Nancy Do: A founder’s dream to democratize cannabis
By John Kregler, StartOut
Founders, particularly the underrepresented kind, tend to not shy away from a challenge. Whether in formulating a business idea or pitching to a group of investors who might not look like them, the difficult moments are part of the process.
Nancy Do (she/they) is no stranger to the difficult moments.
The thirty-eight-year-old founder from San Jose founded Endo Industries in 2009 to tackle the stigma against cannabis. The journey’s been filled with ups and downs but the mission, a commitment to disrupt the industry, has kept Nancy fighting in the ring.
For our feature this month, we spoke with Nancy about their life story, the state of being a queer Vietnamese entrepreneur, and what the cannabis industry so desperately needs in 2022.
Nancy, when did you know you wanted to be a leader?
My whole life, I’ve known I was a leader. I’ve always had new ideas, wanted to mobilize people, and push a group to be their best.
And I had a great role model in my dad. He owned a roadside automotive repair service and worked hard his whole life to support our family. I found my business philosophy through watching my dad. He led with integrity and hard work, and showed me how you could run a successful business honestly. He never needed to deceive or overcharge people. He always tried his best to give them the service they deserved.
This kind of leadership is often lacking in business today. I feel a sense of obligation to change the way we treat our teams and communities as a leader.
How did you become interested in entrepreneurship?
I’ve gone through several iterations of being an entrepreneur. I used to be a sommelier, and helped open bars and restaurants in my past life. While it was something I loved doing, I realized after a few years that it wasn’t as fulfilling. I wanted to find something that impacted people more directly in a positive way.
That’s when I found cannabis. It let me merge the leadership of entrepreneurship with my other passions in plant medicine, social justice, and community.
While living in LA, I found out that my neighbor was a grower for three medical card holders. I couldn’t believe that there was an entire budding industry beneath us all, so I started to dig deeper. The more I learned, the more I became obsessed with finding a place in cannabis, particularly if it meant I could help the people who needed it for medicinal use and help change the broken criminal justice system affecting folks of color, particularly Black and Brown communities.
This was all the motivation I needed to get involved.
What is Endo Industries’ core mission and what are the problems you’re addressing in the cannabis industry today?
Endo is a unique cannabis company. We are building the largest, mission-driven supply chain in cannabis. We do this first by supplying the healthiest starter plants to growers by using a proprietary technique called tissue culture. Our genetics are collected from breeders all over the world. Then we buy back the cannabis grown by our network of farmers growing our genetics, so they have a reliable supply chain to build their brands. The thing that’s missing in the industry right now is reliability and consistency through supply chain maturity and we’re trying to address that.
Also, over the past few years, cannabis really became the victim to corporatization. The marketing strategy behind big cannabis is rooted in the wrong things. We’re not talking about strains that are best for you or your loved ones, but instead, the messaging is all about ‘the highest THC levels’ and making money. At the end of the day, cannabis can be used for the wellness of everyone, and the future of it will not be dictated by the privileged who don’t fully care or understand the history of plant medicine and the communities who have fought for it.
Have you experienced inequities in the industry as a queer Asian founder? What challenges have there been?
I grew up in Eastside San Jose where access to resources was limited and queerness was not a comfortable topic. On the other hand, I was privileged to have grown up in the Bay Area, having seen big and small businesses grow into successful global companies in the heart of entrepreneurship. In watching the cannabis industry movement progress, I want to be a part of the community that can facilitate that kind of success. But it hasn’t always been an easy road.
Companies led by underrepresented founders obviously operate with limited resources in capital. Raising funds as someone who isn’t a white man with unquestioned credibility is a challenge. Then layer on the complexity of cannabis and how it’s still not federally legal (even though public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of legalization) and you have the ultimate dilemma.
I know my company would be in a different place if we had that kind of support, but I often use the metaphor that business is like a plant. If you overwater it and give it too many resources, it could suffocate. But the plants that go through stress often end up growing stronger because of it. I’m proud that my team is strong because we have fought to keep our space here in cannabis for good. We have fought to keep space for others like us in cannabis as companies, entrepreneurs, communities and consumers. There’s too much at risk if we don’t pave the way for others that look like us. Representation is key.
How do you keep your motivation despite the setbacks?
I’m lucky that my environment supports my passion. There’s so much rich history and inspiration in California. Cannabis was literally legalized because of the LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco, so I feel this sense of deep connection and responsibility in moving this forward. And when I set my mind to something, there’s nothing that will stop me.
What advice would you give to other queer and Asian founders looking for their motivation?
I think it’s really easy as an underrepresented founder to get lost in the fog. They put their heads down and stress out because it’s hard. Oftentimes, founders end up closing themselves off to the world. If anything, play into these strengths that feel like weaknesses because we have more passion, grit and perseverance than the average company.
Step out of the office, meet more folks, and search for the resources to pull it all together from communities both inside and outside your comfort zone. Be patient and respectful of yourself and your goals. Right now there’s been a surge in violence against Asian and queer people. This violence comes from bad information and lack of exposure to our communities. It also comes from deeply rooted racism and the model minority myth that hurts communities of color from becoming allies.
In order to change this, we must reach out to those who don’t understand us and connect human to human. While it’s disheartening to say the least, we have to build bridges everywhere we go. Whether it’s a local one or a national one like StartOut, having a group that you can trust and be your authentic self with is crucial.