive.
I don’t know exactly what the holdup is there. We all expected to have access to banking by now. The Safe Banking Act has not been passed but has been presented a number of times, and it can’t get through the Senate.
[OnlineEducation.com] Until that happens, it will be difficult to get a more diverse set of stakeholders into the room, I imagine. One thing that’s unique about the cannabis industry is that as the laws continue to evolve in all of the different states, many states have social equity in mind, at least with respect to who can get licenses. Are some regions doing things better than others? What do you think would be an ideal set of state-level policies to hold up as a model for future states and legalization?
[Heidi Fikstad] Gosh, I’m not sure that anyone’s nailed it.
[OnlineEducation.com] Yeah, there still aren’t really consumption-friendly spaces.
[Heidi Fikstad] Consumption is super helpful for several reasons. Anna Kaplan would know a lot more about consumption than I would because I’ve never been in that space other than to Tokeativity private events.
But we all know Illinois was one of the first states to come out with social equity—just having that exposure and having that be presented as something that should be written into the laws was huge. Colorado, Washington, and Oregon…none of them wrote equity into their laws when they started.
I’m so glad that the needle has shifted, and now, as a state that didn’t set it up quite properly, we’re trying to backtrack and figure out how to integrate and build some more equitable programs into the industry, such as using the tax money that’s generated to help minority entrepreneurs.
There’s been some talk about potentially having licenses taken away from people, who aren’t the best actors in the industry—having those accessible to minority entrepreneurs could get some more diversity in the space.
Yeah, I don’t know if anyone’s quite nailed the equity piece. As new states are coming online, they are actually taking that into consideration.
[OnlineEducation.com] Awesome. Who are your heroes or mentors within the industry?
[Heidi Fikstad] You’ve interviewed two of them! Amanda Reiman is a big one. I had the pleasure of meeting her in the program, The Initiative. Her understanding of the industry and how to approach it was very unique to me. I hadn’t really come across someone in this entrepreneurial growth environment who was approaching it from a more feminine perspective—embracing community, embracing the things that are loveable about the industry, and putting your best foot forward versus this highly competitive, cutthroat mindset.
The industry is so small, it doesn’t make sense for us to be competing with each other at this point. We should be supporting each other in getting some of these laws passed and working together so that we all can be more profitable in this challenging industry. And Amanda was one of the first people I came across who truly embodied that communal, collective, hopeful spirit. And she was bringing it—and is still bringing it—into many masculine and male-dominated spaces.
[OnlineEducation.com] And as a scientist, people take her seriously, too. She mentioned one of her reasons for getting a PhD was so people would take her seriously in a room. In addition to Dr. Reiman, you mentioned one other person.
[Heidi Fikstad] Kendra. Kendra has been a huge inspiration for similar reasons. She was one of the first people I came across in the industry who really embraced the people around her and really wanted to help. If you have a conversation with Kendra about your business, it’s like she can’t help it: she’s going try to figure out a way to help you. She’ll just come up with solutions or ideas.
She has one of the most entrepreneurial brains I’ve ever seen. She comes up with a new idea every single day. And so seeing someone so motivated and driven to help the people around her succeed is inspiring and uplifting; it’s good to know that someone has your back.
And so now, whenever I need something, I truly feel like there is a community of women I can reach out to. And it’s not just women, of course, there are men, too, but there’s this extra level of support that comes from women because we all have that extra step that we have to take—that step some of the white men we’re hanging out with don’t have to take—to advance in the industry.
[OnlineEducation.com] Given all of your experience working with other women, what is your advice for women interested in starting cannabis-related ventures?
[Heidi Fikstad] Build your community. Reach out to people in the industry you admire because many of us want to help. We want to help people succeed. I have a good friend who’s opening a dispensary in town, down the street, and I’m so excited for her. I’m so happy to come in and help with design and let her know some of the challenges we face as a retailer so that she doesn’t have to face the same challenges.
And there are plenty of people out there who really do want to help. I found them, and they’re not all women. We’ve had a number of amazing people help us come up with solutions to some of these problems, so reach out and start making connections. You will find people willing to help you or know someone who can help you. It’s still a fairly small community. So if you can come across a connector like Kendra, you’ll be in a really good place because you’ll have access to a community of people who want to help you succeed.