You’ve heard the phrase “living hand to mouth.”
That’s how Susan Hwang was forced to run her first medical cannabis dispensary—taking the day’s sales revenue to Phoenix, Arizona to buy more cannabis to sell the next day, spending eight hours a day driving around.
Even when the dispensary was making $1 million a month, she said and home was a one-bedroom apartment, not that it mattered. Who had time to be home sleeping? Such were the hazards of diving into the nascent cannabis business without a big chunk of cash or the backing of wealthy investors.
“I had to do what I had to do. I didn’t want to sell ownership to a big investment group,” she said. “I didn’t want to be one of 20 board members. I had a vision, and I wanted to execute it.”
Execute it she has. The 32-year-old now owns a chain of medical cannabis dispensaries and associated cultivation operations, as well as cannabis consulting firm SH Management Services—not bad for someone who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12 with nothing but a suitcase shared with her father and sister.
And she’s just getting started. Hwang just might be changing how people shop for cannabis.
Hwang didn’t speak a word of English in the late 1990s when her family fled South Korea’s economic crisis that cost them everything.
The family moved to Los Angeles, California, then Tennessee, scraping by the best they could, sometimes living with friends, working multiple jobs. She spent nights after school working in the family’s janitorial business.
After graduating high school she went to college at Arizona State University, graduating in 2009 with a biochemistry degree. Her parents hoped she’d be a surgeon someday. “They didn’t want me to an entrepreneur, because of what they’d been through. They wanted me to take the safe route,” she recalled.
She was studying for a master’s degree when Arizona began implementing voter-approved medical cannabis. Despite her parents’ worries, and despite the fact she’d never even tried cannabis, she had an “innate entrepreneurial spirit” that couldn’t resist the possibilities of this new industry.
Arizona implemented a system with stricter limits on the number of dispensaries than states like California or Colorado, so when Hwang was approved for one of the precious few licenses, it was off to the races.
“I’m introducing some different concepts that the market has not seen. The words ‘smoke shop’ and ‘luxury’ don’t always go together.”
Off the Beaten Path
While many dispensaries were focusing on the population centers of Phoenix and Tucson, Hwang took a different approach. She opened a dispensary in Eloy, population 19,000, about halfway between those two cities. She opened a dispensary in remote Yuma, which is still that city’s only one. Both are named Jamestown.
She chose off-the-beaten-path locations because she didn’t want to compete with other dispensaries selling $5 grams. That’s the same reason she hasn’t considered expanding into crowded marketplaces such as Colorado or Washington. “If it’s too easy to get licenses, I don’t go for it,” she said.
Since most of her initial money went to licensing and dispensary construction, the pace of growth was necessarily slow.
“Because I got into the industry with no money, I couldn’t do what people with money were doing,” Hwang said. “I needed to leverage existing business to continue to build.”
Still, she was eventually able to move from her one-bedroom apartment to a house, and she was able to actually spend some time there. She obtained a third dispensary in California. Instead of driving around buying product, her chain was growing it.
She even tried cannabis, found she liked it and came out of the “cannabis closet” publicly.
Through it all, she resisted the urge to pull in major investors or become publicly traded, for fear of losing control.
“I’m not in it [to] get big, get a high valuation, sell out and retire,” she says. Rather, she wants to use her science background to learn more about the plant and educate others.
That’s a mission of her consulting firm, and it’s something she hopes to further with a novel approach to selling cannabis.
Why, Hwang asks, does society glorify alcohol with expensive wine, fancy craft beer and upscale bars, yet cannabis is often sold out of boring, nondescript buildings, often in the seedier parts of town?
So, she wants to bring some luxury to cannabis with high-end cannabis boutiques with top-dollar smoking and vaping implements—think the Louis Vuitton or Neiman Marcus of cannabis.
“I’m introducing some different concepts that the market has not seen. The words ‘smoke shop’ and ‘luxury’ don’t always go together,” Hwang admitted. It’s a way to challenge the stereotypes people have about cannabis consumers.
She is also eyeing places most sensible cannabis investors aren’t even looking at. She says she is prepared to enter the medical cannabis markets of Georgia, Texas, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and even her native South Korea, which legalized medical cannabis nationwide in 2018.
Hwang takes a lot of pride in accomplishing so much out of humble beginnings. “I’m very honored and grateful and thankful,” she said. “All the adversities and hardships and challenges I’ve been through as a child and am still going through today are what helped me and molded me and shaped me.”
“When people ask me what it feels like to be successful, I don’t know how to answer,” she said. “My definition of being successful is inspiring others and elevating other peoples’ lives and lifestyles. There are so many people I want to inspire. I want to continue to change their lives. I want them living like me but better than me.”