Kendra Freeman, Co-founder and Owner of Yum Clouds
Kendra Freeman co-founded YUM CLOUDS, an artisan cannabis product and community-building company with locations in Portland and Albuquerque.
Before this, she co-founded Mendi, a hemp-derived CBD product wellness business, and Oso Verde Farms, an all-natural, sustainable cannabis farm. She sits on the Oregon Cannabis Association Board of Directors.
Kendra Freeman graciously agreed to an interview in April 2023, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] How did you initially get started and decide to join the cannabis industry?
[Kendra Freeman] I started out as a legacy grower down in Humboldt County, where it all began. It was a really dreamy time back then. It was like you can imagine: the artists, the beatniks, and the people that didn’t really fit into the mainstream category. We were in the hills of Humboldt County, camping and growing. It’s gorgeous down there, and it was really fun back in those days. It was like summer camp.
I’ve always had a relationship with this plant, and then when Oregon went legal, I knew that the only way to bring down the stigma was to get it to the masses. It was so awesome that it went legal. This would create access for everyone. That’s when I knew I had to get behind it.
I decided to open up a farm, Oso Verde. From there, it’s taken me to all kinds of different avenues. My journey with this plant started with growing it and cultivating it. Then with Mendi, I switched to the hemp side of things.
I realized that what I love most about it is the actual product innovation. So that’s where I’m at: I lead product innovation and development in most of the companies that I start.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s awesome. So what is the most important issue to you within the industry?
[Kendra Freeman] Equity is definitely a top priority. Not only for the Black, Latinx, and Indigenous folks but also for women and LGBTQ. I feel like in any industry or business, we lack that. The percentages are very small of the owners that have that makeup. I think it’s important to create a really diverse base—within that, it will be the strongest base.
[OnlineEducation.com] I read that in the early days of the industry, up to 20 to 30 percent of cannabis companies were female-led, and it’s dipped to around 8 percent. Do you know why that is, especially in the last few years?
[Kendra Freeman] I would say that it is investment and money. We’re seeing that even in women’s sports. Forever, everybody’s been like, “Nobody’s going to invest in that.” And with just a few marketing dollars and media changes, people have invested recently. The largest event happened with the [Women’s] NCAA Tournament, and there was more viewership than any [NCAA Women’s Tournament] event period. It was 9.9 million!
And so I think that correlates with women in general and in business. We need people to invest in women. Of course, we can do the exact same things that anybody else can. That’s what’s lacking: the trust that women can do this job, the trust that we can make money.
[OnlineEducation.com] You’ve mentioned raising capital. Are there any other unique challenges you believe women and other underrepresented groups have faced in starting cannabis companies?
[Kendra Freeman] Yeah, it goes to the system. My business partner and I are building out this 4,600-square-foot manufacturing facility. She’s boots-on-the-ground there in New Mexico, and every day we have contractors come in, and they’re like, “Oh, it’ll cost this much and this much.” And I’m like, “Would you be quoting us that outrageous rate if we were a man?”
The entire system needs to rearrange for women to be in business. On top of that investment piece, the way you get into this market and industry…it is very close and tight-knit. The laws are per state, so there’s only a certain number of license holders. A lot of people know each other, and it’s a very close family.
But to get into that family, to be like, “Hey, I have significant products that will help your retail gain traction”—the belief that a woman can be behind that brand…it’s really hard for people to understand that. So you’re looking all the way down to the buyer of the cannabis. If it’s a woman that’s coming to represent that brand, are they going to support that brand just as much as somebody else’s?
[OnlineEducation.com] Have you faced that specific form of gender discrimination? What happened?
[Kendra Freeman] All the time. When I was building out Osa Verde, my business partner at the time was a man—a gay man—and I’m a gay woman. I was in charge of all of the operations, and getting all of the contracts done and everything with the build-out.
I would have people come to the farm to give me a bid, and they wouldn’t even look at me. They would look at him, though he had no idea what was going on. And he was like, “I feel like you’re looking at me when you should be talking to Kendra. She makes all of the decisions on the operations of the farm.”
I face that every day. I’m sure you face that, even in the media.
[OnlineEducation.com] Yeah, absolutely. It’s the same. People aren’t used to seeing opinions or leadership directives come from specific people’s faces.
[Kendra Freeman] Exactly. If you make a decision, an executive decision, you’re definitely going to be questioned by your counterpart, versus if I was a man—or, you know, had different features—it would not even be questionable.
[OnlineEducation.com] Have you faced any racial discrimination within the industry?
[Kendra Freeman] From regulators, yes. In Southern Oregon, it’s a very rural population. When I was down there, in general, lots of discrimination happened. Regulators—especially in Oregon because they hire ex-law enforcement—they have a background and a bias. They used to use cannabis as a way to get even more violations for arrests. That’s kind of what happens with these regulators.
In Portland, they’re a little bit more diverse, but it is incredible that our state does not require any kind of DEI [diversity, equity, inclusion] training for these regulators.
[OnlineEducation.com] That is incredible, especially with a state with a history like Oregon’s.
[Kendra Freeman] Exactly. And I think that I’m not alone when I say that there is a lot of discrimination that happens with that. It’s really interesting because you switch over to the New Mexico side of the laws, where the minority is the majority. It’s such a welcoming state. It’s been night and day with the regulators down there versus the regulators here. They’re really helpful. They want to see the program succeed. They don’t want to give violations unless you’re actually doing something that’s not keeping the public safe. It’s interesting to see what it feels like if you have a diverse regulation team.
[OnlineEducation.com] How is the regulatory environment different in Oregon? It has a very mature market, and New Mexico wasn’t too far behind, but how are those environments different?
[Kendra Freeman] They are different, and of course, Oregon has had to go and reinvent certain rules. They do have different practices just because of the history; Oregon legalized five to six years before New Mexico. There are some learning curves.
New Mexico was able to pick from all of the states’ rules and choose the ones they wanted. But environmentally, they are more about small business; they are more supportive; the state itself has more programs for cannabis business people than Oregon has ever had.
It’s really funny because the stigma is real in Oregon, where in New Mexico, they are like, “This is awesome. We legalize, and this is going to help people.” But I think it also goes back to their history. New Mexico is full of Indigenous tribes. In Albuquerque, they are bound by the ownership of land to Indigenous tribes around there. Albuquerque can’t even grow anymore because that’s not owned by public lands.
It’s interesting because historically, Indigenous people have had a relationship with this plant, so they don’t have that stigma, whereas in Oregon, historically, it has been more about violations with this plant and prosecuting and putting people in jail for it.
That’s the dynamic there, and that does intersect with race, gender, and just the way of life.
[OnlineEducation.com] We’re speaking about social equity. With the cannabis industry being relatively new, it’s had a unique opportunity to be different from other industries, with their systemic oppression and discrimination. Do you think that’s been the case? And what areas do you think should be held up as a model for future legalization efforts?
[Kendra Freeman] In Oregon, we just passed House Bill SB 1579, the Equity Investment Act. Basically, it gives $15 million dollars from the general fund back to the Black and Brown community. It also invests in the Black and Brown community through grants through nonprofits. It’s awesome because they guide you through business development, homeownership, and land ownership. It’s going to put money back into that community for education and a lot of holistic, actual help.
Right now, we’re trying to get some of the cannabis dollars to support that because there’s a lot of tax money that’s made off of cannabis—it should have been carved out when we legalized it. We give it to schools. We give it to the police force. We give it to drug and alcohol rehabs. There are numerous cities and counties, and they all have this allotted amount. When it went legal, we should have put it back into the people that are running the cannabis industry—cannabis business owners—and also equity.
A lot of times, these equity bills go forward like, “Oh, you can get a license, but you have to be sponsored by somebody.” And that creates a weird dynamic. So you have a person who is Black or from Mexico or another Spanish-speaking country. It’s interesting because it’s saying, “Okay, we’ll allow you to have a license, but we don’t trust that you can do this, so we’ll give you a sponsor.” A lot of times, it’s not really the way to do those equity bills for licensing.
There are two pieces of it: you can give someone a license, but unless you have about $400,000 to half a million to support that license, you’re not going to go anywhere.
What we’ve been seeing is that people get these licenses and then a group that is not Indigenous or Black or Brown comes in and they’ll pay this person. I just don’t think that helps out with the equity piece.
[OnlineEducation.com] Oh, definitely. I know that there are some licensure point systems that prioritize, for example, people who have either been incarcerated for cannabis offenses or are in the immediate family of folks affected. Women haven’t necessarily benefitted from this system.
[Kendra Freeman] Yeah, I think it’s a really tricky subject. What would be best is to bring down the systems that keep people down—poverty, having less education, living in less nice communities. The equity programs should be more of an investment into bringing those walls down. We would see a more equal playing field.
[OnlineEducation.com] Who is your biggest mentor or inspiration in the cannabis industry?
[Kendra Freeman] I have a ton of strong women mentors, and it’s been incredible. That’s the part of the cannabis industry that is near and dear to my heart; there are some amazing women in this industry. We have been beaten up over the years with different challenges.
[OnlineEducation.com] Especially the financing aspect, raising capital.
[Kendra Freeman] Raising capital and the industry shifts so fast. So yeah, I think this is a hard one. You’re interviewing quite a few of them.
[OnlineEducation.com] I’m lucky to know so many great women in the industry.
[Kendra Freeman] Amy Margolis has always been a person that stands up for equity and for women.
[OnlineEducation.com] Have you done The Initiative?
[Kendra Freeman] We did! Amy was actually my attorney for Oso Verde, and she’s really taken me under her wing throughout the years. Initially, she was my lawyer, and she was like, “You need to join the OSA. You need to be on the Board of the OSA.” She’s always put me front and center, which really made me feel great, and she’s taught me a lot.
I’ve been introduced to so many people. Chris Masse…she’s also an attorney. She’s actually a dear friend, and also someone I look up to because she has been a strong supporter of women in any industry, whether it’s gaming or these regulated industries, like cannabis. She’s been a huge voice for women to get ahead. She helps these attorneys draft the rules and make them make sense because it’s all so complex.
But there are a lot of women, like, Emily Paxhia.
[OnlineEducation.com] I interviewed her for my Women in Venture Capital piece years ago.
[Kendra Freeman] Yeah, she’s awesome. These are all women in the cannabis industry that have helped out.
[OnlineEducation.com] Awesome. Thank you, Kendra. And what is your advice for women and other underrepresented folks interested in launching cannabis-related companies?
[Kendra Freeman] Start small, talk to anyone and everyone, and ask for help. Nobody knows that you need help if you’re just sitting there hoping it comes to you. That’s what I’ve done to get around everything. Just saying, “Hey, I need help on this. Do you know this person?” is worth more knowledge than a degree in cannabis. In business, in general, don’t be too proud to ask. Ask for help.
Be humble, listen, and then you can decide if you want to take that advice or not. Ask people anything and everything. Men are taught from the get-go, “You just go and get that. You just make that yours. You take that initiative.” And women are told from the get-go, “Be reserved. Be safe with your money. Be calculated. Don’t take risks. Make sure everything is perfect before you do something.”
That’s a societal thing where gender has played this role that it shouldn’t. And so for women, it’s really hard to, a) ask for help, and b) think that that you deserve that help.
Believe in yourself and always, always, always take time for self-care. I think that’s the most important. Women will outrun and outwork men 120 percent, but you can burn out real fast, so it’s really important to have healthy boundaries with your small business.
So that’s my advice: ask everyone everything, have healthy boundaries, and have confidence because you can do it.