Viola Village arrives
The Viola team broke ground on their downtown St. Louis dispensary on Thursday, November 12. Viola, otherwise known as VMO or Viola Missouri, is led by NBA stars Al Harrington and Larry Hughes. Of the 11 vertical (cultivation, manufacturing, and dispensary) groups, Viola is the only minority-owned vertically-integrated company in Missouri. The group was also one of the top-scoring application groups.
Harrington has been in the Cannabis industry for 10 years, Hughes joins him in his Missouri venture. The pair have known each other for over 20 years – they were both drafted to the NBA in 1998.
“The Missouri market was evolving,” Harrington said, “Abe [Givins, director of business development] kept trying to get me in with different people. It got to the point where this made business sense to put his team together with my team. We went out, we applied for licenses. Obviously, it’s super competitive here.
“We took advantage of an amazing opportunity,” Harrington told Greenway. “We are the first all-Black owned organization in this state and obviously we’re proud of that. We want to make sure we’re not the last though. We want to use our platform to create opportunities for people who look like us. Obviously, this is a great start for that.”
Harrington said their organization relies heavily on local community relationships.
“It’s important to tap into the local people – the Abes, the Larrys,” Harrington said. “We talk about community redevelopment and having a true impact – a positive impact – in trying to rebuild our communities through Cannabis. You have to have people like this who know what’s going on that know the city, that know the state. For us, it was an advantage because they’ve been using that to their advantage, working a lot. We have people who have been here their entire lives.”
“The people in St. Louis, they’re very prideful people, they really represent this city well, out and about,” Harrington said. “People are expecting a certain amount of excellence from us and we’re prepared to deliver on that.”
VMO shares the name of Harrington’s first Cannabis company Viola Extracts, which was founded in Colorado in 2011, and is named after Harrington’s grandmother who used Cannabis to treat her glaucoma and diabetes.
“For me, growing up, Cannabis was something that was always demonized,” Harrington said. “I was always taught that Cannabis was a gateway drug – that weed was like smoking crack. I didn’t want to be a crackhead. My aunts and uncles definitely dabbled in recreational drugs. My grandma would kick them out of the house for smelling like reefer, she called it. It was always something I was afraid of.
“I tried Cannabis for the first time when I was 29 years old – I was so paranoid I swore I’d never try it again,” Harrington said. “The next time after then was with my grandmother, and the other reason I tried and had her try was that I had seen all the news about the benefits of Cannabis and she was suffering from glaucoma really bad. Part of me wanted to laugh and see my grandma high, but you know, seeing how it helped her that fast and to help her go downstairs and read the Bible was something that moved me.”
Ten years later, the Viola organization is entering its 6th market. Viola currently operates in Colorado, Oregon, Michigan, California, and Washington. Harrington said that the experience with his grandma was a game-changer.
“The plant came before my grandma, but it didn’t have meaning until her,” Harrington said.
“She was just in pain,” Harrington told Greenway. “The first time I told her about it, she told me I was outside of my mind, ‘I’m not smoking reefer.’ The next day, she was just in so much pain, she would try anything. I always say it was God working. The first day, she had no pain, the next day, she didn’t use any and I told her to try it again, and she said ok. She immediately got relief and here we are, 10 years later.”
“I’ve been on this walk. I’ve been able to assemble this unbelievable team. We’re best in class,” Harrington said at the press conference. “If you think about the War on Drugs and the way it has impacted our communities, 85 percent of drug arrests are always Black-related. Right now, this is a new trillion-dollar industry, and we have no representation. Larry and I are coming together in a way that we can fight that by creating opportunities for people of color to be able to participate in this industry. Generational wealth is at-risk. There are other industries we can mention – rice, sugar, cotton, liquor – where we pioneered those industries and we have no representation, no ownership. We’re here to change that, to represent an opportunity for people of color to participate in this industry in a major way.”
Hughes has built a legacy in his hometown of St. Louis, which will be expanded by his involvement with Viola, from youth outreach to overall community wellness.
“It’s all about your team and the people you put around you in order to push your initiatives further,” Hughes said. “Everything that Al has done and everything he’s done for African-Americans to gain ownership, to have a place, get rid of the taboo that goes along with marijuana use and Cannabis use, and really highlight the good and benefits it has on people, on communities, and in life in general.”
Both Harrington and Hughes discussed at the Thursday, November 12, 2020, press conference their determination to ensure generational wealth for African-Americans is secured in Cannabis.
“It’s economic empowerment, economic freedom,” Harrington told Greenway. “For me, and my belief and everyone can feel differently about this, but until you can generate capital and have revenue within your community, you’re always going to be enslaved. For us, we talk about generational wealth, those who are billionaires come from a foundation that was laid before them. Cannabis is a great foundation we can hang out hat on. That’s what I believe in and what this company believes in.
“Until you own something, what do you really have? If you think about it, there was a time in this country when we owned businesses and we were doing really well and we were prospering. A lot of that was taken away from us. Black people built America, if you read the real history books, everything that has happened in this country, we had something to do with it. Every single vertical in this country, we have no representation, no ownership in. That’s the problem, that’s what we’re trying to fix in our organization so that doesn’t happen again.”
The Olive location, at a hefty 4,500 square feet, is directly across the street from the under-construction MLS stadium and from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. The Iowa location – the top-scoring dispensary application in the state – will sport a drive-through, something Viola co-founder and director of operations Jamil Taylor says will provide patients a safe way to get medicine during the pandemic. Taylor cited COVID as a real concern for the operation.
Taylor noted partner and local business leader Abe Givins, Viola Missouri’s director of business development, was to be given credit for securing such impressive locations and leading the team’s active community outreach. Givins is also Hughes’ cousin and business manager – and a familiar face across St. Louis and the Cannabis industry.
“Black excellence is what we strive to be, best in class in the Cannabis industry,” Givins said. Givins said the organization plans “to provide job opportunity, economic development, and try to help curve the violence in the inner city by medicating with medical Cannabis instead of opioids and illegal street drugs. We fight to get African-Americans out of jail for Cannabis offenses.”
“I used my network of sports & entertainment minds to make sure my clients, friends, relatives, and business partners see their STARPOWER as NBA players and to use their platform to get these messages out to the community and the masses. What good is having STARPOWER & not using it for the greater good?”
“Right now, there are currently 11 vertically-integrated businesses in Missouri’s Cannabis program,” said Taylor, denoting VMO is the only all-Black owned vertical. “We’re very proud to be that team and represent St. Louis and Missouri with the utmost respect, with the utmost high standard of our Cannabis products. This is a medical program. We’ll be serving patients throughout the Missouri area. Our products will be sold across the entire state of Missouri.”
The team shared that they expect to hire 30-40 jobs for cultivation and processing, and another 15-25 jobs in retail. Over 75 percent of those jobs are expected to be full time. The team expects to ramp up hiring quickly upon becoming operational. Studies show Black-owned businesses tend to hire more people of color at all levels.
“This is really a stupendous time in our country for so many reasons, but specifically, the acceptance of Cannabis nationally,” said Viola’s Lori Crosley. “There are 34 states now that have included Cannabis as part of their wellness and well-being plan for their residents. Missouri is at the forefront.”
Company leadership has public support from local leaders, including Congressman Lacy Clay, Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis), St. Louis Alderwoman Cara Spencer, Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, and Alderman Jeffrey Boyd.
“I’m extremely proud to be here today to celebrate something that is long overdue,” said state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis). “African-Americans have been locked out of the industry. This is what a dream team looks like. We have a truly major accomplishment in the Cannabis industry in the state of Missouri. It’s truly a game-changer. We’re talking about creating jobs throughout the City of St. Louis and throughout Missouri, in ways we have never seen before.”
Boiling it all down, Givins says “it’s about generational wealth and changing the negative stigma around Cannabis.”
Their two St. Louis dispensaries – one at 20th and Olive and the other off of Cherokee Street on Iowa – are expected to open in April 2021.
“There are challenges in everything,” Harrington told Greenway. “For us, the biggest challenge is getting this business standing up, to deliver quality products to the patients here. Obviously, we’re going to be focused on educating and also employment. There are a lot of things that we want to do here, starting with these stores while we build out our cultivation and manufacturing. We’ve done it before and we’re excited to have Abe and Larry here to be able to stand these businesses up.
“This is going to be exciting because of what we represent, who we represent. We are really a representation for our community, for people who look like us.”
Viola Village has not finalized their SKU offerings for Missouri yet but plans to create some St. Louis-specific strains. In other markets, Viola Brands feature personalized strains such as Jump Shot OG, Grandma’s Pie, and Jersey Drive. Beyond flower and pre-rolls, the organization is looking at a variety of manufactured goods from edibles to concentrates.
Ten years in the Cannabis industry is often noted to be the equivalent of a lifetime of any other industry. How does Harrington know if their organization is doing it right?
“You never know,” he said. “You just keep working hard every day. Keep your head down. Put one foot in front of the other. That’s the biggest thing I can say that I’m most proud of in our organization – that’s our overall attitude. We never get to the point where we can become complacent because I feel like there’s a lot of work to do.”
Viola has two retail dispensary locations – 3420 Iowa St. and 2001 Olive Street. Its cultivation and manufacturing facilities will be located on North Broadway, also in St. Louis.
This was the cover story of the November/December 2020 issue of Greenway Magazine.