HR Administration

Managing People in the Growing Cannabis Industry

By Francesca Mathewes

Jan. 10, 2020

Angie Demchenko has an eye for business and a mind for people, and this mindset is immediately reflected in the environment of her new employer, Cresco Labs. The office, a chic, bright space in Chicago’s trendy River North neighborhood, is abuzz with conversation and collaboration.

Angie Demchenko
Angie Demchenko is the chief people officer for cannabis maker and retailer Cresco labs in Chicago. Photos by Jeff Millies.

It feels focused and fresh, teeming with ideas. And given that Cresco is a major player nationwide in the cannabis industry, it’s something of a novelty to work for a budding business.

Demchenko started her career in the cannabis industry as Cresco Labs’ first chief people officer in July 2019. She got her start in human resources right out of college in Toronto at consultancy giant Accenture before moving to Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate firm in Chicago, and most recently working with shopping center management company Starwood Retail Partners.

Attending the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada, initially piqued Demchenko’s interest in people management where she attained a business degree with a focus in human resources and a double major in sociology. 

“I don’t think I really understood how much I enjoyed the people side of it until my sophomore year of college,” she said. “I was really interested in how to connect the dots between macro and micro social themes. That decision carried me through my first several years of work, and I’m really glad I have that people-minded background as well as the true core business sense.”

The challenge of working with a smaller company in an industry that is still in its growing stages appealed to Demchenko, who is among a handful of executives in the cannabis industry with the title of chief people officer.

“I went smaller and smaller in terms of the organizational structure I was a part of. I wanted to learn the connectivity of everything that goes into HR and how it works with the business,” she said.

Demchenko said that her experience at larger organizations enabled her to learn about the intersections of people and business in every aspect of an organization.

“At larger organizations, you have centers of excellence that you specialize in,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that I was really kind of deep in each of the areas and able to understand how to add real value to a company in the sort of head position.”

Her position at Cresco Labs has presented its own new set of challenges. Cresco Labs is one of the largest vertically integrated multistate cannabis companies in the United States. Cresco is what some in the industry call “seed to store,” meaning that Cresco controls every aspect of the production from cultivation and manufacturing to product packaging to retail, distribution and sales.

According to a Cresco spokesperson, more than 1,000 people are currently employed at the company across the country. Cresco operates 23 production facilities and 22 dispensaries in 11 states. And the nuances of the cannabis industry, which is still considered illegal on the federal level, is something that Demchenko is continuing to navigate.

Also read: Pot Industry Cultivates New Branch of HR

Everything is state-regulated, so the complexity of the business is something that has been frustrating at times,” she said. “But [it’s] also exciting in terms of, ‘How do we problem solve?’ ‘What do we need to do to make sure we’re overcoming some of this?’ ”

Seeking solutions and problem solving are a part of Cresco’s core values, Demchenko said. “I understand why now, because the industry is really sort of riddled with opportunity and challenges and you have to sometimes think a little more creatively.”

Addressing Drug Use at Work

As Cresco’s HR leader, Demchenko is responsible for policies including drug use in the workplace. Like most organizations, these are policies that must be adhered to.

“Our goal is to provide a safe and drug-free work environment for our clients and employees, and our policies mirror the drug use policies you would see at major companies in any other industry,” Demchenko said. “Because of their personal connection to the industry, we have many certified medical cannabis patients that are employees and their cannabis use is treated the same as any prescription medication would be in the workplace.”

As more states legalize recreational or medicinal cannabis — 11 states have legalized recreational marijuana use while 33 states have legalized medical marijuana — some parties are expressing workplace safety or health concerns from cannabis use. As an HR leader in the cannabis industry, Demchenko is helping to identify use versus abuse.

“As a leading cannabis company, appropriate cannabis use is a topic that extends far beyond the workplace,” she said. “We advocate for everyone, whether a long-time consumer or someone experiencing cannabis use for the first time, to educate themselves on the products available, proper consumption and appropriate dosage for their personal use.”

Finding lending institutions willing to fund the industry and other service providers that can accommodate a company like Cresco can present obstacles, but Demchenko views these as opportunities to educate people about the cannabis industry.

“Some of the larger providers have been hesitant in the past in working with cannabis companies,” Demchenko said. “One of the things that’s still a challenge but really exciting for me is getting to educate these companies on what the cannabis business is really all about — from a medical and recreational standpoint — [and to] see them change their minds about who they’ll do business with.”

Educational Leaders

Being at the forefront of the industry and having the opportunity to serve as an educator in this way has also been a benefit to Cresco’s growth.

“We have had a number of situations where — even a few years ago where we were still a single-state company — where conferences wouldn’t take the call or let us on a panel,” Demchenko said. “We were almost an afterthought whereas now we’re such an industry leader that they’re calling us. They want Cresco on the panel and want to understand what we’re saying from a business standpoint.”

Angie Demchenko, chief people officer in the cannabis industry
Angie Demchenko

Going forward, Demchenko plans on prioritizing recruitment, retention and building an increasingly inclusive and diverse workplace. Cresco is also launching its first national retail brand, Sunnyside, in November, which will be shops “designed to help broaden the spectrum of wellness to include cannabis. Bright, welcoming and convenient, each Sunnyside will serve as a hub for health and wellness for both new and existing cannabis consumers,” as described on Cresco’s website.

The expansion creates a welcome challenge to Demchenko and her burgeoning human resources team.

“We’re growing at such a rapid rate, so I really want to make sure that we’re bringing in the best talent,” she said. “And as you can imagine, there isn’t a lot of true industry experience, so we have an interesting opportunity to bring in the best minds from things that are well aligned with what we’re doing.”

The recruiting team, which is comprised of eight recruiters and two management and vice president roles, hires for its dispensaries, manufacturing and processing, cultivation, and corporate offices, and looks to industries that typically have translatable skills ranging from retail and consumer packaged goods to technology and health care.

Recruiting and Diversity

Some of the many job listings on Cresco’s website include more industry-specific positions with quirky titles such as “cultivation agent” and “edibles packaging specialist” as well as more traditional general business positions as “staff accountant” and “brand manager.” Building a network of employees with a dynamic background of experience is one of Demchenko’s visions for Cresco’s future.

Demchenko has also been working on what she described as a sort of “diversity and inclusion committee” that will include individuals from different backgrounds in each department to oversee and facilitate representation at Cresco.

The committee will be responsible for expanding the level of diversity and inclusion as it pertains to many aspects of a person’s identity beyond race or gender, such as veteran status or disabilities, Demchenko said.

“Ultimately it’s about increasing representation,” she said. “Making sure we’ve got the representation that matches our consumers and our patients and doing what we can to retain the right talent.”

Another facet of the kind of work Demchenko will be overseeing at Cresco is their social equity and education initiative, or SEED, which works with regulators in different states on pushing forward expungement platforms for those affected by the war on drugs.

“We work very closely with regulators in every state to make sure that we’re setting the bar really high in terms of what we’re going to be doing in diversity and inclusion, how we hire, how we get involved in communities, all of that,” Demchenko said. “Learning about all of that has been really eye opening.”

The SEED program, according to a Cresco press release from May 2019, “is the cannabis industry’s first national social equity initiative promoting inclusion, expungement, equality, access and community engagement.”

Seeking Social Justice

Realizing the potential for social good at Cresco and expanding on it is one of Demchenko’s focus points as chief people officer.

“The industry is so much bigger than just the patients or recreational users,” she said. “There’s so much to it in terms of social justice, the war on drugs, all of that. It’s not just a consumer packaged goods company. It’s really about doing greater good for the communities that we serve.”

Additionally, she said she is focusing on training and building their executive team to adjust to the ins and outs of an emerging industry.

“With our CEO and president and a number of our leaders, we’re helping them make that transition from a small employee operation to [an organization] of over 2,000 people,” she said. “We talk a lot about scalability and finding ways of empowering our leaders and holding them accountable, which has been a big focus for me.”

Her past experiences inform her hands-on, dynamic approach to human resources and leadership that continues to grow alongside Cresco.

“Angie has an impressive track record of managing the human resources functions of dynamic, high-growth companies,” said Charlie Bachtell, Cresco’s CEO and co-founder. “Her experience in building best-in-class HR strategies and operations will be valuable in helping Cresco maintain our strong workplace culture and our focus on our core values and mission as we continue to scale.”

Bachtell also said that Demchenko’s skills in working with people paired with her experiences in a dynamic business world made her an ideal candidate for the position.

“We believe that Angie is exceptionally well suited to help us achieve our goal of attracting the best talent in the cannabis industry and empowering them with the tools and knowledge to deliver exceptional performance,” he said.

As Cresco’s first chief people officer, Demchenko is intent on bringing a level of enthusiasm, drive and fresh perspective to the cannabis industry.

“The sky is kind of the limit for us, I would say, being part of a new industry,” she said. “This role of chief people officer is kind of new — I’m taking the lessons of what I have learned in other industries and bringing it to this. Having a voice and putting my stamp on what HR can look like in this profession is what is important.”

Francesca Mathewes is an editorial associate for Workforce.

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