When Jessica Billingsley had the foresight to create Akerna, the industry’s first seed-to-sale tracking software, investors started paying attention.
When Akerna became the first cannabis technology business to list on the NASDAQ, the world started paying attention.
But when Billingsley accepted the position of chair of the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC), she took on a new role — leading the nation’s most influential coalition of organizations, businesses, and individuals working to end federal cannabis prohibition.
With more than a decade of experience working with cannabis technology, Billingsley is uniquely-positioned to lead the industry into a new era.
In this interview, Cannabis & Tech Today spoke with Billingsley to learn how the USCC is working to end cannabis stigma, how she handles the demands of entrepreneurship, and what’s next for America’s fastest growing industry.
Cannabis & Tech Today: As a veteran cannabis entrepreneur, what does it mean to you to accept the position as board chair for the USCC?
Jessica Billingsley: Well, I’m just so honored by the appointment and really excited to be in this position at this point in time. Never before have we had such an opportunity available to us to be able to seek federal legalization.
I’m so excited to be working with USCC today because it is the first of its kind, strategic alliance of businesses, associations, and advocacy organizations working together toward cannabis legalization. It’s a big deal.
C&T Today: Which qualities are you most excited to bring to the USCC with the chair position?
JB: I think there are a few things that are particularly helpful for this role.
Certainly my longevity and connections across the industry, by virtue of working with so many different businesses in so many different jurisdictions and countries.
Being able to see — when it’s done right — how it’s done right. I think that’s a unique value that I bring, as well as that piece around, “Hey, we can responsibly and compliantly track and regulate this,” which is what really provides that safety and comfort.
And then I think there’s another piece there that’s one of USCC’s tenants of its mission.
It’s around seeking to promote social justice, to create a just, inclusive industry and uphold high ethical standards within it.
When I initially got into the industry in 2009, which is ancient as far as the cannabis industry goes, the interest stemmed from medical advocacy and social justice advocacy.
C&T Today: What needs to happen to create a more equitable industry?
JB: The USCC is, I think, the most well positioned around having this conversation. It starts with conversation among the right parties and by virtue of being the first-of-its-kind alliance of businesses, epic associations, and advocacy organizations.
We’re able to bring those different voices, thought leadership points of view, policy experts, and advocates. And when you have that unified voice speaking on behalf of the industry, then you’re able to start to promote restorative justice.
How we do that, how we create an inclusive, safe, and well-regulated cannabis industry starts first with that strategic alliance, making recommendations, and being a part of the policy reform that’s happening.
C&T Today: How is the USCC working with congressional leaders to advance cannabis reform?
JB: We’re engaging on every front in which we can engage. Right now of course there is a strong focus on providing comment to the Cannabis Administration Opportunity Act (CAOA). But of course we are simultaneously and proactively engaging at both the national and state and local levels as well.
C&T Today: What are your thoughts on the CAOA? Are there areas you feel need improvement?
JB: In an overarching capacity, I would say we couldn’t be more thrilled to see a comprehensive draft that addresses many of the areas that we think matter. So, we’re really pleased to see this draft, to see that it is a 163-page draft that really is seeking to address nearly every area on which cannabis touches. And then of course, we’re going to have plenty of comments, but it’s really encouraging to see that this is a serious effort.
C&T Today: Do you see the role of technology continuing to expand as the legal marketplace grows, particularly if we find ourselves in a position for a national legalization?
JB: I think that the role of all good technology is to provide more value than it costs. And we certainly strive to do that at Akerna. When I consider what that looks like from a national and from a state level, I believe we will see some standardization around what we need to be tracking with technology from a compliance and regulation standpoint, and an expansion as that moves to the national level, as well as the state and local levels.
Then we’ll also see more businesses having their opportunities expand as they continue to scale, evaluating technology the way traditional businesses do, which is an ROI-based calculation, “Hey, can we make or save money by implementing this technology?”
C&T Today: As the first cannabis technology CEO to list on the NASDAQ, what advice would you offer other cannabis industry entrepreneurs?
JB: Where can you provide a method for doing something with technology that saves someone time or effort, or provide some insight to the business that allows them to add to their top line or save on their bottom line?
And there are many, many, many opportunities left in cannabis and many opportunities left by looking at what piece has not yet been done, and how can I connect that piece to a bigger ecosystem to make it more valuable?
(Left to right) Akerna team members: COO Ray Thompson, CCO Nina Simosko, CEO Jessica Billingsley, CTO David McCullough, and CFO John Fowler. Photo: Andrea Flanagan Photography
C&T Today: You’ve pioneered such crucial technology in the cannabis space. Do you think there’s an aspect of your leadership style that encourages a culture of innovation?
JB: I love that you called it that. That is, it’s absolutely something that we talk about internally at our company. And I think it’s crucial to cannabis as an emerging market, but to any emerging market, to be constantly thinking through the lens of innovation and thinking through the lens of how can I solve tomorrow’s problems today and solve them better than anyone else, and then make sure my customers know I’ve solved them?
C&T Today: How do you keep yourself calm and centered while juggling so many projects?
JB: I have a yoga and breathing practice that I have been very consistent with for many, many years. That helps in that respect. Also I can get there just as fast, if not faster, by rock climbing. You can’t think about anything else when you’re up there on the side of the mountain; it helps to put things in perspective.
Beyond that, so much of it is just a shift in mindset. As scope and scale becomes bigger, so do the problems; they multiply infinitely as well. I mean, what are the chances, for somebody who’s running a 10,000 person company, that someone’s not screwing something up at any point in time?
And so I think I talk about this a lot internally and how we can make sure we’re spending at least 50% of our time focusing on opportunities as well, rather than just the problems. You can get dragged down into only focusing on your problems, and then you’re not going to innovate. You’re not going to move forward. And so how do you continue to think through that opportunity mindset?
If something is one of your biggest problems, great. How do you turn that into your biggest opportunity?
C&T Today: How do you envision the future for the cannabis industry?
JB: Well, I suppose I’ll share my hopes here, with the hope that by sharing it, that’s what we can help manifest. And I think this is a very likely future also. In some ways we can look at Canada and say, how is Canada working? With our majority market share in Canada, I think we’ve got a unique lens for that. We will see some traditional pharma, but not all.
Our client, Shoppers Drug Mart, in Canada, is very successful in cannabis, but there are not a lot of other traditional pharma companies that are competing in the cannabis space.
Then we also see a very healthy enterprise and mid-market. I think we are likely to see that here in the U.S. A little bit of traditional pharma, a little bit of very large enterprise, a lot of mid-market. And then if we do things right, we will see a thriving boutique and cottage industry, and there is room for us to do that and for us to do that well and do that right.
There are some learnings from some other regulated industries on how beneficial that is for the industry as a whole.
Photos courtesy Andrea Flanagan Photography