Article by Chris Sorensen, McLean’s
Brendan Kennedy first caught a whiff of opportunity six years ago. The former software entrepreneur—newly armed with an M.B.A. from Yale—was working at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm when he spotted something unusual amid the thousands of dossiers on tech, software and biotech firms: a start-up focused on medical marijuana.
Intrigued, Kennedy searched the vast databases at his fingertips. There were zero companies of significant size operating in the space—a surprise given the push to make weed available for patients in the U.S., Canada and other countries. So Kennedy embarked on a marijuana world tour, travelling to pot-friendly U.S. states, Canada, Spain, Jamaica and the Netherlands. His conclusion? Cannabis is a mainstream drug, consumed by regular people and, as a result, will eventually be legalized, creating a global industry worth more than $200 billion. Those who get in on the ground floor, with strong brands, would end up very rich.
Fast-forward to today and Kennedy is well on his way to becoming one of those lucky few. As CEO of Seattle-based Privateer Holdings, Kennedy oversees several cannabis-related companies, including website Leafly, which reviews marijuana strains and dispensaries, and Marley Natural, which sells pot products and bills itself as the “official Bob Marley cannabis brand.” Two years ago, Privateer launched Nanaimo, B.C.-based Tilray, one of about three dozen licensed Canadian medical marijuana producers.
Kennedy credits his business education, as well as that of his two partners (both have M.B.A.s), for bringing high-level management skills to a sector that, in his mind, suffered from cloudy corporate thinking. There was another key advantage, especially where stuffy Wall Street investors were concerned. “People thought we were crazy to enter this industry,” Kennedy says, “and an M.B.A. from a good university made us seem a little less crazy.”
Privateer’s professional, M.B.A.-influenced approach is evident throughout the firm’s operations. The corporate website is notably free of cannabis leaves and peace signs, while the executive photos look like they were pilfered from a life-insurance company. Similarly, Tilray’s clean, white website looks like that of any pharmaceutical manufacturer. It operates like one, too: earlier this year Tilray, with a 60,000 sq.-foot facility, became the first licensed producer in Canada to export marijuana overseas, and last week became the first to launch a clinical trial. Even Marley’s products, ranging from hemp-infused body lotions to pipes made of glass and black walnut (“paraphernalia” in cop-speak), look far more Aesop—a high-end brand of skin care products—than head shop.