Women to Watch: Naomi Tao
Proper Brands has made a name for itself and has taken Missouri’s appetite for medical cannabis seriously in both quality and variety of products. Recently, Proper was named Company of the Year for Greenway’s Best of the Industry: Readers Choice 2022. In order to run a great company, you need great people and one asset Proper Brands has in spades is great people. Naomi Tao holds her head high (no pun intended) and manages to make her work look effortless.
What you might not know about Naomi is how she found herself in Missouri’s medical cannabis market. A creative with a healthy wanderlust, Naomi spent nearly a decade living in cities in California and cannabis was well represented in the creative industry. During a stint living in the Sierra Mountains, away from the hustle and bustle of San Francisco and Los Angeles, she had a pivotal moment with the plant. “It was fairly common for people in the area to cultivate at home, and I happened upon an opportunity with some friends. We continued to cultivate at a small scale until I moved back home to St. Louis to be closer to family. It was nothing like the commercial scale of Proper’s grow, but it was a stepping stone whether I realized it or not.
By 2020, I had been back in St. Louis for a little while already when the pandemic began. To no one’s surprise, the travel industry dried up and I was on the search for a new gig in the creative world. In my search for a new career, Proper fell into my lap and I haven’t looked back. It was the type of creative career in a nontraditional industry I was looking for.”
As we moved through the gamut of questions we ask the smart women in our series, Tao said this about women’s representation in the Missouri market, “While there are incredibly smart, talented women in Missouri’s cannabis industry, there is the potential for many more to enter into it. Like many male-heavy industries, it can be hard to get a foot in the door. Since the industry has been historically male, when you’re comparing two resumes of a male and a female applicant there is a higher probability of men having prior experience in the field making it harder for women to get in at a management level position. We need to be taking a more holistic approach to hiring—taking in everyone’s body of work, evaluating what can realistically be learned over time, promoting women from within organizations, bringing in women from other industries with transferrable skills. Hiring women and more diverse candidates will not only promote new ideas and increase visibility, but make the industry stronger.”
Favorite thing about her role in the industry? No hesitation or lack of passion here. “With the industry being new to Missouri, there’s a lot of room to explore creativity and to develop fresh and interesting brands. As a creative, that’s all you can ask for—to be given the runway to explore different concepts and build from the ground up. Branding is important. It’s not just logos and colors but the identity and personality of a business—it’s how we connect to our patients and build that initial trust and credibility. It’s exciting to walk into a dispensary and see the wide variety of homegrown brands on the shelves. It’s a testament to the creative talent in Missouri. We have a really exceptional team here that does everything from strategic planning, brand development, packaging design, web design, photography, content strategy, and execution, to name a few. We work like a mini agency. There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing our ideas come to fruition in a big way.”
Her own hope for the current market in Missouri is absolutely diversity-driven. “Diversity is a necessity in the medical cannabis industry. The industry was built upon the backs of minorities; and yet the gap continues to widen with women and minorities underrepresented in executive and management-level positions. I want to be clear that this is industry-wide, not just something that Missouri struggles with. But as a nascent market, Missouri has the chance to diversify the cannabis industry which could lead to: opening doors and broader outreach to untouched communities, an injection of new ideas and relationships, and a bigger industry in general. It’s a win for everyone.”
Perhaps the most endearing part of our talk was how Naomi answered our last question – “What should readers know about what you think it takes to be successful in cannabis?” which was humble. “I don’t think I’m any kind of expert in what it takes to be successful in cannabis, but like any career, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing, work hard, learn to adapt, and be willing to fail. On top of that, figure out what you’re good at and see how that can translate to the cannabis industry. In such a young industry, there are unmet needs that still need to be filled, some of which may have not been identified yet.”
With such a positive role model for those looking to enter the industry, it’s no surprise that Naomi is setting a higher standard for Missouri and we couldn’t be more pleased to see such wisdom and open-mindedness.