Every cannabis entrepreneur has their reasons for getting into the space. Some of them simply love the plant while others see it as a cash grab.
And then you have seasoned entrepreneurs like Bershan Shaw who want to make a difference in cannabis because they know this plant saves lives.
Shaw experienced it firsthand as a two-time breast cancer survivor (stage II and then stage IV), who turned to cannabis in her greatest time of need.
And now, as she strives to bring that wisdom and passion to the cannabis industry, the establishment is trying to discount Shaw and her team at Roundtable Wellness before they can even get started.
A Life-Changing Journey into Cannabis
“I was given a death sentence with three months to live, and when you’re given a death sentence, you’ll do anything,” Shaw says of her initial decision to give cannabis a try. “But this was 2009, when cannabis was still very much taboo, especially in the medical world.”
And so Shaw started reading up on cannabis research out of Israel as well as the emerging medical reports from Colorado, learning how cannabis was helping with cancer and other maladies.
“They have us thinking cannabis is a crime, and they’ll put you in jail for it – but it’s saving lives,” Shaw says. “I had to be a champion when everybody turned their back against me, doctors and practitioners, and nobody wanted to help me get cannabis treatment – and I had to do what I had to do to live.”
Cannabis literally saved Shaw’s life, and she wishes she could have been a cannabis champion for her mother who died from stage IV breast cancer in 1997.
Now, part of her mission and involvement in the industry is to be a meaningful steward of the cannabis plant in New Jersey and beyond through her company Roundtable Wellness.
Putting Together a Top-Notch Team
Shaw knew that a successful cannabis license application would require the utmost effort and attention to detail, which is where she was able to flex her entrepreneurial muscles.
“I put together a kick-ass team of some top-notch people – pharmacists, scientists, cannabis writers,” Shaw says, adding that she knew any half-baked attempts would be a waste.
“We hired the top law firm in the state, the top lobbyist in the state – and we even partnered with Rutgers University. Because I’m all about research and development.”
Inspiring the People of Trenton, New Jersey
When Shaw decided to apply for a cultivation license in Trenton she was met with open arms by the city’s community.
“In Trenton, I became ingrained with the community. The people there made it feel like my home, and I loved it,” she says.
And Shaw met a lot of people in Trenton, engaging with the NAACP or spending Saturday mornings with the East Trenton Collaborative. Members of the Trenton community even organized a reception for Shaw, packing into a local restaurant so they could welcome her to the city.
In a struggling city where people of color make up the majority of the population, it is exciting to have a qualified, inspiring black female entrepreneur come in with a desire to set up shop, create jobs, and engage with the community
And this being the cannabis space, what better way to restore some semblance of balance after the disproportionate impact the war on drugs has had on minority communities?
“I don’t want to see another white group with money come in, not do anything for the town, and then leave,” Shaw says. “It happens all the time. The wealthy come in, they say they’re going to do this or that – they do nothing – and then they leave.”
At one point, Shaw even met with Trenton’s Mayor Reed Gusciora and really liked him. “The reason why I wanted Trenton is because I love the city; I love the people; I love the community, and I love that it is warm, heartfelt,” Shaw says.
“Believe it or not I love the mayor, so I was a little taken aback by his statement.”
Trenton Mayor Playing Favorites with Out-of-State Cannabis Group?
The statement which left Shaw feeling “shocked” when she first heard it came during a virtual forum moderated by John Bailey of the Black Equity Initiative.
At one point during the forum, Mayor Gusciora said, “We’re really excited about groups such as Curio coming up from Baltimore and setting up base on Enterprise Avenue and actually being a regional distributor for medical marijuana.”
Gusciora also applauded the expungement of cannabis-related criminal records, saying that cannabis dealers of the past had more knowledge about this plant than “corporate giants just coming at this with money … and all our citizens in urban areas deserve to be a part of the new, green economy.”
However well-meaning, Mayor Gusciora’s comments about Curio Wellness were extremely unfair to the integrity of New Jersey cannabis and for Shaw and her team at Roundtable Wellness who have put so much into their application.
Not only did Gusciora reference Curio taking over the same area which Shaw had focused on in her application, but the application winners hadn’t even been announced.
So how could Gusciora know that Curio would be granted the license over Roundtable Wellness?
“I was taken aback. I was shocked, I was stunned, and then I was pissed,” Shaw says of Gusciora’s comments. “I met him, and I like him. He’s a good guy; I see what he’s doing for Trenton – and I want to help Trenton, I want to bring Trenton back, but here we go again.”
This is not a white or black thing, Shaw continues, this is just about fairness. May the best person win. “How can you say someone has won and welcome them to the town when the application process is not even over, and the winners have not even been announced? When I heard that I was just stunned. I was in a daze. Because I couldn’t believe a public official would say something like this.”
Roundtable Wellness Refuses to Give Up
Indeed, despite Mayor Gusciora’s comments, the application process is not over. No winners have been announced. In fact, as of Jan. 12, 2021, the state’s adult-use legislation hasn’t even been signed into law yet due to a legal stalemate.
Nevertheless, Shaw refuses to give up. She’s come too far. And she’s fighting for a worthy purpose.
“The big boys, the Wall Street guys, the big pharmacy players with the money – they always win,” she says. “Towns, counties, and states say they want to be fair, that they want minorities – but how do you ever win when it’s already written? This is the same thing that happened in the 50s, 60s, and 70s – redlining restrictions. We never get into the door.”
To Shaw’s thinking, minority groups don’t want a free handout. They just want a fair shot. And a multistate operator coming in and undercutting the application process is anything but fair.
“You always hear that New Jersey is crooked, you’ve got to be a mobster, or you’ve got to know the governor – I’m tired of that scenario,” she says. “Our team is well-funded, we have doctors…I’m not just playing as a way to make money, our team is trying to save lives and further cannabis research and development.”
How to Create a Balanced Industry in New Jersey?
The first thing the cannabis establishment in New Jersey needs to do is to be fair, Shaw says. Infuse the application process and the industry as a whole with integrity.
Making money is fine, but cannabis can’t be just about that.
“It should be about your application and your understanding of the plant – what do you want to do, are you hiring people in the area, are you focused on empowerment and workplace development – what is your story?” Shaw says.
“It has to start from real, true honesty. And fairness. America started on a dream and a hope. It started with small mom and pop shops. That’s how we started. So how do we ever do anything with the big boys already taking over? You never get a chance.”
Edmund DeVeaux, president of the New Jersey Cannabis Business Association is well aware of the situation in Trenton, Gusciora’s comments, and Shaw’s case.
“Trenton is in such dire straits, if they wound up with two license holders – everyone would think that would be fine,” DeVeaux says. “If Roundtable Wellness and an MSO got a license, nobody would have a problem with it. And the capacity is there for two licenses.”
Staying Focused, Adding Value, and Standing Strong
While New Jersey cannabis applicants await the results, Shaw is staying focused, sharing her ethos as a survivor, a thriver, and a warrior.
In addition to her work with Roundtable Wellness, she is also preparing to launch a mental health app in February called URAWARRIOR. The app will support people with depression, anxiety, stress, and worry through a platform that provides motivation, personal development, self-improvement, access to coaching – a functional lifeline for people who need help.
In regard to her cannabis ventures, Shaw also plans to get into processing and dispensing in addition to her pending cultivator application – in New Jersey and beyond.
And she hopes to start it all in Trenton. While the city’s leadership is seemingly playing favorites with an out-of-state operator, Shaw is standing strong.
“It’s time that we wake up. If I don’t fight, who’s going to fight? We always back down, we always play small, we always just take it,” Shaw says. “I’m tired of taking it; I’m tired of not standing up. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m standing up.”
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