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How Nancy Whiteman and Wana Brands Found Sweet Success

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Photos: Wana Brands

When Nancy Whiteman co-founded Wana Brands in 2010, the Colorado cannabis industry was still in its infancy. The passage of Colorado Amendment 64 significantly expanded the market just a few years later. Now nearly fifteen years into her entrepreneurial journey, Whiteman has built one of the largest edibles companies in the world. Wana produces nearly 100 million gummies a year through extensive licensing agreements. That’s not too shabby for someone who bootstrapped the company and created some of the first recipes in her home kitchen.

In the company’s early days, Wana produced a wide array of infused edibles (including beef jerky), but Whiteman soon narrowed her focus to infused gummies, aiming to deliver consistent products at a time when the market was saturated with varying levels of quality and potency in competitors’ offerings. The goal was set against a backdrop of industry-wide inconsistencies, highlighted by Maureen Dowd’s 2014 account in The New York Times in which she detailed her unpleasant experience with a cookie labeled as containing ten milligrams of THC. “I felt a scary shudder go through my body and brain,” Dowd reported. “I barely made it from the desk to the bed, where I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours.”

Once Whiteman found the key to consistency and Wana was humming along, she prioritized creating an inclusive, supportive corporate culture that would motivate employees to stick around for the long haul. She knew something about corporate culture, having worked in financial services, sales, and marketing for many years. After earning a master of business administration degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she served as a partner at sales-and-marketing consultancy Ryan Whiteman and vice president of marketing at the Paul Revere insurance company in Massachusetts. After relocating to Colorado in the late 1990s, she started her own marketing consultancy, the Whiteman Group, where a more flexible schedule allowed her to spend more time with her two young children.

Years later, choosing to bootstrap Wana proved to be a wise decision, allowing Whiteman to maintain 100-percent control. The company expanded by inking partnerships with operators in other states and taking a 15–40-percent cut of revenue. Today, Wana maintains more than sixteen partnerships across the U.S. and Canada. Whiteman now has her sights set on the international market, with a deal already in place in Switzerland and another in Germany on deck.

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In a landmark deal in 2021, Whiteman sold Wana to Canopy Growth Corporation for about $350 million. Canopy paid her $297.5 million in cash on signing, with the remainder due when the deal is finalized. Because Canopy is based in Canada, where cannabis is federally legal, and traded on the Nasdaq, which doesn’t allow cannabis companies in the United States to list because the plant is federally illegal in the U.S., Canopy plans to complete the deal after it spins off a U.S.-based holding company that will serve as the corporate parent of Wana and other American operators. Canopy expected a shareholder vote in mid-April to approve the launch of Canopy USA. Whiteman will serve on the board of directors.

Although she will step down as Wana’s chief executive in May, Whiteman said she will remain a staunch advocate for diversity in the industry and continue devoting significant time and money to philanthropic efforts. She distributed a portion of the Canopy payout to Wana employees and used another portion to endow the Wana Brands Foundation. A separate entity from Wana Brands, the foundation focuses on providing essentials like food, shelter, and safety to populations in need, promoting diversity, and funding education and other programs for minority and underrepresented groups.

When you founded Wana Brands, did you imagine you would build a global edibles empire?

Nancy Whiteman Wana Brands
Nancy Whiteman

I think I was mostly just worried about making payroll back then. Colorado was the first state to fully legalize adult use, but it also was one of the very few states that even had a medical program, so it almost would have been impossible to imagine what has happened in the past fourteen years. We now have twenty-four states that are fully legal for adult use, and almost all the other states have some form of medical program. And internationally, I think we are on the precipice of finally seeing a global market for cannabis coming to fruition. It’s a really, really interesting time again.

What is the status of the Canopy deal?

Everything’s great, actually. We had a transaction with Canopy back in October 2021 and, at that time, I think everybody was hopeful we were going to see more movement on federal legalization and there would be sort of an easy path to the acquisition. That did not turn out to be the case, but [Canopy] did find another way to [complete the acquisition] through a very complex set of financial and other things that the [U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission] had to bless and approve. Now we are moving ahead; they’re actually going to be able to close on Wana [soon]. So that is very exciting for us. In the meantime, we’ve had two and a half years to really get to know each other as companies and as people, so it hasn’t turned out to be a bad thing at all. I’m feeling very good about that.

You know, Canopy has had a lot to deal with over the past couple of years. I don’t think that’s any secret. But I think they’ve made a lot of really good decisions in terms of streamlining their business, and they’ve reached profitability in their core business in Canada. They had a lot of things they needed to take care of, and I think they’ve done a good job of doing that.

What about Wana was most attractive to Canopy?

For starters, we have a large presence in Canada, so they were certainly very aware of us as a brand. But more to the point in terms of the brand story is, I think, Wana is a real brand. We stand for something, we have a clear mission, we’ve communicated that well, and we have a stellar reputation for products and product innovation. As far as I know, we lead the market in terms of the number of geographic markets we’re in. We are also extremely profitable, which is a rarity in the cannabis space.

We adopted an asset-light model from the get-go when we started expanding outside Colorado, which means we use a licensing agreement with partners in other states. That enabled us to get to other markets very quickly and efficiently and with very low capital expense. I was actually able to grow Wana without taking on any outside capital or any debt and build a very profitable company that had a strong brand reputation. I think all of those things were of interest to Canopy.

You are a vocal proponent of diversity. Are you satisfied with the diversity you see in the industry today?

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The fact is this is not a very diverse industry. We’ve made a real commitment at Wana to try to do our part to change that. I think change always begins at home, so one of the things we did when we started to really focus on this a couple of years ago was take a look at our internal practices. In 2021, when we started to look very seriously at this, we looked at our leadership team. It was 100-percent White and 70-percent male. Now, it’s 70-percent female and 70-percent White. So we have made some very significant shifts internally among our leadership team of ten.

The question now is, “What do you do after you focus on your own internal practices? What do you do to support the industry?”

You endowed the Wana Brands Foundation with $50 million of the money you received from Canopy. What has the foundation accomplished thus far?

We already had a very active corporate social responsibility program, but with the foundation I have huge new resources.

Increasing diversity in the industry has a lot of different components to it, so we’ve focused on funding education, including scholarships for the Community College of Denver, which has two cannabis programs and serves primarily a minority student population. We do a lot of things to support mentorship, we support our academy, we support The Color of Cannabis here in Colorado, the Minority Cannabis Business Association, the Minority Cannabis Academy, and BIPOCann. We do a lot in terms of trying to help get more diverse businesses off the ground. We do a lot with social justice: We fund the Last Prisoner Project, and we fund a variety of expungement organizations. We do a lot to support the LGBTQ community with various contributions to different organizations for the population.

Capital investment has been hard to find for most companies over the past few years. Do you see this trend continuing?

I think if you look at BDSA or Headset or other data analytics platforms, what you will see is most of the growth is fueled, in the regulated market, by new markets coming on board. As new states come on board, the industry as a whole is still growing at a healthy clip. If you look within mature markets—and I would put Colorado in that category; just markets that have been around longer—they have plateaued or actually started to decline a little bit. That is due to a number of things, including market maturity. Growth slows in any industry when a market matures. For example, when Colorado first went legal, we had a tremendous amount of cannabis tourism. As other markets have legalized, people didn’t need to come to Colorado anymore. They could get legal products in their own state.

In terms of where people are investing money, I’d say you’re always going to see investment in new markets. I think you are seeing a lot of investment going into the hemp-derived segment, particularly beverages. I think there’s always going to be room for brands that are doing things that are either a little bit different or a little bit more innovative, or companies that are willing to take low margins and go for a volume play and be a value player. I think what you’re going to see is companies choosing their business strategies and aligning their focus and their investments along strategic lines.

How would you characterize the current environment for mergers and acquisitions?

I think there’s a couple of things going on. If you just look at the sheer number of brands in a given market, say California, what you see is there’s just a lot less of them because a lot of people have gone out of business. When the capital dried up, companies that didn’t have a clear pathway to profitability and could no longer raise capital just had to close up their tents and go home. So that is clearly happening. And I think you also have situations where smaller brands are merging with each other to try to get more efficient. And then you have the stuff that probably makes the news a little bit more, which is larger companies that are looking to make strategic acquisitions. I would say that has slowed quite a bit, but where you do see it, I think it involves companies that are looking to round out their portfolios and feel there’s some good, solid brands out there that need to be under a bigger tent to gain profitability and scale.

People are being very selective. They’re thinking about what they want to have in their total portfolio, and they’re looking to make acquisitions that fit that.

Did you ever consider taking Wana public?

To be honest, I think you need to consider everything. On the [initial public offering] front, the things I love about being a [chief executive officer] are not the things I would love about being a public company CEO. In terms of my own background and personality and temperament and preferences, I wasn’t especially attracted to that. But beyond that, what I saw a lot of in cannabis was people going public too soon for the size of their companies, and just the sheer cost of being a public company started to eat them alive in terms of profitability.

I think when you are a publicly traded company, by necessity you have to take your eye off the ball in terms of long-term planning and long-term strategy. You start to move into more of a quarter-to-quarter [perspective]—focusing, as you should, on your shareholders—but that particular model was less attractive to me.

What’s your assessment of the edibles category—today and in the future?

Gummies remain the dominant format—and that’s an interesting story in and of itself, because Wana was one of the first companies to recognize gummies as a platform. I think gummies will remain dominant for a couple of reasons. First of all, as a country, we have become used to the idea of gummies as a platform for taking vitamins, for example. Many, many people now take their vitamins in gummy format. It’s very efficient. Secondly, [the gummy format is] very flexible in terms of what you can put into it, such as other minor cannabinoids and functional ingredients and terpenes.

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That said, I don’t know if beverages are technically in the edibles category, but I think we’re really going to see beverages continue to develop as an exciting ingestible category, particularly now with the rise of hemp delta-9 and the other hemp-derived cannabinoids. Then, of course, the increase in the availability of minor cannabinoids and the increasing sophistication in how to use them in formulation is another thing I would point to in terms of edibles.

Speaking of hemp-based cannabinoids, what are your thoughts about how major players coming in from alcohol and tobacco will impact the industry?

That’s actually been going on for a while. If you’re watching the statistics on people’s consumption habits, what you see is there is a movement toward cannabis-based products—whether they be regulated-market products or hemp-derived—and away from alcohol. If you were watching the “dry January” statistics this year, for example, they were very interesting. Beer consumption is down, so I think it’s very logical the alcohol industry, specifically, would be looking at cannabis and hemp-derived products as extensions of what [alcohol companies] currently do.

I personally think cannabis and hemp-derived products have a lot more flexibility in terms of the type of effects they can create when compared to alcohol. But I think what you’ll see is the large, regulated industries—and I’m putting tobacco, alcohol, and pharmaceuticals all in one category—will gravitate toward different parts of the cannabis industry. I think alcohol will naturally gravitate toward beverages, tobacco will naturally gravitate toward inhalables, and pharmaceuticals will naturally gravitate toward more of the medical and pharmaceutical piece of the market.

A few years ago, people were optimistic about federal legalization, but it seems we’ve taken a few steps backward. Do you think we’re anywhere close?

I think [federal legalization is] going to take longer than any of us anticipated. At this point, I think the major industry focus is on rescheduling and the banking bill. If we could get those two things done, that would free up a lot of capital and infuse some new energy into the industry. Most companies I talk to are hunkering down for the long haul and realizing they have to have strategies that will work with or without legalization—because I don’t think anybody’s counting on legalization happening anytime soon.  

Nancy Whiteman Fast Facts

Birthplace: Chicago, but grew up in White Plains, New York

Wanted to grow up to be: an archeologist. “I liked the idea of buried treasure until I realized how tedious the whole process was.”

First job: retail clerk. “I worked in a maternity clothing store when I was fifteen. Sizes ran from extra petite to petite to extra small to small to medium to large. By the time you got to a medium, it was the equivalent of an extra-extra-large in normal sizes. That was my first experience in the importance of messaging and positioning.

Hobbies: travel, cooking, hanging out with friends

Favorite meal: anything Asian

Favorite cannabis product: Wana Quick Calm and Wana Passionfruit Pineapple 1:1:1

If she weren’t doing this, she’d be: a writer for Saturday Night Live

Inspiring words: Don’t take criticism from people you would never go to for advice.



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