10 Questions With Cheryl Shuman

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Dubbed the Beverly Hills Cannabis Queen, the co-founder of the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club has taken the industry and the mainstream media by storm.

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January 27, 2016

Photo: Courtesy Cheryl Shuman

You may have heard of Cheryl Shuman. Or you may recognize her by one of the monikers she’s been given: the Beverly Hills Cannabis Queen, the First Lady of Cannabis, the Martha Stewart of Marijuana, among others. If the industry has celebrities, she’s certainly among them. She’s a force to be reckoned with and one that has helped turn the mainstream spotlight on this burgeoning industry.

Shuman has been involved in the launch of 1,700 cannabis businesses; she oversees a recently created cannabis investment fund with Jacob Securities; and last year, she was hired by Seneca Leader Ross John to assist in developing economic/cannabis business models for Native peoples, among seemingly countless other business endeavors.

Shuman’s story is one of almost surreal ups and downs, of life-altering health issues, including a battle with cancer, PTSD following a sexual assault, and a major car accident that required multiple reconstructive plastic surgeries to save her eye, rebuild her nose and jaw, and resurface the scars on her face, which she says she is still self-conscious of … and over a year of rehabilitation to walk again.

The mainstream media (including The New York Times, Huffington Post, CNBC, AdWeek, and shows such as “The View,” “20/20” and “The Katie Couric Show”) has been captivated by her struggles and her success — by her rise to fame as a teenager when she started a coupon business (gaining media attention even then, and a branding segment on the show “PM Magazine”), and later, her creation of a business called Starry Eyes, providing services to celebrities as a licensed optician (and landing her a segment on QVC showcasing designer glasses).

But what has really reeled the media in has been her “coming out” as a high-society businesswoman in staunch support of cannabis.

Shuman’s fame has catapulted her cannabis career. Or, actually, maybe it’s the other way around. After experiencing firsthand the benefits of medical cannabis, Shuman founded in 1996 the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club (BHCC), a not-for-profit gardening and patient collective with 2,000 members. “We have a 68-acre farm in northern California … with a … greenhouse ... and a main house that acts as a ‘Country Club’ type gathering place,” she explains. The BHCC has private bungalows for guests, a delivery service and mansion parties.

Her primary goal, she stresses, was to build a “luxury brand.” “Think of it as ‘Couture Cannabis’ to ‘class up the joint’ so to speak,” she says.

“Fast forward to 2008,” she says, “after surviving cancer, I felt it was my personal obligation and duty to rebrand cannabis for the mainstream. (See Cannalebrity.com) … That’s when I began my mission.”

Her mission included founding the Beverly Hills chapter of NORML and serving as the executive director of Moms for Marijuana, an advocacy and educational organization. “Women and moms are the secret to legalization. Mothers control $1.6 trillion of direct consumer spending and influence the buying habits of their entire household. … And mothers tend to make a family’s medical decisions. If matriarchs can be persuaded that marijuana boosts rather than imperils health, cannabis caramels may one day be found stuck to the teeth of a grateful nation.”

Shuman also serves as the Media Director for the National Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.

As “the first corporate woman to lead the charge,” Shuman says, “our company and my own personal brand skyrocketed with name brand recognition” through continuous media coverage.

That celebrity, while admired by many, has also brought Shuman negative attention and even, she says, death threats. A #TakeDownCherylShuman social media campaign aimed to damage her reputation. “When I officially came out of the ‘cannabis closet’ and launched our rebranding strategy, it was brutal!” she says. “There were no mainstream business women putting their neck out on the line to stand up for cannabis. I put mine out there, and it almost got shot off.”

Prohibitionists targeted her, she says, but, she says, “Some activists felt that since I hadn’t served time in jail for cannabis offenses that I was not worthy of TV time,” she says. “Some felt that my ‘glamorization’ and showing the ‘Beverly Hills’ lifestyle was obnoxious or snobbish.”

“The bottom line is this: Mainstream media did not do media stories about cannabis until I started the rebranding campaign. [They] previously had showcased the community as stoners, potheads and other negative stigma,” says Shuman. “I don’t claim to be the greatest activist or cannabis queen of anything. I’m a mom who loves my children and believes that we should all have the freedom to consume cannabis as a safer alternative to alcohol, pharmaceuticals or tobacco. ... We have to stop the fact that someone dies every 19 minutes in our country from a death related to those substances, [while] no one has ever died from cannabis.”

Shuman’s career has taken many other significant turns. I talked with her about what else she’s working on, including the $50-million investment fund she is managing, her work with the Seneca Nation and a lot more.

Noelle Skodzinski: In May 2015, you signed on to work with Seneca Leader Ross John. Can you tell us about this?

Cheryl Shuman: Meeting and working with Ross John Sr. was great. I learned so much about the Seneca Nation and also about my own Cherokee history in my family. I’ve met with so many tribes since May. The most important thing is to honor each and every individual tribe, and make sure that their community is benefiting in multiple ways. Baby steps … and working with the best teams are essential. We are literally charting a new course in history.

NS: What’s your favorite aspect of being in the industry?

CS: The opportunity to leave a legacy behind. Cannabis gave me a second chance at life with my health and wellness. It also gave me the opportunity to build a company and help others to build businesses that strengthen our community. Together, we are witnessing the birth of a new industry.

NS: You’ve been known to help women in the industry. Why is this important to you?

CS: I’ve always supported women. As a single mom who raised two daughters and built successful businesses in a male-dominated business world, I know how difficult it is to get started, specifically in the cannabis industry.

My soft spot is single moms and single-mom entrepreneurs, because I know firsthand what it’s like to struggle and be afraid, not knowing how you are going to feed and clothe your family, and put a roof over their head.

I’ve seen so many initiatives for legalization get trashed because of the inability of people to get along. … We must stop the ego and fighting, otherwise it’s going to take us much longer to achieve our goals collectively.”

NS: What do you see as the industry’s biggest challenge?

CS: The infighting between different groups. I’ve seen so many initiatives for legalization get trashed because of the inability of people to get along. … We have enough to deal with on the front lines of this drug war with our opponents. We must stop the ego and fighting, otherwise it’s going to take us much longer to achieve our goals collectively. We have differences. But let’s focus on our common goals and interests.

The biggest issue for businesses is for the laws dealing with banking and the 280E IRS code to catch up with how fast the cannabis industry is growing. Marijuana is now mainstream with record public acceptance worth an estimated $47 billion by 2018.

NS: Do you have plans to get into the cultivation or retail business once cannabis is legalized for adult recreational use in California?

CS: Absolutely. We are already in negotiations to license the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club (BHCC) brand … in multiple states and countries. It’s time to now monetize our brand by partnering with the top dispensaries, growers and other businesses to take BHCClub.com to the next level. … We have gathered over 80,000 members in our database of accredited investors over the years. … Our plan is to monetize those contacts for a complete line of products in the cannabis space (starting with stash jars, ashtrays, doob tubes, etc.), but also real estate investments, grow facilities, resorts, vaporizers and many other investments.

NS: What do you think about the new California regulations?

CS: I have concerns about multiple issues and, again, about the infighting in our state. We want and need acceptable regulations, and they are long overdue. I do not believe there is any such thing as a “perfect regulation.” There must be give and take on these issues.

NS: Do you see opportunities for cultivators and dispensaries that they may be overlooking, or things that they could do better?

CS: Yes. As a general observation, I will say this: The time to build your brand is now. The market is already competitive for retail showcase space in dispensaries and other outlets.

[As far as] specific advice: Build your personal brand. … Who is behind the products? What do you stand for? Share your story …, stay visible with quality service and products, and … promote that through all means necessary: social media, staff, patients, community events, etc.

Stay active in your local communities. If a local charity, food drive, Toys for Tots campaign or something else is in your area, get involved and give back. Support non-profits like Moms for Marijuana. …

NS: You’ve worked with a number of celebrities. Do you currently work with any in the cannabis space?

CS: Yes, I’ve worked with celebrities for decades, literally hundreds of them. … We are working with new companies and entrepreneurs every day. … There are several I’m working with now who are investing in and building their own [cannabis] brands. 2016 will be a huge year, so stay tuned for developments including television, concerts, products, etc.

NS: We’ve seen a number of celebrities (Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, the Marley family, Rhianna, Melissa Etheridge) launch businesses and brands in this space. Do you see this trend continuing?

CS: I get at least five calls a day from … celebrities who want to “get in.” Many are interested in branding their own strains. I’m under NDA on many of these right now, but I think the public will be surprised to see how many mainstream celebs are getting in to the space.

NS: You do some work in product placement. Do you see an opportunity for cannabis cultivators and dispensaries in this area?

CS: I’ve worked in the product placement world for decades going all the way back to my Starry Eyes Optician to the Stars work.

In the cannabis space, think about all of the marijuana references in film, music and TV. Shows like “Wilfred” on FX Networks were groundbreaking for product placement and branding opportunities. I was approached for the show as their “marijuana expert” to build an entire dispensary showcasing hundreds of products on the show. This had never been done before! Our company, working with brands from Bhang to Got Vape to our very own Beverly Hills Cannabis Club brand, skyrocketed these products to a mainstream audience.

Add to that other projects, like “Ted” (the movie), “Entourage” (the movie) and … other references to cannabis on TV from “The Big C” to “Modern Family” and more, our product placement work pushed cannabis into our homes through entertainment-driven products and vehicles.

Projects like these allow the brand to be associated with entertainment properties/celebrities at a fraction of the cost of what would otherwise be millions of dollars for a traditional celebrity endorsement. By executing a great product placement campaign with a complimentary social media campaign, a $20,000 investment can yield millions in value.

We are currently working on opportunities in sponsorship for several high-profile film, TV and music celebrity-driven opportunities, as well as red-carpet and charity event tie-ins.

Visit CherylShuman.com for more information.