** Undo the Untruths **
People who believe in the importance of pulling oneself up by his/her own bootstraps should try living in poor urban neighborhoods; like the one in which I grew up. There, survival of the fittest is the code of the streets. Twenty five years ago, East New York embodied the concrete jungle. Back then, it was a desolate stretch of Brooklyn; abandoned by the New York City and decimated by red lining. Residents struggled for survival as drug dealers roved sidewalks like hyenas in search of hapless prey. One day, as we walked to church, our oasis amidst the wasteland, my mother squeezed my hand. “You’re bigger and better than all of this. You were born to shine.”
A very early memory, but it was a lesson that I took to heart. My mother’s cheerleading made me confident in my brilliance. Growing up, I committed myself to excellence in everything I attempted - from playing basketball to pursuing a molecular biology degree at Princeton. Determined to succeed, I met every opportunity with hard work and talent. I chased my childhood dream of being a doctor through three years of medical school, until as a young wife and mother, I marshalled the courage to change direction when I realized that business was my calling.
In 2009, after a few years of successful entrepreneurship, I was awarded a full scholarship to attend Rutgers Business School and graduated two years later with the highest GPA of any person of color in my class. Until my mother died suddenly last spring, I succeeded for multiple years leveraging my strategy, brand management and digital marketing expertise at Fortune 500 companies including Target, Victoria’s Secret, and Full Beauty Brands. Mom had been my chief counselor and advocate, and losing her left me unmoored. A long-time Cannabis user and advocate, I recalled the comfort the plant had given her as she faced a string of health concerns during her final years. In her honor and for my own benefit as a disenfranchised patient, I decided to make it my mission to help rebrand the Cannabis industry for more appeal to the mainstream market. I also really felt strongly about being able to leverage my voice and know-how to impact those communities most affected by the war on drugs. After joining my aunt in Phoenix, Arizona, I started a digital-focused consulting business in the blossoming Cannabis sector. I had moved west in search of a life filled with peace and serenity. Instead, I encountered some members of the Cannabis community far more devious than the hood I had escaped.
Almost immediately, I met Sarara Corva and Jimmy Carberry, the principals behind Undoo, a supplement promising to neutralize the psychotropic effects of THC. After hearing me share my story at an industry event in September 2016, the pair solicited my help with their business. Jimmy’s first words to me were, “I need you. I need your help.” Less than a week later, within ten minutes of our first sit-down meeting, they offered me the CEO position.
Looking back, both Sarara and Jimmy and their offer seemed too good to be true, but grief dulled my normally sharp instincts. I initially declined their offer, but agreed to assist them as much as I could; including finding them an appropriate CEO match. I also learned that there was already a CEO in place with whom they were displeased. After trying Undoo, I knew that I wanted to be involved at some level. They seemed to have the product figured out, but just needed help being properly positioned, managed and priced; which was certainly my area of expertise . When I started, Jimmy and Sarara were hand-making the Undoo samples in her condo with four cats. They had a terrible packaging mock-up that looked trite, like a middle school art project. Also, there had been no budgeting or strategic planning for the year.
Initially, we made a verbal agreement with just the promise of equity. New to the space, and confident that I could successfully take the product to market, I agreed to come onboard. In retrospect, I realize that the company was in complete disarray. The website was hopelessly dated with no images, no logo, or real “experience”. The product had not been widely or even properly tested. A major red flag appeared once I soon discovered that the product was not actually patented as Jimmy and Sarara had assured me that it was. I chalked it up to a misunderstanding between “patent-pending” and “patented”.
A free spirit who embraced an unconventional lifestyle, Sarara reminded me of my late mother. From the very beginning, she endeared herself to me by asking about my health and welfare and giving me teas and other herbal concoctions as I pored through their paperwork in the initial days. She, and initially Jimmy, very often expressed “love” for me and referred to me as “family” from the outset. So when Sarara fed me a sob story about the ineptitude of the then current CEO and how cruel he was to her partner and boyfriend Jimmy, I did not question it, nor her motives.
Instead, I threw myself into solving Undoo’s problems. I devised a strategy for dealing with a FDA seizure of foreign made samples. I coached Sarara as she negotiated with the disgruntled product manufacturer for a refund. I leveraged my mainstream network to connect with other potential manufacturers and vetted through each one; ultimately negotiating a deal with a replacement contract manufacturer. I even aided their underhanded efforts to remove the chief executive; something I regret deeply in hindsight.
By November 2016, it soon became apparent that I needed to be full time in order to successfully launch Undoo by February 2017. I cut loose a lucrative mainstream client to focus exclusively on the company. Through a former Princeton classmate, I landed a celebrity investor with deep ties in the Cannabis market. I also revamped the revenue model, created a much-improved interim website, migrated company digital platforms and developed a comprehensive launch strategy with aggressive sales and distribution targets.
Only one of the numerous purported Undoo employees was still actively working, so I brought in my company’s internal team to handle creative direction, social media, event marketing and distribution account management. At this point, I ran the company in all but name. When I started, Undoo had limited cash reserves chiefly because Jimmy paid himself $5,000 a month from the money raised by investors. In January 2017, once I raised enough money to fund the execution of a launch marketing plan, I created a budget that included a monthly retainer to cover the subsidized cost of my team required to execute the plan. As VP of Marketing & Operations, my primary responsibility was readying Undoo for mass distribution. We launched the #UNDOOCHALLENGE, which was designed to generate buzz about the supplement and its uses. I upgraded all of the marketing collateral, providing higher quality mock-up packaging, low-cost upgraded promotional post-cards, retractable banners and even made 2 animated web-mercials. I purchased strategic marketing sponsorships at the Big Industry Show, ICBC and the Women Grow Leadership Summit, arguably the highest profile event in the Cannabis industry, and planned supporting activities designed to build brand awareness throughout the week in Denver. Everything we activated was done with full visibility to Jimmy and Sarara, and the entire investment leadership team, including two long-standing attorneys affiliated with the company who seemed in awe at what I had been able to accomplish in such a short time.
It was when I started holding the company to higher professional business standards, Jimmy started freaking out. While the major investors were pleased with the changes I instituted, Jimmy and Sarara voiced their displeasure. Their relationship spilled over into the company, and Sarara called me countless times upset and crying, pulling me into their personal drama. I found him moody and deeply paranoid, and growing more resistant as we drew nearer to our target launch dates. One particular stand-out incident was his adamant position about not attending the ASD Market Week trade show. He was hysterical and irrational as he told the story of his friend’s product that was stolen at this same show in the 80’s. I attributed his behavior to his checkered past with some of the shadiness of underground Cannabis, but eventually learned that his erratic behavior was merely the symptom of a deeper issue.
To the chagrin of his investors, Jimmy didn’t just want to live off their money, he wanted to use it pursue interests unconnected to the company. He demanded $900 a month for Jimmy’s Joint, a podcast that allowed him to fulfill his life-long dream of having a radio show. Instead of paying for it with his monthly allotment, he was insistent that we take it from the company’s coffers, despite our need for money to cover product manufacturing, marketing and labor. Instead of paying employees with cash, Jimmy seemed to prefer to pay them in Cannabis. In January, he was forced to comply with our pre-launch plan by the group of principal investors I engaged to help rein in Jimmy, but he still threw tantrums at our meetings and acted out during our marketing activations.
In alignment with the strategic plan, I brought on a PR company to promote the brand and our activations during the launch period. I arranged an initial meeting designed to help that company learn Jimmy’s story as the Founder and face of Undoo. He skipped out on the meeting, apparently disappearing in the middle of the street during a huge blow-up between him and Sarara. She called in tears and begged me to keep the incident quiet, but at that point I realized that his actions and her desire to “just make Jimmy happy” could potentially ruin my hard-earned reputation and career. I finally shared my concerns about his downward spiral with the rest of my team and strategic partners.
Despite Jimmy’s shenanigans, our event activations were still tremendously successful, a testament to my team’s resilience and desire to win. At the Big Industry Show, our branded charging station in the lounge area attracted tons of attendees and Undoo made the social media accounts of the trade show. The Women Grow Leadership Summit established Undoo as a brand to watch and we received positive feedback across the board from Denver dispensaries during our crawl. Leveraging my mainstream network, we even set up a discussion that would have landed Undoo distribution in a chain of 7-11 stores throughout Colorado. The excitement was palpable when we returned home to Arizona. Instead of accolades for myself and the team that pulled off multiple activations on a shoestring budget, we found ourselves erased from the Undoo website and removed from the social media accounts.
At this point, Jimmy and Sarara’s actions went from difficult to surreal. During our activations, the business card stopped working. Jimmy and Sarara told me it had been shut down for fraud. I did not give it much thought, and paid for incidental expenses out of my own pocket. Later, I learned that they hatched a plot to smear my reputation, accusing me of fraud. To cover their tracks, using the ‘hacking’ theme from my presentation (as in short cuts to facilitate entry), they accused me of being a computer hacker who had stolen their credit cards and “hacked” into their email system to impersonate an employee and steal their proprietary data. They challenged every charge I ever authorized (with their knowledge) on Sarara's company debit card. It was all so ludicrous, I did not think anyone could ever take them seriously.
Instead of directly responding to their absurd claims, I extricated myself from the company affairs and focused on establishing my team’s presence in the Arizona cannabis market. I handled the numerous unpaid marketing charges that Jimmy and Sarara refused to honor and although I barely stayed afloat financially, I assumed the worst was behind me. Then the whispers began. And the rumors via text message and FB messenger. The gossip about me burned like a fire in our local Cannabis circles and fellow entrepreneurs that I once considered allies began shunning and warning those affiliated with me. I now find myself in a position of defending not only my professional integrity, but my very identity.
For the record, I am and have always been Dasheeda D. D. Dawson Princeton ‘01, Rutgers MBA ‘11, member of the ONe & ONly Omicron Nu Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (nearly 20 years). Feel free to check my receipts. And while you are at it, check my 2500+ points scored as NYC basketball star, my 75+ page thesis on what the eye tells the cerebellum, my highly decorated Rutgers Business School tenure, and the countless other accolades I have achieved on my significantly challenging but successful life journey to this point.
It is appalling that I even have to do this. But, we live in a world where the word of a white man with an alleged criminal history and clear emotional instability is more valid than an African American woman with an ivy league pedigree and proven track record of legitimate business success. I’m hesitant to attribute this entire unfortunate situation to race, because my excellence has always spoken for itself. But, I doubt that I’d be dealing with a professional witch hunt, cyber bullying and blackballing in Arizona if I were blonde and blue eyed.
I have been battered, but not broken, by this brazen attempt to besmirch my character. If anything, this situation underscores the desperate need for more diversity and inclusion within the industry and in particular, among the professional organizations like Women Grow and the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). We need more people willing to speak out as voices of change, which is why I have chosen to run for the NCIA Board of Directors and why I plan to launch the “Women Grow Change” campaign as the Regional Market Leader for Arizona. We need more self-policing in the nascent Cannabis industry to ensure that opportunists don’t exploit other honest, hard working small business owners. I’m grateful to my family, friends and my extensive mainstream AND Cannabis professional network who have supported me through this harrowing ordeal, and helped me to remember my resilience forged long ago on the streets of Brooklyn. Jimmy and his cronies have tried to bury me not knowing that society wrote me, the child of a poor single mother, off at birth. I am the proverbial seed. I can’t be buried. I can’t be bought. I can’t be bullied. And, in the words of Sean “Jay-Z” Carter, a fellow Brooklyn entrepreneur, “I will not lose”. I’ll see Undoo in court -- with all of my receipts.