The cannabis industry has been in a green rush for the past few years and is expected to reach $50 billion by 2027. MBA programs are catching up, with students asking their schools about how to get into this booming industry.
Despite the stigma, an increasing number of MBA candidates are interested in jobs in this rapidly expanding sector.
Nick Bellamy became interested in the marijuana industry after seeing the beneficial effects cannabis had on his grandfather’s health during his cancer treatment many years ago. “It was very beneficial to him. I was really astounded by how inaccessible this product was,” says the MBA graduate of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Class of 2021.
Bellamy looked into the cannabis sector more thoroughly when he applied to business school in 2019 and was excited by its potential possibilities. Bellamy says he was attracted to Berkeley because of its liberal image, and he “was quite explicit about wanting to go into cannabis, and thought they would be more likely to assist me in that career decision.”
When he brought up the topic with other business schools, they were skeptical. “Because of the stigma, not many individuals in business schools get into cannabis,” Bellamy adds. “So I felt like I’d discovered something that not only piqued my attention, but also allowed me to stand out from the crowd because it was a little different.”
He’s one of an increasing number of MBA candidates interested in working in the US’s semi-legal cannabis sector. According to New Frontier Data, the legal cannabis industry was worth $20 billion in sales last year, and it is expected to more than quadruple to $41.5 billion by 2025.
And marijuana is becoming more mainstream as businesses and governments contemplate the billions of dollars in income that legalization for personal use might bring. In the United States, 16 states have legalized recreational marijuana, including New York and California, earning significant tax revenues while also emphasizing the employment advantages at a time when state finances are critically depleted.
Although marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, it is piqueing the attention of some MBA students and management instructors, who are taking the first cautious moves toward including it on the business school curriculum.
Getting beyond the cannabis stigma
Despite the stigma associated with cannabis, the topic remains uncommon in MBA curricula. “The issue is that you might walk into the business and be mistaken for a pothead,” Bellamy adds. “Despite cannabis being nothing like as harmful as other legal drugs that harm people in much worse ways, the image has been built up over 40 years.”
Despite this, some academics, such as Scott Stern of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, are introducing case studies on cannabis distribution. A case on taxation and the cannabis industry has been prepared by Mary Gentile of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
However, the majority of current initiatives have been student-led, with cannabis industry clubs springing up at business schools in jurisdictions where marijuana has been legalized, such as Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in California and NYU’s Stern School in New York.
“There has to be evidence that there is desire for institutions to devote money and effort to developing education around it,” says Peter Kasper, a USC Marshall MBA graduate from the Class of 2021.
“Given how large the cannabis space may be, I believe most institutions are losing out on a big opportunity by not introducing their students to the burgeoning business in some way,” he adds.
From 2019 to 2021, Kasper served as the founder and president of the Marshall Cannabis Industry Club. The goal was to demonstrate to the USC administration that there was genuine demand and interest among students, as well as employment possibilities and a vibrant alumni network.
“The anticipated increase is astounding enough to make you want to join the ‘green rush,’ but there’s also the thrill of finding a meaningful job or position that causes genuine change, both inside an organization and throughout the industry,” Kasper adds, emphasizing the beneficial social effect.
MBAs are needed in the cannabis business.
Given how Black and Hispanic users are disproportionately jailed compared to their white counterparts, the drive to legalize marijuana is viewed as a racial justice necessity. The underrepresentation of persons of color in the industry has also been identified as a major issue.
“The lack of people of color is definitely a problem that comes mostly from the War on Drugs and the obstacles that legalized states have erected for entering into the industry,” says Sara Gluck, a Darden MBA Class of 2017 graduate.
She worked as the chief operations officer for the America Israel Cannabis Association before starting her own cannabis-related apparel business.
“I believe MBAs possess many of the abilities that the business requires,” Gluck adds. “Success in the cannabis industry requires persistence, innovation, and a desire to learn.”
Certainly, the industry is facing significant challenges. Most markets prohibit online sales, and many cannabis businesses are unable to get banking services because banks are leery of dealing with an industry that is still illegal at the federal level.
Despite this, Gluck sees employment possibilities in operations and marketing, given the industry’s present fragmentation. “In Massachusetts, the largest names are virtually unheard of,” she adds.
Bellamy is a cannabis investor with Entourage Effect Capital, and he emphasizes the industry’s and its numerous dynamic startup businesses’ funding possibilities. “I believe there is a huge potential for graduating MBAs in a number of sectors where the business is short on highly qualified talent,” he adds.
Kasper, for example, created Terpli, a cannabis product recommendation engine, last year. “There are job possibilities everywhere in cannabis,” he adds, “because every cannabis business requires someone in sales, marketing, technology, finance, operations, and legal.”
If you can’t find the ideal match, he adds, it’s likely because it hasn’t been developed yet. “Given how new the sector is and how each market grows on its own timetable, there are limitless possibilities for entrepreneurs. However, just like every other sector, each firm will need personnel to fill positions.”