Rusty Wilenkin is the CEO of Old Pal. In this Q&A, Rusty shares about his long journey with cannabis, creating a team and company around this plant, and the importance of building an inclusive community within this industry.
What brought you to the cannabis industry?
I had a job with a financial tech company when I moved to California in 2013, but I knew I wanted to be in the cannabis industry. I'd been a consumer for a long time, and was beyond passionate about the product. I spent a number of nights and weekends emailing and messaging cannabis companies, and actually worked as an intern for Meadow in the very early days. In 2014 I had the opportunity to join Kiva Sales and Service as a Los Angeles rep, and jumped at the opportunity.
How has cannabis served you?
It’s not an overstatement to say that cannabis has changed my entire life. As a consumer it’s allowed me to find a sense of calm when life gets stressful, and it’s allowed me to think both critically and creatively in a much deeper way. It’s also given me the opportunity of a lifetime to become an entrepreneur, and to help provide quality, accessible cannabis to the many that rely on it. I’m forever grateful to this special plant.
In what ways have you served the cannabis plant?
Getting involved with programs such as Our Academy has given me the opportunity to mentor social equity candidates, and to give back, even in a small way, to the industry that’s given me so much. We in this industry all have a very long way to go in terms of working to undo the effects of the War on Drugs, and it’s a goal of mine to continue to find ways to serve the cannabis plant as well as the many communities it touches.
What is the reason your company or organization exists? Please brag about what you do:
Old Pal was inspired by a void that we felt existed in the industry. Many of the early brands in the recreational market often felt intimidating, sterile and out of reach for many consumers. Old Pal set out to be approachable, accessible, and a purveyor of value in everything we make and do –– and to us, value means the highest quality products, at fair price points.
What is your philosophy about building companies, teams and partnerships in this new industry?
I really believe in authenticity, and in working alongside great people who share Old Pal’s values and beliefs. We’re extremely thorough and thoughtful whenever we’re vetting new partners across all facets of the business, and that diligence continues to pay off time and time again. If you surround yourself with talented people who are enjoyable to work with, you’re off to a great start already.
What advice do you have to new or aspiring companies who are just starting out in California cannabis?
Not to get discouraged; the industry has really exploded in terms of the number of brands and products that are in-market currently, but my advice would be to stay true to what makes your brand, product, etc. unique, and to stick with it. It’s such an exciting space to be in, and there’s room for everyone.
To add to that, I would say don’t be afraid to reach out to contacts you have that are involved in cannabis. The cannabis industry is truly such a community, and I think you’ll find more often than not that most are always willing to have a conversation, offer advice, and point people in the right direction.
"Don’t be afraid to reach out to contacts you have that are involved in cannabis. The cannabis industry is truly such a community, and I think you’ll find more often than not that most are always willing to have a conversation, offer advice, and point people in the right direction." - Rusty Wilenkin
What do you hope the California cannabis industry looks like in 5 years? 10 years? 20?
I really hope that over the next few years, the cannabis industry as a whole evolves to operate more like traditional CPG companies. We run into so many hurdles with things like the technology and software we can use, shipping regulations, and licensing. If all of those hurdles could be reduced, and we can operate like other CPG brands, it will do wonders for normalizing cannabis usage and making products more accessible for all.
How do you stay energized and keep your team energized?
Our team really keeps me energized. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by a group that’s as passionate about what we're building as I am, and the variety of different backgrounds, perspectives, and skill sets helps us to continue to innovate and evolve as we grow. In terms of keeping the entire team energized, we very much prioritize a culture of balance. We’re all incredibly dedicated to the work that we’re doing, but at the end of the day, we respect that each of us needs time away from work as well to be able to take care of our own well being. I hope my team would agree that creating this type of culture that puts each of us as a human with a life outside of Old Pal first gives us the space to come to work feeling energized and stoked to be there.
What are good examples of poor leadership and great examples of great leadership?
In my experience, great leadership is shown by those who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty and learn the ins and outs of all segments of the business, and by those who are solution-oriented above all else. I think we’ve all been in top-down work environments where leaders are out of touch with the realities of the business, which can result in a lot of finger-pointing when things don’t go as planned. At Old Pal we’re conscious of always using “we” language when we’re talking about the business - we’re all working together and towards the same goal, and I want the entire team to support one another and prioritize solutions versus shifting blame when challenges arise.
What can the cannabis industry learn from other industries?
Honestly, I think other industries could benefit from learning how to be more adaptable like the cannabis industry. No matter how big or small a cannabis company is, everyone in the cannabis space has learned to adapt with countless curveballs week after week due to everchanging laws and regulations. We’ve all had to swerve at the drop of a hat and have considered it a norm to keep doing so. It’s no small feat to be a part of this world.
What is the highest vision for your cannabis business? What do you hope to achieve and contribute?
The highest vision is to continue to bring a valuable experience to all of our customers, to continue to foster a sense of community through everything that we make and do and grow that community nationwide (and eventually globally). The ethos of Old Pal is to provide quality products that are accessible to as many as possible, all while prioritizing giving back to the communities that we’re a part of.
How do you think about building businesses in a way that is both equitable and profitable?
It’s important for us to give back to the community that we’re lucky to be a part of. We’re continuing to learn what being equitable means in the cannabis industry and finding ways to make equity a core aspect of our business. What’s important for us is to keep going — intention without any action won’t make anything better. We’re certainly learning as we go, and we’re grateful to be in touch with experts like Cannabis for Black Lives and Our Academy to name a few who we can learn from and partner with in our efforts to create lasting, equitable change.
We know the rollout of state social equity programs has left a lot to be desired; how do you think about social equity when it comes to your own businesses? Do you have diversity and inclusion statements that shape the way you grow your own operations?
It's an incredibly important part of what we do at Old Pal. In 2019 we rolled out an initiative called Legalize Humanity as a way to continuously be giving back to causes that align with our core values, with profits from our Old Pal Provisions Legalize Humanity collection being donated to organizations such as National Expungement Week, and our current beneficiary, Our Academy. Our goal is for the program to only continue to grow from here.
Over the past year we’ve also instituted a dedicated team to head up our Corporate Social Responsibility efforts, and now have a mandatory yearly DEI training along with a Diversity and Inclusion statement in our employee handbook. We at Old Pal are committed to continuing to learn and grow, and our entire team is passionate about making this a more equitable industry overall.
As your business evolves, what is your philosophy about team building? What do you look for when adding team members?
Old Pal is all about the social and shareable aspect of cannabis, and we bring that same philosophy to our team culture. We encourage everyone’s voices to be heard and think it’s important for people who don’t ordinarily work with each other to interact and mingle.
Beyond virtual happy hours during Covid, we’ve also started something called “Old Pal University” where team members present and teach the rest of us more about their expertise or a topic they are passionate about. We’ve had sessions on terpenes, product development, marketing, and even building efficient spreadsheets — which ended up being a super fun session. Even when we can safely meet in person again, we’ll probably still keep the Old Pal University sessions going.
As for adding new team members, it’s important for us to learn about their “why” for wanting to be a part of the cannabis industry. Everyone on the team has their own relationship with this space, and we want to learn more about that as we get to know them.
When you are faced with a challenge, walk us through how you problem solve and make decisions.
I’ve always been of the belief that challenges are better faced together versus alone. When challenges arise for Old Pal, I’m lucky that I have my co-founder Jason Osni and a strong leadership team to turn to. We share the same values and similar ways of thinking, but also bring different strengths and skill sets to the table. This allows us to attack the challenge, and to delegate accordingly. Knowing that I have such a strong team behind me every step of the way gives me the confidence to face whatever challenges may pop up.
Where do you see other businesses faltering and how do you avoid missteps?
Again, I think it comes back to authenticity. The cannabis space has filled up very quickly, and anytime you see that type of rapid growth it can evolve into a mad rush to be releasing the next big thing. Of course innovation is hugely important, but I’m also a big believer in staying true to the vision that you have for what you’re creating. If there’s a unique perspective and passion behind a particular brand or product, that always shines through in the end.
Again, this brings me back to the enormous emphasis that we put on team, and on a “we” attitude above all else. As a founder it can be easy to forget that, but ultimately, from my perspective, you are only as successful as the team around you.
"You are only as successful as the team around you." - Rusty Wilenkin
What is the best investment you've made — resources, time or money, you've made in the last year?
My best investment this past year has definitely been one of time. I keep coming back to the work I’ve been fortunate to do with Our Academy, and time spent with my most recent mentee, Charles. Being able to help him with his cultivation business with my network has been unbelievably fulfilling. There’s no better investment than having the chance to step outside of your own day-to-day to gain a broader perspective of the industry landscape as a whole, and to help elevate other entrepreneurs along the way.
What's the most effective habit you've cultivated in the last year?
I can’t say that it’s an entirely new habit, but shifting to taking several of my calls throughout the day while walking and/or outside has become a really effective habit for me. I’m on the phone the majority of my days and nights, so shifting gears by stepping outside or walking as I talk allows me to think clearer, and to give my eyes (and brain) a break from so much screen time and take in some vitamin D and sights of nature. Not to mention, my daily step counts have gone through the roof!
What's your morning routine?
I’d have to say my two morning constants are a walk with my dog, Stubbs, and an espresso. This combo allows me to take a beat first thing before diving into the day’s responsibilities, and gives me the mental clarity and energy needed to jump into whatever the day has in store.
What 3 books do you most recommend & why?
Ashes to Ashes by Richard Kluger. While the cannabis industry is uniquely its own and not big tobacco, I find that understanding that industry's history is interesting when looking at how ours may evolve.
Anything by Harlan Coben. For turning off and just reading a thrilling novel.
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. A must-read for all business leaders in my opinion, especially the way he describes "thin-slicing", our ability to use limited info from a very narrow period of experience to come to conclusions. It's a concept I find myself coming back to again and again.
What are your 3 favorite cannabis products right now?
- If I’m on the go I love our newest pre-roll product, Palitos. Each pack comes with 10 delicious 0.35 gram mini joints, perfectly sized to keep in your pocket or share with a pal. The ultimate in convenience.
- Our classic 1/8 ounce of whole flower will always hold a special place in my heart and on my rolling tray -- our first Old Pal product!
- If I’m having more of a sweet tooth, Kiva’s munchie bar is a really unique product. Chocolate with chips, pretzels, and cookies in it, it’s quite the stoner treat.
If you had one story you could tell in cannabis, what would it be?
The thing a lot of folks outside of the industry may not realize or fully appreciate is how much of an authentic, tight-knit community exists within cannabis. Two years ago, when Santa Rosa was experiencing particularly horrific fires, one of my good friends was stuck on his farm, filling generators with gas, unwilling to leave because he didn't want his fresh frozen to thaw. I sent out a group text to a handful of contacts in the space, and within hours we had a refrigerated truck at his property loading up his fresh frozen to get him and his product out of harm’s way. In the end the community stepping up got my friend out of the way of the fire, and kept his livelihood safe. To me, this is so reflective of the cannabis community as a whole.
Learn more about Rusty and his team at OldPal.com