Highlyte's Courtney Wu on Compliance and Community in Cannabis

Plus, exploring the industy's Asian American narratives

Courtney Wu is co-founder and CEO of Highlyte by Amnesia, compliance specialists in cannabis marketing. She honed her expertise for regulated industry marketing in the world of online gambling, leading the Global Pro & Celebrity Marketing Department for PokerStars―the largest real money online poker site in the world. Working with compliance challenges similar to the cannabis industry, she leveraged endorsement strategies and content creation to build brands in gray and regulated markets.

Love of policy and community has always been at the core of her work at Amnesia, an artificial intelligence platform that allows digital marketers in the cannabis industry to confidently post on social media without the danger of losing their accounts. She now utilizes her acquired knowledge on compliance and content creation to help cannabis companies confidently grow their brands with Highlyte.

We spoke with Courtney for our Higher Calling series, where we chat with leaders in the cannabis space.


Courtney, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I'm a San Francisco native through and through and have lived in S.F. my whole life, except for the time I spent away in college and my years in London and Melbourne. A few years ago, I moved back to San Francisco from Australia to be here for the cannabis industry and to launch Amnesia.

Your current role in the cannabis industry, and where you're based.

I'm based in the Bay Area while my business partner and co-founder Ray Ting is in L.A. I am the co-founder and CEO of Highlyte, a platform that leverages the power of artificial intelligence to support cannabis brands with real-time, state-specific Instagram and FDA compliance marketing content screening, which helps to reduce the risk of shadowbans, or worse, fines or the possible loss of license.

A story about the positive impact cannabis has had on your life.

It's hard for me not to think of this answer in any way except solid nouns: Mindfulness. Meaning. Community. For mindfulness, my mind and imagination have run wild since I can remember and it's been hard for me to be present in the moment and appreciate the world as it is, with less bias and more acceptance. Cannabis allows me the space that I need to notice my own life as it happens.

Cannabis has also given me meaning, which sounds quite dramatic, but is true. My career has always been core to who I am, and I strive to always be passionate about my work. Prior to my time at PokerStars, where I led the Pro & Celebrity Marketing department, my first love was public health and education. While I was passionate about my work in the nonprofit world, I realized that I didn't feel like I was able to create meaningful impact because legislative decisions had a disproportionate effect on access to services and care. It was then that I decided to move to the U.K. to pursue my masters degree, and where I researched the impact of government military policy on public health funding models. Sadly, that was the peak of the recession and governments weren't overly supportive of public health initiatives, so I found myself at PokerStars.

It was there that, once again, I dove deep into the intersection of regulations and access, but this time with a focus on access to a regulated product. When the cannabis industry came calling, I can still remember the moment I felt joy wash over me driving to the office as I realized that this industry was the intersection of my passions for the plant, public health policy, and marketing in highly regulated industries.

And finally, community. The community of people in the cannabis space is truly amazing. They come from all manner of disciplines, and some are less traditionally professional than others, but the creativity and camaraderie that is to be had in cannabis is unlike anything I've experienced elsewhere. Perhaps it's due to the fact that we're all maturing together as an industry, but I also think it has something to do with the plant itself and who it attracts to it.

A favorite flower, edible, product or brand.

Our parent company, Amnesia, is named after one of my favorite cultivars and I also love old-school Maui Wowie. I generally love "sativas" and sativa-leaning hybrids, especially the ones in Flow Kana's Farmer's Reserve line-up.

The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.

We're stymied at every turn, from print advertising to billboards on interstate highways to ... you name it. That means cannabis marketers have to be nimble and savvy, and fortunately we are, but it also means social media carries an inordinate amount of weight in reaching target consumers. To be strong at social media requires brands to stay top-of-mind with consumers, 47 percent of whom say they discover a new product every week via social. Staying top-of-mind means publishing often and consistently, and engaging consistently with a brand's community. It is a significant investment in sheer people hours and the incredible amount of time it takes to develop enough new content to publish daily that, most importantly, will resonate with consumers. Unfortunately, cannabis brands are currently faced with not only the burden of regulatory advertising compliance, but are also dealing with the constant threat of having Instagram shut down their accounts. Not only is this demoralizing for the team, but this is a significant loss in creative hours, account management, and most important, direct access to your consumers. We see how great an impact that has on our clients, which is why we devoted ourselves to figuring out how brands can get it right from the start.

One thing you're excited about right now in cannabis branding, partnerships or marketing.

I'm not only excited to launch Highlyte, especially at a time when people are starting to understand the impact and importance of content on our culture, social and personal health, but am excited by the work of Nina Parks and Ramon Garcia and their recent Equity Trade Certification. The Equity Trade Certification leverages savvy branding to raise awareness of communities who have been economically disenfranchised and keenly felt the impact of the War on Drugs, and ultimately empowers people to vote with their money. Similarly, their platform isn't only important for creating healthy communities and a healthy cannabis industry, but also other verticals in the future. It's amazing to see how cannabis is changing mainstream content, culture and society.

A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support.

Amnesia wouldn't be where it is today without our strong, grassroots Asian American community. Inspired by Monica Lo of Sousweed and Haejin Chun of Big Bad Wolf, we helped to co-found Grass x Grass, an organization that explores Asian American narratives in cannabis. Additionally, we love supporting the organization that Monica helped found which is led by Ophelia Chong, Asian Americans for Cannabis Education (AACE). Many people may not realize that some of the earliest evidence of cannabis use were found in Asia, yet our community in California is often the most vocal against a regulated industry. AACE is incredible at bringing together API leaders to support one another, change narratives in our own communities, and celebrate our contributions to cannabis, historical and present.

A recent project you're proud of.

Building incredible influencer campaigns with incredible creatives for clients like Flow Kana, Caliva and INDUS. We're fortunate to have collaborated with some of the leading brands and creatives in cannabis to develop engaging, creative and compelling content. Not only did we get the opportunity to collaborate with hundreds of brilliant creatives in producing the content, we also maintained 100 percent compliance with state regulations and had zero Instagram accounts shut down.

Someone else's project you admired recently.

The community, creative energy, education and overall incredible content created by Eunice Kim and colleagues at HiVi is incredible. The women of the community are inspirational cannabis advocates who champion cannabis in their own communities. Eunice and the HiVi community have created a welcoming online and offline space for education, connection and cannabis. Their mission to inspire, educate and provide resources to everyone.

Someone you admire in cannabis who's doing great things.

I mentioned her earlier, but twice is even better: Monica Lo of SousWeed. I've always admired the risk that she took with her career when cannabis wasn't as socially accepted to leverage her talent as a powerhouse creative to help shift cannabis narratives and culture. In addition, in her goal to make cannabis more widely accepted, she co-founded AACE and built a community that has inspired so many creatives, APIs, chefs and community leaders to champion cannabis.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in the cannabis industry.

I'd probably be in academia, pursuing a Ph.D with research focused on the intersection of media, culture and social health policy. That said, I'm sure I would become frustrated if I had remained in the world of theory and didn't have the opportunity to integrate my research into effective policy change. Working in cannabis allows me the chance to make impact.

Higher Calling is a weekly series, publishing on Thursdays, where we chat with folks in the cannabis industry about their personal history and taste in cannabis and the future of cannabis marketing. For more about Higher Calling, and our Clio Cannabis program, please get in touch.

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Jessica MacAulay
Jessica MacAulay is a senior broadcast journalism student at the University of Colorado Boulder and a contributor to Muse by Clio.

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