Our Dream's Hilary L. Yu on Making the Cannabis Industry Diversely Owned and Operated

Plus, Morris Kelly, the duo behind Gorilla RX and creating Our Academy

Hilary L. Yu is the founder of Our Dream, an inclusive cannabis media platform, and executive director of Our Academy, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that offers mentorship, workshops, and wrap-around services to BIPOC cannabis entrepreneurs and social equity applicants.

Prior to cannabis, Hilary founded a digital media agency for Startup CPG wellness companies. However, she began advising cannabis companies and consulting social equity verified applicants pro-bono, which led to the launch of Our Dream and Our Academy.

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

Hilary, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles and that's where I live now.

Your current role in the cannabis industry.

I'm the founder of Our Dream, a socially inclusive digital media company, and executive director of Our Academy. We launched Our Academy back in 2019 after noticing the lack of diversity in the industry and embarking on a mission to find out why. Upon seeing the challenges BIPOC founders faced in cannabis firsthand, and how few resources there were available to social equity licensees, that mission evolved into filling the gap the best way I could.

Your earliest cannabis memory.

The first experience I had with cannabis was smoking out of a soda can in a parking lot outside a friend's 13th birthday. Certainly not a glamorous moment, but a memorable coming-of-age story nonetheless.

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

My early ambitions in the industry were to start a socially inclusive brand and fill a significant gap that existed at the time. Our Academy was originally going to be the charitable arm of that business, but I found that Our Academy's impact far surpassed any fulfillment I could have hoped to gain from running a product brand. The work we've been doing has had a magnetic effect for bringing amazing people together. Our corner of the cannabis community, and the waves of impact from its mentors, mentees and other supporters, have had the most profound and positive impact on me. I never would have expected that it would actually be the people who make up this industry that would end up having a more positive impact on me than the plant itself ever could.

A favorite flower, edible, product or brand.

Saucy has held the top spot for me for a while now. It's an infused line of condiments founded by Tess Taylor, who happened to come through Our Academy last year. The line includes an infused BBQ sauce, vinaigrette and hot sauce that can elevate any meal and makes at-home cooking a lot more exciting. I got the connect and was lucky to be a taste tester, so let's just say the jars of product never lasted long at my house.

The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.

The challenges cannabis brands face when utilizing social media platforms are a major setback currently. To spend so much time and energy cultivating an audience just to have the rug pulled from under you and an account shut down or shadow-banned is heartbreaking. There are so few channels available to cannabis companies already. If the social media platforms could at least inform users what specifically led to their punitive actions, that would be a start. Hopefully as the majority of states are now coming online, these archaic policies will be eased up.

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

I'm excited to see community-driven collaborative capitalism gaining momentum in cannabis. These collaborative partnerships often lead to more fun, creative campaigns and artwork while reaching more niche consumer groups that are otherwise missed. These partnerships also bring philanthropy and social impact to the forefront, both by promoting good causes and aligning brands with purpose, giving them depth. It is proven that consumers are significantly more likely to support brands that are aligned with their values, particularly millennials and Gen Z. Our Academy has some really exciting partnerships on the horizon, so keep an eye out!

A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support.

Our Academy! We run a mentorship program where we pair cannabis executives with BIPOC founders. We also concurrently run 15-20 weeks of programming that helps prepare our mentees to be entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry. Last year we also helped a number of our members prepare to raise capital for their businesses or launch brands with dispensary partners. We're launching our next cohort in February, which we're proud to report represents 29 states.

We have a huge opportunity to make cannabis one of the most diversely owned and operated industries in U.S. history. The only way to achieve that is by helping spread knowledge and build community while states are still writing legislation to legalize cannabis—something Our Academy will continue to push for.   

A project you worked on recently that you're proud of.

Our Academy has been a community-driven dream come true. Getting to work with so many visionaries with big goals who are also open to creating change has been a rewarding experience. Through the ecosystem we've collaboratively built, we've created a network of supply chain solutions to ensure our mentees not only have partners to work with from the jump, but also can support each other's businesses. Hopefully this is the beginning for sustainable change in the cannabis industry.

Someone else's project you admired recently.

Kika Keith and her daughter Kika Howze are the founders of Gorilla RX, L.A.'s first Black-woman owned dispensary. Gorilla RX did collabs with Kids of Immigrants for a merch drop and From Flowershop. Everything they've done and especially these specific limited-release capsules, have been executed with intention through a colorful, celebratory and uplifting lens that feels like a beacon of light and an exemplary representation of what's possible.

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

Morris Kelly, the founder of SF Roots, San Francisco's first social equity cannabis brand. He was also an Our Academy mentor and mentee. He came from the legacy market and is an inspiring leader that has paved the way for himself and a lot of other people by sharing his playbook and supply chain resources with other founders who are either transitioning from the legacy market or trying to break in.

A movie, TV show, music or food you most enjoy pairing with cannabis.

Not gonna lie, for movies I've been going through all of the Harry Potter movies again. As for music, it varies, but right now it's been Motown classics, Joey Purp and Shea Coulee on rotation…. and for food, literally anything in sight when I'm high.

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

I've been learning a lot about Web3, crypto and NFTs and I'd probably do something in that arena. This is still a possibility for me though as there are ways it can intersect with non-profits and cannabis. 

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.

Jessica MacAulay
Jessica MacAulay is a contributor for Muse by Clio. She's also a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder's College of Media, Communication, and Information.

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