On Wednesday, (set-up dat at the CWCBE conference in New York City), we had a nice chat with Francesca Vavala, a rising star in cannabis marketing and co-founder of Alias Cann. She has an infectious charm to accompany a remarkable depth and maturity.
The interview was moving toward its end when it took an unexpected turn...
American Cannabis Report: Hi Francesca, it’s so great to finally meet you on set-up day of the CWCBE New York show. Ready to go?
Francesca Vavala: Hi, and thanks for taking me away from set up! Let’s do it.
ACR: We’re always interested to know how people have made their way to the cannabis industry – what’s your story?
Francesca: I’ve had a rather circuitous journey to get here. I was a high school English teacher at a private Catholic school. I loved it, and my identity in my heart and soul is that of a teacher.
But schools have changed from teachers working with kids in classrooms to parents negotiating with administrators. If I just could close my door and teach, I’d still be doing it. But there was such a paradigm shift that it became a mismatch, so I left.
ACR: Where did you go from there?
Francesca: I got into real estate, which helped me find my entrepreneurial spirit. From teaching, I knew I had a strong interest in helping people, and it was exciting to help people find homes to live in and raise families. But pretty soon, it got too easy. It felt like “same problem, different people” day after day, and I had little control or impact, I was just making money. That’s not stimulating enough for me. I wanted to make a difference.
Eventually, I found my way into becoming a content writer for a company that is the exclusive sales and marketing team for Teflon™ in North America and Canada.
ACR:Making an impact… for Teflon?
Francesca:It wasn’t Teflon that turned me on, but the challenge of a new environment, learning a new set of skills and finding a new way to communicate, a new voice. My role grew and evolved into more than Teflon™ and more than content writing. A few years ago my partner Mike, the owner, started to explore cannabis as an opportunity.
ACR: From Catholic School to cannabis?
FV: I know, right? But I was a Just Say No, DARE generation kid, so I was really against it growing up even though I had sorta hippie parents… I was still a product of the culture of our time. But as I researched the War on Drugs, the medicinal results, the social equity piece, I quickly realized the truth about cannabis and that in cannabis what looked like opportunity was also a cause. And it brought together my education mindset and entrepreneurial spirit and spoke to my passion for advocacy.
ACR: What is unique about Alias Cann?
Francesca: We are headquartered in Delaware – which is initially a barrier to entry for some, but a litmus test for us. We know people think “small town, small state”, but that makes us work much harder. The truth is, we’re centrally located on Eastern seaboard between booming new markets in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Washington DC, Massachusetts, Connecticut…
On the map, Delaware is in the epicenter of all of it. And we operate nationally and in Canada. It’s nothing for us to get on a plane and go see a client. I spend quite a bit of time out west when I need to. And now we have clients in Maryland, Boston-area, Detroit, Ontario, and attend networking events in D.C. and Philly (Go Eagles!)
And you were teasing me about Teflon – but it’s a highly regulated product in a competitive field with demanding clients… it’s prepared us for cannabis in a big way.
ACR: Speaking of clients, what kind of client do you seek? And what kind of client seeks you?
Francesca: We are looking for the right clients that are in it for the right reasons. If you are going to make it in cannabis you can’t be here for the money grab – you will be (rightfully) exposed and excommunicated. You must have an eye on the greater good. Cannabis sales is not push-sales for the traditional white male maximizer; it’s offering an opportunity for change.
Our clients consider us part of their team – they trust us. We chose the name “Alias” because we speak on your behalf, as their brand. If they want to grow, have a great product or service, and can collaborate, there’s great work we can do together.
Here’s a good example: we met a woman at MJBizCon last year – she was big personality, loud, tatted, F-bombs galore… she was amazing and we just loved her. It wasn’t like she was push-selling, we felt pulled to her. She and her partner have a growing system and needed help with marketing. We took her brochure back home, re-made it without being asked, went and visited them to see things in person, and after a lot of conversations, they’re a huge client.
ACR:You keep talking about “sales” – aren’t cannabis companies doing their own sales?
Francesca: Every cannabis business knows its top 20 customers. But do they know how to identify the next 80… how to win new clients… how to operate in a new market space? Do they even know whythose 20 are the top…? Do they have a plan for when competition changes the market? Everyone is making money today, what about tomorrow?
We say “you keep the top 20, give us the job to talk to the next 80 and help you grow them and thus your business…”
ACR: At the end of an interview, we like to ask “What question do you wish I had asked?”
[Just at that moment, since it was set up day, someone put up a poster of Montel Williams, the keynote speaker. I remarked, “Oh hey, there’s Montel… I’m going to speak with him tomorrow… I’m really excited about it”.
Francesca stared at the poster for a long minute. The interview did a 180, and the following came out straight out in one long burst:]
It’s kind of amazing to see his photo there right at this moment...
I have to tell you something: I was born a conjoined twin. It was a surprise – no one knew this was happening until we came out. My sister Emily and I were joined at our abdomen and shared the liver. We were separated at Johns Hopkins University Hospital at four days old. We each had the right number of limbs, but my sister had a severe form of cerebral palsy. Years later, Montel asked us to be on his show – he was doing a feature about conjoined twins who had been successfully separated. Because of her form of CP, my sister wasn’t able to travel, so we couldn’t do the show. CP doesn’t get worse, it’s not a syndrome or disease, but the lack of control over her muscles would lead to aspiration pneumonia when she was older, so she was sick quite often, and finally she developed a pneumonia that became resistant to antibiotics. She died five years ago this August. I miss her incredibly, but she had a wonderful life. However, one of the most pronounced expressions of her CP that limited her independence and compromised her comfort her entire life was muscle spasticity. And I have to tell you, I’m not saying cannabis is some kind of magic or cure-all but I’ve seen this medicine do some amazing things I never heard about until a few years ago, and I wake up every single day thinking that if even a tiny bit of what I’m doing could contribute to someone like my sister getting better or getting relief then this would all be worth it.”