Nick Bellamy’s initial interest in the marijuana market was piqued several years ago after seeing the positive benefits it had on his grandfather’s health during his cancer treatment. “It helped him so much. I was just so fascinated by how this product was still so inaccessible,” says the MBA graduate of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, from the Class of 2021.
As he applied to business school in 2019, Bellamy looked more deeply into the cannabis industry and was enthused by its growth prospects. Drawn by Berkeley’s reputation as a liberal school, Bellamy says he “was very specific about wanting to get into cannabis, and knew they would be more inclined to support me in that career choice”.
When he broached the subject with other business schools, they balked at the idea. “Not many people in business schools go into cannabis because of the stigma,” says Bellamy. “So I felt I had found something that not only was I really interested in, but I could set myself apart from others because it was a bit unique.”
He is one of a growing number of MBA students who are pursuing careers in the semi-legal cannabis industry in the US. New Frontier Data estimates the market for legal cannabis was worth some $20 billion in sales last year, and predicts it will more than double to surpass $41.5 billion by 2025.
And marijuana is moving into the mainstream as companies and governments consider the billions of dollars in revenues they could generate from the liberalization for personal use. In the US, 16 states including New York and California have legalized recreational marijuana, generating substantial tax revenues while also stressing the job benefits at a time when state coffers are severely depleted.
It remains illegal at the federal level, but it is spurring interest among some MBA students and management professors, who are taking their first tentative steps towards placing marijuana on the business school syllabus.
Navigating the stigma around cannabis
Still, the subject remains a rarity on the MBA syllabus given the stigma surrounding cannabis. “The problem is you could go and work in the industry and someone could think you’re a pot head,” Bellamy says. “The perception has been built up over 40 years, despite cannabis being nowhere near as bad as other substances that are legal and hurt people in far worse ways.”
Some professors are nevertheless adding case studies on the distribution of cannabis, including Scott Stern, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Mary Gentile at Virginia’s Darden School of Business has written a case on taxes and the cannabis business.
But most of the current efforts have been student-led, through the formulation of cannabis industry clubs that have cropped up at business schools located in states that have legalized Marijuana such as Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in California and NYU’s Stern School in New York.
“There needs to be proof that the interest exists for schools to put forward the resources and time towards fostering education around it,” says Peter Kasper, an MBA graduate at USC Marshall from the Class of 2021.
“For how much potential the size of the cannabis space can be, I think most schools are missing a huge opportunity by not exposing their students, in some way, to the budding industry,” he says.
Kasper was the founder and president of Marshall Cannabis Industry Club from 2019-2021. The motivation was proving to the USC administration that there was legitimate demand and interest from the student body, as well as career opportunities and an active alumni network.
“The projected growth is staggering enough to want to jump aboard ‘the green rush’, but also there’s the excitement in finding a meaningful role or position that drives real change, both within an organization and the industry at large,” Kasper says, stressing the positive social impact.
The cannabis industry needs MBAs
The move to legalize marijuana is seen as a racial justice imperative, given how Black and Hispanic users are disproportionately arrested compared with their white counterparts. The underrepresentation of people of color in the sector has been highlighted as a significant challenge as well.
“The lack of people of color is absolutely an issue that mostly stems from the War on Drugs and the barriers that legalized states have made for getting into the industry,” says Sara Gluck, a Darden MBA graduate from the Class of 2017.
She went to work as chief operating officer for the America Israel Cannabis Association before founding her own company in the industry, selling related clothing.
“I think MBAs have a lot of the skills that the industry needs,” says Gluck. “Succeeding in cannabis requires perseverance, creativity, and the will to learn.”
Certainly, the sector faces considerable headwinds. Online sales are illegal in most markets and many cannabis companies cannot access financial services, since banks remain wary of dabbling in a sector that remains illegal at a federal level.
Still, Gluck sees career opportunities in the areas of operations and marketing, given how fragmented the industry is currently. “The biggest brands in California are practically unheard of in Massachusetts,” she says.
Bellamy is a cannabis investor at Entourage Effect Capital, and he stresses the opportunities in financing the industry and its many dynamic startup companies. “In a lot of areas the industry is starved of highly-skilled talent, and I think that is a big opportunity for graduating MBAs,” he says.
Kasper, for instance, founded Terpli last year, a product recommendation engine for cannabis consumers. “There are career opportunities everywhere in cannabis as every cannabis company inevitably needs someone in sales, marketing, technology, finance, operations and legal,” he says.
If you can’t find the perfect fit, there’s a good chance it just hasn’t been created yet, he says. “There are boundless opportunities for entrepreneurs, given how nascent the space is and how each market develops in its own respective timeline. But each company will need roles filled like any other industry.”