Investing in Dreams

Cannabis Leadership Awards - Wendy Bronfein, Curio Wellness

Wendy Bronfein joined forces with her family to launch Curio Wellness and a platform to help minorities and women realize their own cannabis-business aspirations.

Photos by Jimell Greene

When Wendy Bronfein, Curio Wellness’ co-founder, chief brand officer and director of public policy, heard that her home state of Maryland passed a medical cannabis legalization bill in 2014, she immediately emailed her father, Curio’s co-founder and CEO, Michael Bronfein.

“This looks interesting,” she wrote.

Memorial Day Weekend of that year—around the same time that Bronfein graduated with her MBA—the Bronfeins joined friends on a trip to Colorado, where they visited some of the state’s dispensaries.

When Bronfein and her father returned from the trip, her father asked if she would go back to Denver the following month to attend a convention “to learn more and do reconnaissance,” Bronfein recalls.

That next month, she hopped on another flight to Denver. Upon returning home, Bronfein sat down with her family at the kitchen table to share what she had learned. From that point on, she and her family continued the conversation with industry insiders, researchers and scientists to gain a better understanding of cannabis from a medicinal perspective.

Bronfein was passionate about cannabis before pursuing a business in the industry.

“I also had built my career in a marketing and branding space and really love the idea of building something from the ground up,” she says.

Her father’s background in health care and regulated industries got him interested in the cannabis space, as well.

The Bronfeins’ background, coupled with their continued due diligence, pushed the family forward until Maryland launched its cannabis business application process in November 2015. Curio won its licenses in August 2016 for cultivation, processing and retail.

And Bronfein didn’t stop there.

Bronfein’s father, an established businessman who has run other companies and worked in private equity, is well-versed in how to raise money and launch a business. However, the Bronfeins knew this was not the case for all aspiring cannabis operators, especially when federal law prohibits them from simply walking into a bank to secure a loan for startup costs.

This led them to launch a franchise model and an investment fund to help those struggling to raise capital—particularly minorities and women—to realize their own cannabis-business dreams.

Bronfein has always wanted Curio Wellness to be an employer of choice, where someone could work for 40 years, she says.

A Family Matter

Bronfein, who was born and raised in Baltimore, is no stranger to family businesses—her parents operated a business in the pharmaceutical industry with her aunt and uncle.

“If we had broader family gatherings, even if it was just my aunt, uncle, cousins and us, then inevitably they’d be talking about business …,” Bronfein says.

Bronfein describes her father as a very ambitious person who sparked a similar drive in his children.

For Hanukkah one year, Bronfein’s parents gifted her and her siblings a couple shares of stock in a company they were interested in. Bronfein, who loved all things Disney, received a couple shares of Disney stock, and later received notice of an annual shareholders meeting in New York.

“And I didn’t know what that was, really, and I said I wanted to go,” Bronfein recalls. “So, my dad and I went to New York for the day and went to the meeting. … I remember being in the ballroom and … characters like Cinderella and Prince Charming and Mickey and Tigger … were up there in their costumes. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is so cool.’ … And Michael Eisner, [then Disney CEO], was the head of it. And during it, I said to my dad, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ And he said, ‘Well, then you need to go to school for business and movies.’”

Bronfein did just that. She received her undergraduate degree in D.C. before pursuing her MBA.

A radio, TV and film major, Bronfein snagged an internship the summer between her freshman and sophomore years at a local news station in Baltimore, and was ultimately hired part-time. She operated the cameras during the nightly news program, organized scripts and played tapes. She returned to the job every summer until she graduated, and then she went to California to work as a production assistant on the first season of “American Idol.”

Bronfein later worked on “The Sharon Osborne Show ” and “The Andy Milonakis Show” in Los Angeles before moving to New York City to work for “BBC America.” She stayed in New York until 2016, when she ended up back in Baltimore with medical cannabis licenses in hand, and Curio Wellness’ history began.

Bronfein’s brother and sister have since joined the company alongside her and her father.

Bronfein’s brother, formerly a lawyer in a private practice, came on board as Curio’s general counsel, while her sister, who has a background in sales and fine arts, joined as the company’s chief revenue officer.

“She is a very doting and sympathetic, empathetic sibling,” Bronfein’s sister, Rebecca Raphael, says. “She’s both a problem solver and a consummate sibling in that she will drop whatever she’s doing to make sure that you’re OK, that your family is OK. She’s very selfless in that way.”

Raphael also describes her sister as passionate but measured, always taking a complete view of any situation before making a decision.

I don’t know if I would’ve had the guts to turn my life upside down and take a chance on something new.” Rebecca Raphael, Chief Revenue Officer, Curio Wellness

“There’s a very strategic mindset that she applies to everything she does, personally or professionally,” Raphael says. “I’m certainly more of the agile risk-taker, and she’s more of the measured, strategic thinker in all facets of our life.”

Raphael attributes her and her sister’s professional drive to working alongside their father.

“I think when you work for your parents, you are incredibly driven,” she says. “You absolutely want to make this person proud, but … you [also] have to show all of your colleagues that you are not here because you are the boss’s daughter or the boss’s son. You work really hard to earn your seat at the table.”

And Bronfein has definitely earned her seat at the table, according to Brad Friedlander, a longtime family friend and Curio’s chief information officer.

“She’s very creative,” he says. “She has a vision for things, a really strong vision, and does whatever she can to make sure that vision comes to fruition. She’s always had this vision in her head of what she wanted Curio to be like, and I think we’ve pretty much achieved that … vision of a truly medicinally focused cannabis company with high-quality products and a premium brand.”

Bronfein met her husband in 2016 when she moved back to Maryland, as she was building her cannabis business, and the couple has been married for four years.

“He is a saint,” Bronfein says. “He makes it very easy to have the job I have, … to have a demanding job. He’s super supportive. He is an amazing father. He’s super fun as a dad.”

The couple’s son, Mac, is two-and-a-half years old.

“She’s a fabulous mother,” Raphael says. “I see that she does a lot of these things through the lens of, ‘What is going to be awesome for Mac? How can I make this a good day for me and Mac together?’ [It] is very sweet and it’s very admirable that that’s how she operates in her spare time.”

‘Roll the Dice’

After Bronfein moved back to Baltimore in 2016, she says Maryland’s licensing process was very delayed.

“My lease was up in New York on May 1, and the rumor was they were going to announce by June,” she says. “And this is also, by the way, at least six months since we had put in the application and along those six months, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be the end of the year. Oh, it’s going to be in January. Oh no, it’s definitely going to be in March.’ … But being in New York, I was concerned that I didn’t want to re-sign a lease [on my apartment] and break it [within] what I thought could be four weeks, if they actually made this announcement and we won. So, I elected to put my stuff in storage and roll the dice.”

When the licenses were awarded in August, Bronfein secured an apartment in Baltimore and officially returned home. After a dinner out to celebrate their license, the Bronfeins got to work on what would become Curio Wellness.

“What I admire is that she really took a chance with cannabis,” Raphael says. “She basically was at this professional time in her life where she was not satisfied with what she was doing, and she had friends who were in the cannabis industry out West and essentially, through some conversations, she went to our dad, who was kind of semi-retired at the time, … and said, ‘I really think this is an opportunity for us. I want to be entrepreneurial. I really want an opportunity to work with you and learn from you, and this is a health care field, which is where you thrive, so let’s take a chance and do this thing together.’ I don’t know if I would’ve had the guts to turn my life upside down and take a chance on something new.”

In the early days, Bronfein recalls a staff of roughly 20 learning as they went along. When a big task needed to be completed, they would have what she calls a “storm,” where everyone contributed to get it done.

“[If] we just had a harvest, everyone who worked in the company would trim,” she says. “I would trim, my dad would trim, security would trim—everyone who was badged to be in the building, everyone was trimming. … We’re all staying late tonight, we’re getting pizza and every single person in the company is working together.”

Now that the company is about to celebrate its five-year anniversary, there are approximately 40 employees that Bronfein calls the “Five-Timers Club”—the group that has celebrated all five anniversaries with Curio and that has been there from those early days of everyone doing everything to keep operations running smoothly.

Today, a vast majority of Curio’s business is wholesale; the company sells its products and house of brands to more than 90 dispensaries across the state.

Curio also operates its flagship store, a “wellness center” that sells vitamins, supplements, and natural health and beauty products in addition to its cannabis offerings. The wellness center also features spa services such as acupuncture, massage and skincare.

Rebecca King, the wellness center’s acupuncturist and Bronfein’s friend of 30 years, says she is impressed with Bronfein on a daily basis.

“She’s just crushing it,” King says. “She’s really smart and … Curio Wellness was really her vision and her idea. Just watching her implement everything from marketing and sales to product innovation—it’s all been her vision that’s come to light, and it’s just been really inspiring to have a passenger seat to it all.”

Curio Wellness’ dispensary in Timonium, Md., has now re-branded to Far & Dotter, the flagship store of its retail franchise model.
The Far & Dotter brand is the brainchild of Bronfein’s vision for a holistic environment and calming aesthetic.

A Helping Hand

Bronfein was raised in a philanthropic family; her grandparents both worked for nonprofits and her parents have been very active in giving their time and financial resources to charitable causes.

Bronfein has tried to model this in her work at Curio by supporting local, community-based organizations like the Pratt Contemporaries, which raises awareness of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, and the Hazon-Pearlstone Retreat Center, a community farm. Curio has also donated to the Maryland Food Bank and local nonprofits that support Baltimore City Public Schools.

Bronfein also chairs the National Medicinal Cannabis Coalition, which focuses on addressing business impediments in the industry, and she works with Maryland lawmakers on bills to further the state’s medical cannabis program.

“One of the things we try and do a lot is get people out to the facility, whether it’s on the state or the federal level, because I think there’s a lot of misconception about what we do,” Bronfein says. “There are a lot of people who legislate and regulate us who don’t know anything about what we do, so it’s really important for them to see the level of sophistication and professionalism, the level of investment into the infrastructure and the science of what we’re doing, and the quality control of the products that we’re producing and distributing.”

Most notably, Bronfein helped lead Curio to launch a franchise program to help create diverse ownership in the cannabis industry.

Through running a dispensary and wholesaling to other retailers across Maryland, the Bronfeins learned what it takes to successfully operate a dispensary in a new market, which armed them with the tools to support others and create more independent and diverse ownership in the industry.

The company has started franchising its wellness center model under a re-branded retail division called “Far & Dotter,” which is Swedish for “father and daughter,” a nod to Curio’s family roots.

The franchise model and an accompanying investment fund ultimately aims to lend a helping hand to other entrepreneurs who lack the capital necessary to launch their own cannabis businesses.

She doesn’t just lead from above—she’s there in the trenches with her staff.” Rebecca King, Acupuncturist, Curio Wellness

“We landed on this franchise concept because, as we were in the early years of the business, there was so much discussion around independent ownership and diverse ownership,” Bronfein says. “There are lots of things that you would see go on, like here’s a webinar, here’s a meeting you can go to, here’s a grant for a thousand dollars, but capital is the issue here. You’re not going to get this participation unless you can deal with the access-to-capital factor.

“The creation of the [Curio Wellness Investment] Fund was sort of like the icing on that cake,” Bronfein adds. “If we wanted the independent ownership to address space for diversity, then we needed to have a way for people to have access to capital to do that. And so, the fund concept was created to go along with the franchise. Now, from a franchising perspective, anyone can franchise, but for those who don’t have the means and who are identified … on a state level as a [minority- and/or women-owned business], … we can support them with capital.”

The Bronfeins have been able to include several diverse investors in the fund, which Bronfein describes as “diversity supporting diversity.”

Raphael points to two areas of the Far & Dotter launch where Bronfein’s leadership shined: One was how Bronfein identified a problem—lack of capital and diversity in the cannabis industry—and took a stab at solving it, and the other was how Bronfein built the Far & Dotter brand from scratch.

“She’s genius at building brands and knowing how everything from the name of the company to the logo to the colors … needs to come to fruition,” Raphael says.

“She has a passion for the retail side of the business and how the retail store should look and feel, so she worked closely with a consulting firm to bring that vision to fruition with a holistic wellness center … that doesn’t feel like a dispensary [and] that really is welcoming to anybody,” Friedlander adds. “Her personality is almost expressed in the store—you can just feel it when you walk in, [in] everything from the color palette to the modern, sleek design. It’s really just a beautiful store.”

Now that Curio’s flagship store has been re-branded as Far & Dotter, it provides potential franchisees a glimpse into what they can create with the help of Curio’s franchise program and investment fund. The company has received more than 600 applications as of June and plans to announce the franchisees by the end of the year.

The Bronfeins anticipate that the $30-million investment fund can ultimately support 40 to 50 franchisees across 22 states.

“Part of the virtue is that the franchisee is the owner,” Bronfein says. “We’re not the owner, we’re just the brand and the toolkit that they use. So, I think that’s why it’s an ideal space because you still have a local owner/operator, … somebody who’s of the community, but you have the horsepower of a corporate entity.”

Bronfein works with lawmakers and regulators and provides tours to show others the sophistication behind medical cannabis.

A Leading Brand

Bronfein compares the cannabis industry to the early days of the dotcom boom—it is a completely new industry, and everybody has to start somewhere.

“I feel like I’ve often been in [a position] where we had to build something that wasn’t there before, and I get a lot of energy out of that,” Bronfein says.

She describes the Curio team as dynamic, driven, resilient, smart and self-aware, and the company is committed to being an employer of choice. In a 2015 meeting with Curio’s marketing agency, Bronfein recalls saying that she wanted to build a company where an employee could work for 40-plus years.

“There’s so much opportunity here, and if we could create a company where you got this job that … became a career that changed the trajectory of your life, that enriched you personally and professionally, [then] that’s the ultimate goal,” Bronfein says.

Curio pays a living wage for its hourly and salaried employees, she says, who are all full-time, and the company provides what Bronfein calls “a very robust package” with medical, dental and vision insurance coverage, paid time off [PTO], 401(k), tuition reimbursement, employee assistance plans, short-term and long-term disability, and life insurance.

Bronfein also takes pride in the way Curio kept its employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing PPE and meals, and even securing hotel rooms near the company’s facilities so that workers had accommodations if they felt uncomfortable about returning home and potentially getting their families sick.

“She will work tirelessly for the employees to ensure that people are feeling seen and heard,” King says. “She’s not just the big name at the top of the company. We see her in the store constantly. She doesn’t just lead from above—she’s there in the trenches with her staff.”

“I think clear direction and everyone rowing in the same direction is really important,” Bronfein says of her management style at the company. “If [the cultivation, manufacturing and retail] teams understand the larger goals of the company that trickle down to what are we doing this quarter, this month, this week, this day, then we’re all rowing in that same direction.”

Bronfein also strives to meet the needs of Curio’s patients, having one-on-one conversations with them about their health and how cannabis can help. The company aims to create innovative, condition-specific products, such as Curio’s Good Night sleep aid, and the company is in the process of launching gastrointestinal-specific products.

“When I talk about our goal to make targeted products, part of that has to do with normalizing the industry,” Bronfein says. “If you walk into Walgreens and your stomach hurts, you buy Pepto. And if you have a headache, you’d buy Excedrin. … But cannabis, you could buy a 10-milligram something, and you’re taking it for migraines and I’m taking it for nausea. So, part of what we want to do is enhance the specificity to make it easier for people to find the product that’s right for them, and easier for providers to feel comfortable about it. …

“I think you set a standard,” she adds. “I think you consistently evolve. You connect with people, or your audience. And … you’re not only setting a standard—you also have to always be setting an example. Once you’re in the lead, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that.”

And while Bronfein is uncomfortable talking about herself as a leader, Raphael says her leadership is evident every day.

“She is a leader because she’s not willing to settle for how things have always been done, specifically in cannabis,” she says. “I think she helps hold our team at times to a higher standard because she’s always asking, ‘Who does this better? Can we apply that to what we want to do and really raise our standards?’”

Melissa Schiller is senior digital editor for Cannabis Business Times. Cannabis Conference programming director and contributing editor Cassie Tomaselli also contributed to this story.