Renaissance Woman

DC dispensary owner Chanda Macias used her scientific and business know-how to land a license and launch a successful company

by Omar Sacirbey

Take a peek at Chanda Macias’ diverse educational and professional background, and it’s easy to see why she’s been able to build a thriving medical marijuana business in Washington DC.

In fact, one could argue that everything she did up until starting her dispensary, National Holistic Healing Center, prepared her for success as an entrepreneur in the MMJ industry:

  • She earned a Ph.D. in cell biology at Howard University in 2001, immersing herself in the study of cannabis along the way and building a comprehensive understanding of the plant and how it can help patients.
  • That same year, she transitioned into the business world, landing a gig as a research scientist at Colgate-Palmolive, a Fortune 500 corporation known for toothpaste and dishwashing soap. During her time there, she deepened her knowledge of cannabis and also learned how companies run.
  • In 2006, she left Colgate and spent a year at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before taking a position in 2008 as director of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematic (STEM) Education at Howard, where she honed her scientific knowledge and developed her management practices. She also mentored students – a skill she would eventually parlay into an informative and comforting approach with patients.
  • A few years later, while keeping her Howard post, she enrolled in the MBA program at Rutgers University in New Jersey, specializing in supply-chain management. That experience helped round out a powerful arsenal of scientific and business know-how.

Macias’ background in these areas helped her land a hotly competitive dispensary license in the nation’s capital and navigate a challenging business environment with stiff black-market competition. It also has helped her overcome several hurdles, including suspected discrimination she has faced as an African-American woman, skittish business neighbors, price-gouging growers and an issue with key software her dispensary uses.

Macias’ story shows that investing in a scientific and medical education pays off by helping cannabis entrepreneurs build trusting relationships and reputations that keep patients coming back. Moreover, it highlights how a business education and professional experience can lay the groundwork for dodging unexpected bullets.

Today, National Holistic – which launched in 2015 – is a thriving dispensary that Macias says accounts for more than 25% of Washington DC’s MMJ patients. Additionally, Macias was able to parlay her experience into a sought-after cannabis consultancy, working in new markets such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland, where dispensary license winners have hired her to help get their businesses started.

An overachiever, the 43-year-old Macias also:

  • Founded and leads a group of mothers who are involved in the marijuana business.
  • Leads the Women Grow chapter for Maryland and Washington DC.
  • Sits on the advisory board for the medical marijuana program at Southern University in Louisiana.

The extracurricular activities consume valuable time, but they have allowed Macias to raise her profile in the local and national community, resulting in a strong business and support network for Macias and her cannabis industry colleagues.

For all the value Macias got from her education and experience, her success would not have been complete without healthy doses of perseverance and savvy.

“I know that the people who hire me respect my craft and my knowledge,” Macias said.

Writing a Winning Application

Macias’ first big challenge was putting together a winning license application, one made all the harder because so few licenses were available – five were on offer in the District in 2014.

Macias emphasized her scientific background. At Howard, for example, she performed cancer research and had an interest in marijuana’s ability to shrink cancerous tumors. When her professors nixed the idea of her pursuing that line of study, Macias kept learning about medical cannabis in her free time.

In addition to her medical research, Macias laid out to the District’s MMJ regulators how she planned to incorporate cannabis into her patients’ treatment plans. She also explained how, over many years of study, she had learned what cannabinoids fought tumors, controlled muscle spasms or induced sleep. And Macias detailed how she had developed a treatment methodology called “strain-ailment alignment,” which matches strains based on their cannabinoid and terpene profiles with the ailments they are best suited for, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis or insomnia.

In her application, Macias noted that her staff would include a clinical engineer whose job would be to examine the biochemical composition of the flower, record what cannabinoids and terpenes it possessed, and then relay the results to Macias – who would match the strain with the ailment it would be best suited to fight.

“So, when patients come in, we have this knowledge already recorded, like in a library, and we can call up this knowledge and use it to help the patient,” Macias explained.

Drawing from her business background, Macias also brought on a lawyer, a business operations specialist, and sales and marketing talent and other professionals.

“The key is to show that you understand the regulations, and emphasize compliance. To do that, you need to have those people on your application: the scientists, the medical staff, the lawyer, the operations specialist and the compliance specialist,” Macias said. “You need subject-matter specialists, and when you can show that you have these people on your team, you show that you’re serious.”

The approach worked. Having highlighted professionalism and her specific medical treatment plans, Macias emerged from a pile of applicants as one of the license winners.

Real Estate Rescue

In a city full of embassies and consulates, Macias is also a skilled diplomat. She complements her scientific and business know-how with an ability to connect with patients and colleagues. It’s a skill that also rescued her from losing her license – before she had even opened her dispensary’s doors.

Before winning her license, Macias had leased a spacious, no-nonsense office space in the basement of a three-floor commercial building in 2013 and informed the landlord that she was hoping to open a medical marijuana dispensary if she won a license. The landlord said fine, according to Macias. But when she won her license in October 2014 and it became known to the neighboring business owners, they told the landlord to cancel the lease or they would move out.

Macias started scouting out a new location. The hunt was interrupted when one of her former Howard professors offered her a temporary post with the National Institutes of Health in Ethiopia, where she trained students and investigated infectious diseases such as malaria.

That work was interrupted, however, when District regulators told Macias in 2015 that she had one month to get her dispensary ready for opening – or she’d lose the license. Macias returned to Washington DC and, with the landlord’s permission, met with the other tenants in the building to explain her business.

The views of the tenants – who included lawyers, architects and a bagel store operator – had progressed in the roughly year and a half since she had won a license. So, changing minds was easier.

By emphasizing the medical and health aspects of her business, Macias disarmed tenants of their prejudices against cannabis. Macias also brought her security chief with her to answer concerns that her dispensary might be a target for armed robbery.

“They wanted hard-core facts. I gave them research, and let them talk with my security chief, who explained to them how we keep things secure,” Macias said.

The education blitz worked: Macias was granted her final license on July 17, 2015.

Shut Out of Supplies

Macias, however, wasn’t able to open right away because she couldn’t source any product. At the time, there were only four vertically integrated MMJ businesses in Washington DC. They all had limited product and weren’t eager to wholesale to the new solo operator who threatened to swipe market share.

Why didn’t she have her own cultivation operation?

Macias had been interested in running a grow with her dispensary. But she couldn’t secure the necessary capital – at least $500,000 – to pay for a grow site. She was well aware of studies that suggested banks and other lenders discriminate against minorities, who are disproportionately denied capital more than non-minority capital seekers, and suspects that discrimination played a role in her struggle to raise funding.

“Being a minority, it was hard for me to get funding to fund a grow. It was hard to find the investors that would help fund a grow. It’s hard for minorities to get funding period. For a grow, it cost at least half a million (dollars), and I just couldn’t get that kind of investment at that time. So I did what was in my capacity,” Macias said.

Macias’ supply troubles changed when she was in Colorado on business and by chance met Corey Barnette, CEO and chief cultivator at District Growers, one of DC’s vertically integrated marijuana businesses. Macias won him over. Impressed by her science-driven approach to business, Barnette ended up selling a pound of Skywalker OG and a pound of Buffalo Soldier to Macias so she could get her doors open. That allowed National Holistic to launch in September 2015.

Locating product remained a problem, however. The next vertical operator who offered Macias product demanded she buy a minimum of 10 pounds at a whopping $6,500 per pound. Most pounds at that time fetched about $4,000. Today, prices range from about $2,400 to $4,000 per pound.

Macias didn’t have ready access to $65,000. But turning down the offer carried the risk of running out of product and perhaps closing. Weighing that risk, Macias and her husband – part-owner Michael Bobo – took took out a second mortgage and bought the 10 pounds.

Over the course of that first year, however, supply eased up, more growers came online and the market became one where dispensary operators and growers buy and sell product from one another.

“I have the gamut of everyone’s strains now,” Macias said.

Building a Patient Base

Macias didn’t raise prices to compensate for the high wholesale product price; instead, she instead focused on building her patient base. When patients visited, Macias and her staff would talk with them, gauge their illnesses and needs and then use the strain-ailment alignment methodology to find a variety that suited their condition. That scientific approach appealed to patients, especially new ones unfamiliar with marijuana’s therapeutic benefits and leery of its stigma.

National Holistic grew its patient base, but only moderately – and not enough to reach Macias’ patient growth goal of about 100 new clients per month. Macias started contacting area doctors she knew who wrote recommendations for MMJ cards, and one connected her with Shawnta Hopkins-Greene, an African-American woman who owned MyCannX. The firm oversees a network of physicians in Washington DC and Maryland who are certified to recommend medical cannabis, and it connects patients and dispensaries to those doctors.

The move paid off. National Holistic now gets about 100 new patients per month, and through early August, it had more than 1,600 patients. Even more important, National Holistic has a patient retention rate of 98%.

Keeping Costs Under Control

Macias’ business smarts have allowed her to keep a lid on costs. Because Macias didn’t want to raise prices, she sought ways to cut costs and maximize her dollars. One way she does so is by buying ancillary products, like packaging and glassware accessories, in bulk.

For example, Macias said she can forecast up to three months in advance her supply needs for product packaging, which she sources from California-based Marijuana Packaging. That three-month bulk purchase of about 6,000 units saves National Holistic 5-10 cents per unit on packaging.

“That cost savings adds up,” Macias said.

Macias also gets bulk-purchasing discounts from companies like Florida-based Greenlane – owner of the largest vaporizer distributor in North America, VapeWorld – and Maryland-based Cannaline, which makes glass jars for cannabis.

“These are savings that we can pass on to the patient without sacrificing our own revenue,” Macias said. “Bulk purchasing is everything.”

The other benefit of bulk buying and streamlining costs? Macias doesn’t have to ask her cannabis suppliers for discounts or favors: “I don’t have to nitpick, and say, ‘Can you do this for $7 a gram instead of $8?’ I don’t want to have that conversation with my cultivator.”

The reason, she explained, is she doesn’t want to introduce any awkwardness or tension into her relationships with growers in the city.

“Most of my business is driven by cultivators,” Macias said. And, she noted, many growers now come to her and offer bulk-purchase discounts. The upshot: She essentially gets discounts without having to ask for them.

Preparing a Backup Plan

Reliable inventory management also means having a manual plan ready in case your automated system goes down – as happened with Macias. She uses a software platform operated by MJ Freeway, which suffered a hacking incident in early January that resulted in a major crash of the Denver company’s point-of-sale system.

“Of all the DC dispensaries, we stayed open because we had a manual dispensing protocol previously approved through the Department of Health,” Macias said.

For that manual backup plan to work, however, National Holistic staffers follow a daily routine that includes making sure all transactions and relevant customer data are recorded on Excel spread sheets.

“We were able to stay open because everything is properly backed up. We knew what our patients’ limits were, how much of their allotted quantities they had used, and we kept our doors open throughout that shutdown ordeal,” Macias said.

Macias credits the strategy of having a manual backup to her experience in academia and at Colgate, which had its own standard operating procedures and best practices and where meeting compliance and safety standards was built into the day-to-day company culture.

“I adopted the model from that previous experience,” she said.

Experience – medical, scientific and business – and knowing how to apply it have served Macias well. They have helped put her in a position to capitalize on growing medical cannabis opportunities in the eastern and southern United States, as well as in the District, which will become a destination for medical marijuana cardholders from Maryland and tourists from across America.

Professional experience, she stresses, can serve the whole industry well.

“The more medical knowledge we have about this plant, and the more understanding we have, the better it’s going to be for everyone in this industry,” Macias said.