For cousins Gregory Owens and LaRicia Nelson, Illinois’ adult-use cannabis industry presents a unique opportunity to support local, grassroots organizations that give back to the communities that have been hardest hit by the war on drugs.
This passion led them and their family to pool resources and expertise into 40 Acres and a Mule, a holding company with subsidiaries that have applied for 60 adult-use cannabis retail licenses, as well as several cultivation and transporter licenses, under Illinois’ social equity program.
Owens, a telecommunications specialist and an entrepreneur at heart, and Nelson, who worked in the admissions department at Arizona’s Grand Canyon University before returning to Chicago to follow her passion in film production, joined forces with other members of their family to assemble a team of experts in different industries to build a successful foundation for a business. From there, the group of roughly 25 family members and close friends each invested $2,500—the cost of each individual application fee—and formed 40 Acres and a Mule.
“[With] the political side of the drug world, … a lot of times, it’s not our people that profit from it, but it’s our people who suffer from it,” Nelson says. “We get sent to jail first, we get these high sentences, … [so] when the talks started to come about as far as legalizing it, I’m all for it, and I want in.”
The firm’s name is a nod to a failed Civil War-era program that promised freed slaves 40 acres of farmland and a mule to earn a living—and which never came to fruition.
“With cannabis, … it’s [a] crop that you would have to grow, [and] I thought it just fit that here’s our opportunity to get our 40 acres and our mules,” Owens says. “It fell right into place that that should only be the name.”
“Its meaning is very clear: this is our 40 acres and a mule,” Nelson adds. “A lot of black and brown individuals feel like they never got that—they never got the reparations that were deserved and earned. … In 2020, what do reparations look like? For me, it’s … providing those underserved, underprivileged people a license. … Let’s be fair with this. You can’t keep penalizing a group of people for crimes that you’re rewarding other groups of people for. It’s not fair and it’s not right.”
Thus, 40 Acres and a Mule was born, and it’s a firm that has been largely built on integrity, Owens says. Each member of the group was vetted to ensure that he or she would bring strong moral character and expertise to the group, outside of simply providing capital.
One member of the group has 15 years of experience in distribution, for example, while another has several years of cannabis experience to bring to the table. Owens believes each individual is a vital piece that will ultimately construct a successful business, and that this will set the group’s applications apart from the crowd.
“They say family can’t work together,” Owens says. “We’re going to prove everyone wrong.”
If ultimately awarded a license in the market, 40 Acres and a Mule wants to give back to the local community by aligning itself with nonprofit organizations.
“I just want to bring some of [the revenue] back into the neighborhoods,” Owens says. “There are still quite a few neighborhoods here in Chicago that are predominantly black or Hispanic, and that’s our focus.”
For example, the cohost of a podcast that Nelson produces runs an organization called Free Lunch Academy, which focuses on finding jobs for youth based on their interests.
“He has a huge pool of young people that he helps find employment in whatever field they’re interested in,” Nelson says. “He really tries to ask them what their passions are and tries to place them in those lanes. … We really want to tap into more grassroots organizations like that, where we know exactly where the money is going. … We don’t just want to donate to a big-name organization and then we have no idea where the money is going.”
In addition, 40 Acres and a Mule already participates in local workshops and small business incubators, Owens says, and the group would like to expand these efforts in the future to make even more of an impact.
“We … want to rebuild our own communities,” Nelson says. “We don’t want big-name corporations using an equity person for the face of it, but [then it] is not even reinvesting the profit back into the areas in which they’re selling to.”
40 Acres and a Mule plans to hire locally and pay above minimum wage to break the cycle of poverty in some of the local communities.
“First and foremost, we plan to hire people who look like us and who have a hard time getting jobs, maybe because of their background,” Nelson says. “We want to employ our people and pay them a nice salary, not minimum wage.”
While Illinois has delayed awarding its next round of adult-use cannabis business licenses as the state continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, Owens says the delay has given 40 Acres and a Mule more time to refine its business plans.
“We were prepared for the original deadline, and it just gave us an opportunity to button down a few more hatches and just get ready for when they finally do open up everything following COVID,” he says.
Both Owens and Nelson are optimistic about their chances to receive at least one, if not multiple licenses, and they are looking forward to putting their plans into action.
“We’re just excited,” Owens says. “We feel really good that we’re going to be able to get a license. We know that once we receive our license, we’re going to do well by our community and those even outside of our community.”
“We’re hard-working individuals who are trying to better ourselves, better our families’ lives and legacy,” Nelson adds. “I just think it’s time that things change and that we be allowed a seat at the table."