The opportunity to join a nascent cannabis industry in 2019 was a big enough draw for Esther Song to switch her career path after spending nearly two decades in the fashion industry, including nine years at Tory Burch.
She found new footing as the senior vice president of marketing and communications at MedMen, where she spent a year and a half, before taking on chief marketing officer (CMO) roles at Canndescent and Pure Beauty.
In March, Song became the CMO at San Jose, Calif.-based The Parent Company (TPCO), further diversifying the company’s executive management team, which includes CEO Troy Datcher, Chief Social Equity Officer Desiree Perez and Chief Transformation Officer Tanisha Robinson, among others.
While Song spent her earliest years in Long Beach, Calif., she moved with her family to Korea, where she spent most of her childhood, before she moved to Cypress, Calif., as a teenager.
“Ultimately, I love working for really fair and intelligent and ambitious CEOs,” Song said. “And Troy is an incredible CEO. Even in my [short time] here, I have learned so much from him, and I really was inspired to join his team as he navigates The Parent Company to our next chapter.”
Founded in January 2021, TPCO is vertically integrated with three manufacturing facilities, a wholesale distribution network of more than 450 California dispensaries, and a direct-to-consumer omnichannel platform that includes six delivery hubs and 11 retail locations in the state.
In addition to its cultural influence, TPCO is committed to molding a more equitable industry through its Social Equity Ventures (SEV) initiative, which was established to give Black and other minority entrepreneurs an equal opportunity for participation in the legal cannabis industry.
With SEV’s initial funding of $10 million, plus 2% of all future net income, TPCO has made investments in Josephine & Billies, a women-founded and led cannabis retailer with a Black-owned location in Los Angeles, and The Peakz Company, which was founded in 2018 after winning a distribution licensed via Oakland’s Social Equity Program.
Also, TPCO has a partnership with Roc Nation, an entertainment agency founded by Jay-Z in 2008.
In addition to leading the marketing playbook on those fronts, Song serves on the leadership team of Cannabis For Black Lives, a coalition of cannabis companies galvanizing the broader industry to support Black-led organizations and communities.
Song details those intertwining business roads, her entrance into the space, as well as her cultural background in correlation with Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month in this exclusive Q&A.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.
Tony Lange: After working at Tory Burch for nearly a decade, what got you interested in shifting your career to working in the cannabis space in 2019?
Esther Song: Yeah, nine years there and almost 20 years in fashion. So, I actually have a chemical engineering degree from college, and when the MedMen opportunity came, I was really intrigued because I felt like, while I didn’t know that much about cannabis at that moment, the opportunity to join a nascent industry as well as enlarging my marketing and branding experience plus my odd love for science, it was a unique opportunity. I’m going to be honest: I didn’t even realize that I knew so little about this industry until I joined. And I say this to a lot of my friends, that I eat humble pie every day just learning more about the flower and more about the amazing potential and power in what we do.
TL: What attracted you to The Parent Company to take on the CMO role there in March?
ES: First, I think obviously, The Parent Company, with its partnership with Roc Nation, there’s a potential that The Parent Company could potentially be one of the biggest lifestyle cannabis brands and retailers out there. So, I think the cultural relevance of that partnership was really exciting. Ultimately, I love working for really fair and intelligent and ambitious CEOs. And Troy is an incredible CEO. Even in my [short time] here, I have learned so much from him, and I really was inspired to join his team as he navigates The Parent Company to our next chapter.
TL: And The Parent Company is still fairly young. How are you drawing on your previous experiences working at Pure Beauty, Canndescent and MedMen to help execute TPCO’s executive strategy?
ES: When I think about Tory [Burch], Pure Beauty, Canndescent and MedMen, they all have one thing in common, and it’s that they’re all really strong brands. The Parent Company, Troy with his experience in CPG, he really has a brand-first perspective, and he and I very much speak the same language when it comes to building a brand and evolving a brand. So, I think a lot of my decisions are going to be made protecting the front of house and protecting what a brand is and what a brand could be.
TL: Your company “about” statement reads: “TPCO is committed to using its resources and status to play a significant role in molding a more equitable cannabis industry.” Will you please explain a little bit about what that statement entails?
ES: I think equity and equality sometimes come from the top, and when you look at our C-suite, I do feel like we have probably one of the most diverse C-suites in the industry. But that all being said, The Parent Company has pledged $10 million into SEV, which is our Social Equity Venture, and has made investments into Josephine & Billies as well as Peakz, and we’ll continue to make investments going forward.
One of the things I’ve learned in my experience working in companies that are purpose-driven like The Parent Company is everything we do is through the eyes of creating a fair opportunity for those that are working in the industry and giving opportunities for those to enter the industry. So, as we make these investments, even through SEV, something I’ve learned working at Tory, because her company was so integrated into her foundation, is we can’t just write a check and look away. We have to provide support. So, I’m looking closely now with the SEV team to come up with a marketing playbook. So, we invest in a brand, here’s a playbook of how you can be successful in our dispensaries and other dispensaries, working on opportunities to draw traffic to Josephine & Billies and really provide not just traffic but marketing support.
TL: You mentioned both “equity” and “equality.” Do you have different definitions for those terms?
ES: Yes. I find that equity is the ability to own, and I think to me, equality is ability to exist equally. So, I think it’s not just about, “Hey, you can enter this industry and get paid fair,” but I think there’s an opportunity for us to ensure that those affected by the war on drugs can actually own a piece of this industry. I actually was really unaware of so much about the war on drugs before I joined this industry, and there was actually someone at MedMed, her name is Morgan Sokol, who ran government affairs there at that time, who really just opened my eyes into the injustices, and I feel very strongly that we have a responsibility, if we’re making money in this industry, to ensure that those who are currently incarcerated or have had generational hurdles caused by the war on drugs have the same ability to make money in this industry.
TL: What’s your involvement with the Social Equity Ventures and the $10-million investment for that initiative?
ES: Well, the marketing support will definitely come from my team, but the ultimate decision of SEV and where that goes [is up to] a board of advisers that you can find actually on our website, including Mary Prior from Cannaclusive. And they all kind of have to work together to guide SEV. SEV is run by an amazing lady, Tiffany McBride, whom I work very closely with. But, yes, in terms of the marketing support, my team with help guide that.
TL: Switching gears here, will you tell me a little bit about your family heritage and how it helped shape your career path?
ES: So, I was born in Long Beach, and then I was raised in Korea for most of my childhood, and then came back to a small city called Cypress, which is right off of Long Beach, and raised in Los Angeles basically until I went to UCLA.
My mother, you know, immigrant story: She worked in restaurants, worked 24 hours a day. I saw her on Saturday mornings or Sunday mornings for church and didn’t see her Monday through Friday. And I don’t know if that work ethic of wanting to just really make it, I feel like that gumption, that immigrant mentality of having to survive is something I learned from my mom, because she was a single mom of two, couldn’t speak the language. She actually learned to speak the language by watching the Lakers and listening to Tina Turner; that’s what I grew up with.
So, I’m a huge Lakers fan … but that kind of drive, and I think you need that drive in this industry. There are so many headwinds and so much change that you’ve got to keep an eye on and focus on where you’re trying to go. I think that’s where I kind of get my commitment to survive, from my mother.
TL: What’s your perception of cannabis and how it relates to your heritage or the AAPI community in general?
ES: This question has been asked of me a lot, like, “Ow, does your mother know you work in cannabis?” Actually, someone asked me that yesterday, and I think there’s still a lot of stigma with the first generation for sure. Like, my mother just had knee surgery, and it upsets me that she doesn’t even want to try [cannabis]. That definitely upsets me. But where I see a lot of focus is on the next generation. My niece is 16 years old. She lives in Seattle. She knows what I do, obviously. And she approaches it and asks about it, like I remember I used to ask my mother about alcohol. And I see so much progress already in the next generation that I’m really hopeful for the future, but the stigmas still definitely exist. But I think as people really educate themselves and learn and try and experience the healing benefits of the flower, whether they consume it, smoke it, drink it, whatever, I think people will definitely be more open.
TL: What’s your perspective on the importance of increasing AAPI diversity in the cannabis space?
ES: I think when I first started, I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken to Ophelia Chong, but I remember that she sent an email of Asian Americans in the space, and it wasn’t that many people at that time. And then a year ago, she hosted what we call Pot Luck Club in LA—it’s for Asian Americans in the cannabis industry—and I got there, and there was 80-100 people, C-suites, entry level, executives, and it was so encouraging to see. There is a group of women where we text each other, and we help each other out, and I’m very grateful for those friendships that I’ve made in this industry.
TL: As a member of the leadership team at Cannabis For Black Lives, why do you support that organization and value an inclusive cannabis industry for everyone?
ES: The thing about that organization is there’s a lot of incredible people on the leadership team, particularly Kassia Graham, [the coalition’s director], who is just so inspiring, and she has been there for me personally through a lot. Personally, like, when my daughter gets sick, she’s always texting to see how she is. And I actually really count her as someone that I aspire to be and someone I look at as a role model. That’s a weird way of describing her because she’s so open, but the organization is not an organization that’s trying to market themselves necessarily, or trying to be that flashy, but they’re head down, and they do their work. It is an incredible organization.
TL: What obstacles (if any) have you had to overcome that were there simply because of your race?
ES: There’s a specific incident that actually I think of often. So, my mother lives in kind of a senior citizen home in Seal Beach, Calif., and when the Asian American violence kind of picked up, she received a letter actually saying, “Leave,” like, “You don’t belong in this senior citizen center.” And I look at my mom—she’s so strong. She had me very late in her life, educated her two daughters, didn’t speak a lick of English, like busted her butt to get us to where we are. And to see her so vulnerable and potentially a recipient of violence really angered me and made me really emotional.
I have a daughter, her name is Paloma, and she’s 2, and she’s Korean and Mexican. So, I really try my best to kind of expose her to every different ethnicity, foods, and I’m hoping that I bring her up to be a lot more tolerant and open than maybe some of the people who have put my family in bad situations.
TL: Who do you admire as a trailblazer/leader? Why?
ES: I’m really grateful to say Imelda [Walavalkar] at Pure Beauty. She’s the CEO there. She’s half Mexican, half Indian. Even though I left, she has remained a really good friend and a sounding board, and she is almost like an undercover: She doesn’t really do much outwardly, but undercover she is constantly helping people, getting on the phone. She always says I’ve learned a lot during the process of developing Pure Beauty, and she opens that playbook to anyone. There are times where I call her for a simple question like, “Who produces a good vape?” and she’s always willing to help. And I think that that goes a long way. And maybe that’s one of the reasons Pure Beauty does so well, because she’s putting out goodness to the world, and she’s just a fantastic human being.