How an alum became a pioneer in an emerging, booming industry
The way Elise Coppens (Marketing ’10) talks about the legalization of cannabis in Canada tells you something about her approach to the budding industry (pun intended; more to follow).
Leading up to Oct. 17, the day the federal government relaxed legislation passed in 1923 prohibiting marijuana use, the 31-year-old, Toronto-based entrepreneur rarely used the word legalize during our interviews. She leaned instead toward commoditize. Maybe that sounds like Bay Street jargon but, coming from her, it seemed weighted by equal parts culture and economics.
To many, cannabis might seem like a new and even surprising industry, a trading of hoodies and dim street corners for blazers and bright corner offices. But it’s not new for Coppens; already, her roots in corporate cannabis run deep. In fact, as one of the first employees of Edmonton-based Aurora Cannabis when it started roughly five years ago, she ranks among pioneers. She has played a role in shaping a business that has made modest investments blossom into heady dividends.
To legalize it is to suggest that what is now an economic good was once a societal bad – baggage that Coppens knows brands don’t bear well. But to commoditize it is to treat it as if it were no more stigmatized than, say, wheat. It positions cannabis – marijuana all grown up, in a way – in the market as a thing upon which solid businesses are built and careers like hers are made.
But there aren’t many careers like hers, and she knows it. There was a time, Coppens says, when “I believed in the stigma. I thought [cannabis] was dirty.” She thought she’d be “a stoner” if she tried it. Today, as a consultant who has helped establish licensed growers, as head of international sales for a rapidly growing industry-related software company, and as a marketing maven poised to launch her own brand of female-targeted cannabis products, she sees this new commodity as having promoted a very different outcome in her life, with the promise of more success to come. She treats the industry as if she owns it, which, in some measure, based on various investments over the years, she does.
“There’s not a lot of people who have the experience that I have and have actually built and ran facilities,” she says.
What’s more, Coppens understands Canada’s role as a leading dealer in this commodity. Other than Uruguay, no other country has nationally legalized cannabis to the same or greater extent. In time, soon perhaps, she’s certain many will. And they’ll need help to do it right. Her help.
“Canada is the beachhead,” says Coppens. “Everybody’s now looking at [us] for direction and … I’m uniquely positioned to help assist with this global expansion and global growth around this upcoming industry.
“I understand the full ecosystem.”
For all that, “I don’t even know how to roll a joint,” says Coppens. “Honestly.”
“I wanted to be involved in something where I could help shape history.”
It’s surprising she hasn’t learned by now. Coppens has touched virtually every aspect of an industry that, last summer, was worth about $31 billion in Canada alone.
As a marketer, she got her start with Nova Hotels, a chain with locations throughout Western Canada. Her doorway to her current career, however, was through Aurora, where she signed on as head of marketing in spring 2014. Then, the now-multinational company was not quite a year old, and about a year away from securing a cultivation licence. Now, it’s the world’s second-largest producer of medical marijuana.
At that time, she was familiar with the product, but knew virtually nothing about the industry, she admits. Yet its potential for growth fascinated her. As did the challenge of figuring out how it worked during an era of prohibition.
“Having to really chart your own path appealed to me,” she says. “I also wanted to be involved in something where I could actually help shape history.”
Soon enough, parsing out the legislation, regulations and the complications of working with what was a medication for some and banned substance for others gave her what she needed to branch out on her own.
At Aurora, she says she became familiar with everything from facility construction to production to quality control and more. “I was part that first wave of licensed producers where the industry was really legitimizing itself,” says Coppens.
By January 2016, she could no longer be contained.
By January 2016, she could no longer be contained. Coppens went freelance as a consultant to help other cannabis startups get up and running. She relocated to Toronto, home to bankrolling Bay Street investors (and now also to her, as the stepmom of two sets of twins, six and eight years old).
As Coppens grew into her new career and consultancy, incorporated under the cheeky name of High Heals, a theme emerged. At each company she worked with, the distance between her and the commodity, raw cannabis, grew. While she has invested in growers, her recent ventures have focused on less obvious aspects of the market, such as the genetics involved in strain modification, stability and product consistency.
The fact that a massive retail market was about to demand possibly unprecedented volumes of Big Bud, Purple Urkle, Super Skunk and whatever other strains recreational customers previously purchased from the black market did not interest her as an entrepreneur. Not directly, anyway. Coppens recognized the cannabis market was more nuanced, and that value-added aspects were a natural evolution for the industry. Long before licensed producers received the validation of stock symbols on the Toronto and New York exchanges, she felt a change coming.
“I realized, with legalization on the horizon, the future of cannabis isn’t in farming,” Coppens says. The last thing she was going to be caught doing come Oct. 17, a.k.a. Weed Wednesday, was tending acres of marijuana under glass.
Getting creative with cannabis
These days, whenever she gets the chance, Coppens tells would-be gangjapreneurs to think carefully about any plans to get into production. It’s very expensive, she says, and very competitive.
In January 2018, Coppens made one of her frequent visits to NAIT campus (tacked on to a visit with family and friends who still live in Alberta). She came at the request of her former instructor, Teresa Sturgess (Marketing ’83), who asked her to speak to students in the JR Shaw School of Business.
Coppens nearly filled a 135-seat theatre in the Centre for Applied Technology, and delivered a 50-minute presentation that went on for another 20 minutes thanks to questions from students keen to understand an industry that seemed ripe for the picking. Eventually, Sturgess had to cut them off.
Having Coppens at the front of the room still stands in stark contrast to her former instructor’s memories. In class, the future entrepreneur preferred the back row. Nevertheless, “She was not shy,” says Sturgess. “She would ask a lot of really good questions. And she would speak her mind, share her opinions.”
Which is what she did during her return visit. In front of the crowd, Coppens was frank, factual, even hard-nosed, an expert with an earned sense of ownership over her topic. She shared her personal mantra, “Zero f---s given,” partly as a challenge to no one in particular and everyone at once, but also as reassurance that venturing where others fear to tread can reveal a promised land.
But the takeaway was clear: the value of cannabis, from a business standpoint in Canada today, lies in getting creative with it. Letting it go up in smoke in a simple grower-to-consumer transaction is a missed opportunity.
Finance instructor Max Varela Arevalo’s perspective on the pre-legalization spikes in some stock prices reinforces this. “The valuations in the stock market are based on estimations,” he says. “They’re not based on reality, so I think there will be a bit of settling in those prices.”
Now that the novelty has worn off, he adds, “The people who made money investing in marijuana stocks basically made it already.”
Even before that happened (Aurora, for example, shed nine per cent of its value upon its post-legalization U.S. launch), Coppens recognized this. The future of the industry, she believes, lies in “ancillary products, testing and services that support licensed producers.”
That’s why she’s invested in a Canadian company called Ample Organics, a software service that helps producers meet government requirements to track every gram of cannabis produced. She’s also been a business development consultant for the Toronto-based startup (and essentially its director of international sales) since last February. She’s now working to sell the technology in New Zealand, which is considering a referendum on legalization, and Australia, whose citizens appear to favour decriminalization despite government trepidation.
“I think that takes a certain level of foresight to recognize that the cannabis industry is more than just the plant,” says John Prentice, Ample Organics CEO. And even though provinces across Canada are reporting product shortages, he still feels that other aspects of the industry, in terms of entrepreneurial opportunities, are going overlooked. “There needs to be the infrastructure to support that,” he says.
But the impact of Ample, as Prentice describes it, has broader implications – ones that align with Coppens’ values, and the reason she’s become a passionate advocate for this industry. By giving producers a tool to easily and accurately track every gram, he foresees an industry that could be potentially safer than the pharmaceutical business it has become a part of. Last year, that sector saw 325 recalls in the U.S. alone; in the first quarter of 2018 alone, there were more than 100.
“I think [Coppens] sees a pathway here to actually make a real difference for people all over the world through the use of data,” says Prentice, “through informing the industry and creating a reliable and robust supply chain that ensures consumers are receiving safe product.”
As Coppens told Sturgess’s students, “What I put into my body, I’m very cautious with.” For her, cannabis, in forms other than what’s available at the local head shop, qualifies as one of those things. Given the direction of her career as an unabashed pot professional, it likely always will.
A life-changing discovery
The first time Coppens tried the stuff, it was for the same reasons people have been using cannabis for more than 2,500 years. Then, it was medicine, mostly.
The two most notable active ingredients in cannabis – that is, the cannabinoids responsible for pushing the commodity to previously lofty heights on stock markets – are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). Every pothead will know the former, as it’s the compound primarily responsible for the “high.” That said, sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder also look to it for relief, and it helps stimulate appetites among the severely ill.
But it was CBD that initially attracted Coppens. Many researchers see a link between the compound and relief from pain and mental health issues, as well as promoting sleep, which Coppens was lacking.
“I had lost my younger brother in 2010 unexpectedly and I was using sleeping pills to help get through the night and shut my brain off,” she says. When she grew tired of how groggy other prescription sedatives left her during the day, she got a prescription for medical cannabis.
“It was the only thing that really helped alleviate my insomnia … with zero repercussions. It’s changed my whole quality of life.” She admits that it now also takes the strain off 12-to-15-hour days spent building multi-million-dollar companies.
"It’s changed my whole quality of life.”
And that’s the spark of inspiration behind Coppens’ next venture, one that will test her mettle as an entrepreneur, because it’s her idea, to make or break. Imminently, Coppens plans to launch a line of products specifically designed for women’s health under the name SHE – “suppositories, capsules and different oils and creams,” she says, developed with partners in the pharmaceutical industry.
She’s capitalizing on two significant trends. One is the fact that the cannabis industry has a strong and influential female contingent. More than a third of its executives are women, suggesting the possibility of greater internal support of Coppens’ venture, or at least understanding. The other trend is demographic. Though numbers vary with sources, female cannabis users trail males only slightly, providing plenty of room in the market for branding directed at women.
For all Coppens’ confidence, her venture represents the one instance in which she reveals anything resembling uncertainty.
“I feel a lot of pressure to do this right. That’s probably been my biggest challenge: generating the confidence
to bet on myself to do this. It’s nerve-racking when you have a brand that relies on and is based off of your own experience,” says Coppens.
“It is really scary to take money from people and have that on your shoulders.”
Overcoming the stigma
To Coppens’ advantage, the successful development of the SHE line depends on the very skills that brought her to where she is today. In addition to being an entrepreneur, she’s a marketer at loves finding the story that connects people to products.
She’ll lean on that to move past what may be her biggest hurdle: stigma.
Cannabis may be legal, but it’s not yet like alcohol. It hasn’t had almost a century to put prohibition behind it, the way booze has in most of Canada (Prince Edward Island being the exception by holding out until 1948). At the time of publication of this story, cannabis has had about six weeks to become normalized in the eyes of the country.
Coppens experienced her share of shaming about her own use. It’s part of what motivated her to become an educator, and a kind of role model.
“I was able to combat that [shaming] with my success,” she says, and to convince people that “she’s not your quintessential stoner.”
In a way, her approach also leverages the stigma, even if inadvertently. It expresses an image of rebelliousness that Coppens clearly enjoys – and which she feels others might benefit in adopting.
“For me it’s about building a community around the unapologetic female.” The brand is for “all women: women who work full-time jobs, lawyers, stay-home moms, women who are suffering from arthritis. It’s focused, really, on not being perfect.”
“For me it’s about building a community around the unapologetic female.”
During her talk at NAIT, Coppens didn’t seem to feel the need to be seen as perfect. To do so would have been disingenuous anyway. Anyone in this industry has to acknowledge the yin and yang of cannabis: some of it will be sold in a form that damages health and some will be sold in a form to help treat the problems it may have contributed to.
In any case, Coppens wanted to be seen as someone with a depth of knowledge that has few rivals in an emerging industry. She told her story to students in spreadsheets and bar charts, and made sure the theme was clear: in the right hands, this is an opportunity capable of changing lives.
Before encountering cannabis, Coppens didn’t see herself as an entrepreneur. “I never in a million years thought that I would be running a company,” she says. But the loss of her brother was a cruel awakening. She realized she had just one shot at making the most of life. And she wasn’t shy about it.
When the time came, she told her boss at the hotel chain it was time for her to try something new.
“Employees always think the grass might be greener on the other side,” Coppens remembers him saying. “For you, that might be true.”