How Seun Adedeji turned $50,000 into a multimillion-dollar dispensary empire
The Nigerian-born, Chicago- and Texas-raised entrepreneur might be the youngest O.G. you’ve ever seen.
by Calvin Stovall
In just eight years, Seun Adedeji, the 25-year-old CEO of Elev8 cannabis turned $50,000 into a multimillion-dollar dispensary empire with budding locations in Oregon (Eugene), Massachusetts (Athol, Orange, Williamstown), and Illinois.
He’s the youngest African American man to own a cannabis dispensary in the US, and he’s also a fierce advocate for equity in the industry’s ownership ranks. His hustle recently helped Elev8 secure a multimillion-dollar finance deal with TILT Holdings, to go along with a handful of new dispensary licenses across the nation.
Leafly asked the cannabis kingpin about betting on himself and leaving a legacy of Black billionaires behind him.
How is the pandemic affecting the cannabis industry, which was already experiencing a gold rush before COVID-19?
I think cannabis legalization on a federal level will happen sooner than if COVID didn’t happen. A lot of states’ tax revenue is hurting, so they’re going to need a way to replace those lost businesses. And they need to provide jobs for people.
COVID-19 pushed cannabis forward when it became an essential business, and it shows people’s views are changing. Cannabis use has increased more than ever before, too.
In the gold rush, a lot of money was made on the jeans and shovels that people had to buy to dig for gold. What kind of ancillary products are killing the cannabis game right now?
Bongs, pens, different things like that, they’re winning because they don’t have to yield to the heavy taxation. Rolling papers, too. They’re the shovel of our time in this gold rush. They’re not restricted to just one city or one state. They have e-commerce that can deal internationally, so their scalability is a lot greater.
Meanwhile, people selling actual cannabis can only sell in a state that we’re licensed in. If you’re a dispensary, you can only sell in the city, town, or state where your facility is. But a lot of people in the e-commerce space are learning that they need to have a tremendous amount of scalability. POS (point-of-sale), data and metrics, compliance, tracking, sales—all parts of the cannabis industry that are winning right now.
How did your childhood influence your vision and work ethic?
I was born in Lagos, Nigeria. I migrated to the United States at the age of three and lived with my stepmom and my dad. My home was not wholesome. So, I had to really hustle. I moved to Chicago, Illinois. I hustled for everything at an early age. I was the kid with a duffle bag with candy and gum. I’d go up to kids, “Like bro, I know you like gum. I got some gum from you. You wanna buy?”
What is the cannabis culture like in Nigeria?
In Nigeria, and cannabis is kind of looked down on. But Nigeria is the number one consumer of cannabis in the world. So, people are consuming it. I think it’s the lack of cannabis education and fear of the unknown, and sometimes it’s politics.
You’ve heard it called the devil’s lettuce for so long. Your ancestors, your great great grandma, and everybody else believed this was the devil’s lettuce. So even though people still do it, they do it in private. But they do it heavy.
Is cannabis a recreational drug to you, or is it more than that?
I don’t even see it as recreational. I think anyone that smokes cannabis, whether they know it or not, is using it for a medicinal purpose. I smoke cannabis because it helps me focus and because sometimes I get jittery and excited. I smoke cannabis to go to sleep.
Cannabis is medicine. A lot of people don’t put it in that way, but ask anyone who smokes cannabis, “How does it make you feel?” More often than not, they’re using it as medication. If you can’t sleep or you have pain or a headache, you take a pain reliever. There’s so many things we take to relieve pain, and the cannabis plant is the same thing.
When did you upgrade to selling cannabis?
I started selling cannabis in middle school at a very early age. And I got arrested for marijuana possession at an early age, too.
That right there was life changing for me. I pivoted, and I moved to Texas. Living there, my auntie was the first woman to ever really show me love. So, I took my street hustle and started applying book smarts, going to school, really focusing and trying to really change the trajectory of my life. It worked out. She was an amazing woman.
How did you start your journey as an above-board entrepreneur?
I moved to Washington state and became a technology store manager at 20. Then I became a marketing manager for a big corporation. There, I saw the lack of trajectory for African Americans. The lack of care. The lack of integrity in some aspects of the business. And I set out to really change to create a company that was full of love and hustle.
We still want to bring a human component to it. We want to treat people like gold. So even in our company, it’s not a clique, it’s more about your performance and your merit base.
It was a struggle being a young African American man and getting started. You need about a million [dollars] to start a cannabis business. I only had $50,000 and a lot of hustle.– Seun Adedeji
There is a stereotype of cannabis smokers being lazy or underachievers. How do you defy that?
I get elevated almost every day. I support smoking. I’m not lazy; my track record can speak for itself. I try to do a work-life balance. All work and no play, you get tired. So, I have a great time. My work doesn’t feel like work because it’s more of a passion. I’m very in tune with my passion. I’m very in tune with my purpose.
What was driving you to stay committed to the vision of building a cannabis empire through the rejections?
I saw a lack of minority participation within a highly regulated industry that has disproportionately affected our community. Cannabis is a way to curate generational wealth and I believe we’re missing out right now. Less than five percent of cannabis companies are African American-owned. But we are arrested at a higher rate. We have little to no ownership in this new emerging industry.
I wanted to change that. But I knew that in order to do that I needed the knowledge to bring back to my people. And if I don’t experience it myself, how can I show them others?
What’s been the toughest part of doing the work?
I got rejected for about two years. But I didn’t let the rejection stop me. I opened my first shop with less than $50,000. I built everything out myself. And when I first opened it, I couldn’t even afford the product. I had to basically do consignment. That’s what we did in the street when we sold products, right?
So, I got consignment and that’s how I got my first shop opened and I kept doing good. I slept in my shop for a whole year. I worked from 8 am to 10 pm, and I ground it out and just hustled. Fast forward and I saw a huge opportunity in an emerging space with a limited number of licenses. So, I came to Massachusetts and we won three licenses. We’ll have three dispensaries here by the end of 2021.
What details of cannabis applications are barriers to African American ownership?
There are many, but here’s an example: If you’re in Massachusetts, and you’re trying to open a dispensary, an average person is paying $100,000 to $200,000 a month just on real estate in the hopes of winning. It can take 2-3 years. So, African Americans are going to be paying those properties for 2-3 years just for a shot. That’s insane.
Previously, I lobbied to remove real estate as a criterion to apply for a cannabis license. In what other businesses do you need real estate to apply to get into the industry? I’d also like to see exclusivity for African Americans for certain licenses. States like Massachusetts have done this.
What does it take to change the equation and get past the systemic causes of the wealth and ownership gap?
With this police brutality and Black Lives Matter movement, the only thing that’s wrong with the equation that I keep seeing—because we’ve had Black presidents and senators and reps, mayors and police chiefs—is that we’re still considered “less than” in the United States.
There are no consequences associated with the harm. I’ve seen us protest so many times. Mike Brown died, and I was protesting. And every other month something happens and we’re back protesting. And that’s great. I think it gets people’s attention.
But after everything is said and done, is there true change? After the PR and news stations stop supporting it, are we still gonna be putting our fist up, and is there really going to be change? The only way I see change is reparations and greater ownership opportunities—something we still don’t have. We need money and assets. Forget the bullsh*t, excuse my language. But at the end of the day, we still have so many people struggling.
After opening multiple dispensaries, changing laws, and raising millions in capital, how do you define success?
I define success by how many multimillionaires and billionaires I can create in the African American community through cannabis ownership. My knowledge is not just my knowledge, it’s for the masses. I mentor others and show them the game using my knowledge. The wider I can blow the door open, the better.
For more info on Seun and Elev8’s rapid expansion and cannabis incubator program, visit https://elev8cannabis.com/