After graduating with a marketing degree from Howard University, Tahir Johnson spent several years working as a financial adviser for firms such as PNC, SunTrust Banks and Morgan Stanley. But for the past three years, Tahir Johnson has turned his focus to cannabis business and policy, working in a variety of roles, including as business development and diversity and inclusion manager at the National Cannabis Industry Association. In April, the U.S. Cannabis Council, a coalition of industry businesses, advocacy organizations and associations, announced Johnson’s appointment as director of social equity and inclusion, where he will lead social equity initiatives at the state and federal level, as well as working to improve diversity at cannabis businesses across the country. Johnson will also continue to host his Cannabis Diversity Report podcast, featuring interviews with people of color who work in a various industry roles. Johnson spoke with Cannabis Business Times about his priorities in his new role and how he plans to help and hold companies with social equity goals accountable.
Editor’s Note: This is an extended version of an interview that was published in the August 2021 issue of Cannabis Business Times.
Michelle Simakis: What is one of the most important aspects of your role and your priority at the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC)?
Tahir Johnson: One of the great parts about my role is that I'm also dually employed with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), and it really allows me to have that grassroots approach because MPP is really actively involved in cannabis state policy and a number of things. So what that does is give me the opportunity to work together with our policy teams and have a great impact across a number of areas and to make sure that social equity is always at the forefront of our agenda.
I think one of the things that's important is to make sure that with any legalization measure, a bill or whatever we move forward with, it's important that equity is included and is a part of the conversation, to make sure that we have that story of economic justice. That’s something we need to always keep sight of as we end prohibition.
MS: Tell me about your work with cannabis businesses specifically that are members of the USCC. What social equity programs do you envision helping launch at companies?
TJ: I want to pilot programs with historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) because I believe that can be a pipeline for careers and economic opportunity in the industry. I would like to bring in traditional social justice and civil rights organizations and really unify the social equity community to be able to push our agenda for social equity … and [organize] a social equity summit. I really want to enforce accountability, so making sure that we have tools to hold our members accountable and educate them on social equity and to make sure that, not just from a policy standpoint, but internally within our membership, we're making sure that our companies have best practices for social equity.
MS: What would holding members accountable look like?
TJ: It’s tracking diversity metrics across organizations, and then also programs. We have some great members that have great social responsibility programs focused on social equity, so to be able to replicate those examples across the industry … we think that those are models that we can show the good that can be done to companies.
Also when I think of corporate social responsibility plans, the Eaze (a USCC member) Momentum program in particular [has] more resources and training, and they actually give grants to operators and access to capital, [which is] one of the most difficult problems for startup businesses. That is a program that I really admire.
MS: Where does recruitment need to begin to bring about real change and inclusion in the cannabis industry?
TJ: That is actually one of the reasons having the HBCU program is so important to me. As a Howard University alum, you saw the largest corporations in America come to HBCUs to get the best and brightest talent. Through hiring those individuals, it gives an opportunity to build a diverse workforce with people that can be leaders in companies.
It’s important to not just hire people at the lower levels, but also hire people as executives. When you look at corporate America, that's a problem. When you have diversity at companies, they actually hire other diverse people, so it has an impact.
MS: Beyond hiring, how else can companies promote inclusion and support a diverse workforce?
TJ: Having worked in corporate America, one of the things that worked well is employee resource groups, so that employees can network with others within the organization. Hiring diverse and having diverse leadership at your organization I think is the most important thing that a company can do. That shows your commitment to it. Having diverse leadership, there's so many studies where we can see and show that having a diverse leadership at organizations makes the company more profitable and it increases employee engagement.
MS: You’ve noted that social equity programs outlined in legalization bills and laws need to go beyond supporting business owners who have been negatively impacted by the war on drugs, and extend to individuals who aren’t working in the industry.
TJ: When you think about it, the entrepreneurship and access to intergenerational wealth in the industry is one thing and it's important, but also at the same time, people from those communities that felt the most damage from the war on drugs, being able to have money go to those schools, arts and all different types of programs, that certainly is impactful as well.
MS: What’s the latest with The Cannabis Diversity Report podcast, and do you plan to keep that going?TJ: The goal of the podcast is to tell the stories of minorities in the industry and how they made it to where they are so that people can mirror that path to success. Some people are business owners, some people may be an accountant, some people may be a veteran. People need to see someone that looks like them to know that they can do it. All too often, we hear about the challenges of the industry and the challenges of getting in. And they're all very true, but I really want to be able to show the people that have been successful, the people you can follow their blueprint to come into the industry.