Maya Elisabeth founded her company Om Wellness back in 2008. Om received the first manufacturing license in California, in Berkley, and made edibles at the time. Since its founding, the brand has gone through evolutions to be standing today. Strategic pivots have meant survival for the CBD and THC wellness brand in the regulatory chaos of the California industry.
“It didn’t necessarily end up going the way we thought it would or hoped it would,” says Om CEO and Founder Maya Elisabeth of the movement from the legacy market to the licensed one. “I’m super grateful, but if I flashback to a few years ago from now, things were so abundant.”
Women were early front runners in the inaugural years of legalization, with data from MJBiz showing an average of 36% female founders in 2015 that dropped down to 22% in 2021. Data emerged showing that women founders also received lower valuations from investors— 30% to 40% less than their male counterparts. Many of these challenges were compounded by COVID specifically for women, coupled with the extreme industry contractions in mature cannabis marketplaces like Colorado, Washington, and California.
“The biggest curveball was probably COVID,” says Elisabeth. “No business was able to escape COVID. Cannabis being deemed essential was a big turning point for the plant. That was a powerful moment. This is where we all thought it was going was towards— tons of female-centric brands, female power in the space, top leading women executives, tons of craft farmers with unique terpene profiles, and variety cropping instead of mono-cropping. As we get closer and closer to survival and further from thriving, the cards were stacked against us.”
With oversupply problems at the forefront, quality could be the first thing out of the window in a saturated marketplace. Struggling industries move towards mono-cropping out of necessity. “The outside conditions of COVID and the timing, the way California set up the laws. It’s made everything much less diversified on every level and made it harder and harder for small business owners.”
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As cannabis has been likened to a “bloodbath” in Om’s founding state of California due to oversupply issues, the CEO and founder had to pivot to survive. Elisabeth entered a timely partnership with cultivation mainstay CannaCraft as the now exclusive manufacturer and distributor of her brand.
Elisabeth says more companies need to join forces to live through this moment in the industry. “Cannabis is so unique,” she says. “It’s almost like people would rather suffer and go down alone, instead of speaking up and banding together.”
Om’s expansion to become a wellness brand with both a CBD side and a THC side to the company is one pivot the founder made. “I get to deal with my customers directly and it offers a glimpse into what is possible without all the hurdles and challenges I have had to deal with when it comes to THC,” she says. “We’ve toned down our menu, we went from 14 SKUs to about 9. I let go of everything but the bath stuff and the topicals because I wanted to hone in on our main piece of the market.”
In 2022, many cannabis companies in over-saturated marketplaces called to cap the licensing. This is one attempt at reducing the cannabis over-supply. “When things got really tough for the market, when the price for a pound was less than it cost to produce it, that was the bottom out,” says Elisabeth. “It became so flooded that it rippled out to everyone. Everyone felt it, our distributor at the time felt it. Our sales were cut down to a fifth of what they were.”
“We had a crossroads where we had to decide if we were a manufacturer or a brand. I did a lot of vetting of manufacturers, some are around today, and some aren’t,” says Elisabeth. “CannaCraft is the one we’ve partnered with for manufacturing and distribution and they’ve been champions of Om. We had long talks about how important it is for a small, legacy, women-owned brands to make it. It was important to them, and they’ve been championing us.”
The cannabis grown by CannaCraft for Om uses organic methods. CannaCraft’s umbrella of brands utilizes weed grown on the brand’s 20-plus farms in Northern California as well as in mixed-light greenhouses. “No one has been able to scale up the way they have,” says Elisabeth. “They still have legacy experience and legacy cultivators on their team, but they’ve been able to scale up and still win first place at The Emerald Cup. Hats off to their team.”
If she could write the laws and help amend regulations in the state, Elisabeth has a list of ideas. “I’d like to be able to make CBD products in the same kitchen I make THC. It would be really nice if we were all able to self-distribute,” she says. “To be able to move our own product. Of course, there should have been a very early on reparation and equity language built into legalization. The fact that there are still people in jail for cannabis right now is the most unjust thing.”
Elisabeth says one of the most obvious pieces of the regulatory puzzle missing for small business owners in California: taxes. While the cultivation tax was cut last year in an attempt by Governor Newsom to help curb the industry’s heavy tax burden, many advocates say it isn’t enough. “If we didn’t have taxes as high as we do, we’d be able to really thrive,” says Elisabeth. “I came from the legacy market. If you make it too hard to enter the industry legally, people will come in and learn the precision and bring it back to the legacy market. You can find the same quality on the legacy market without a 25% sales tax.” Elisabeth maintains that regulators need to protect small cannabis businesses more by not giving out too many licenses in small counties.
“We pay the most taxes and are looked out for the least,” says Elisabeth. “We have a lot of cash and we can’t bank, it’s the perfect storm to put us in the most high-risk situations. It would have been great to have had access to PPP [employment protection] loans and the support that other businesses had during the pandemic.”
Despite the challenges, Elisabeth is hopeful. The founder is bullish about interstate commerce as a potential solution for California’s woes. “I think interstate commerce would be amazing. Imagine being able to service any retailer in the U.S. that wanted your product. That would be a dream come true,” she says. “We have a little taste of that with our CBD business and it works.”
Cannabis pain relief through the mode of hydrotherapy is what Elisabeth is most passionate about. “I stumbled upon it just by putting some really strong cannabis oil in a bath and realizing my body turned into a noodle,” says the CEO. “I’m so passionate about this consumption form. Inhalables are my number one, that is my main consumption form. And then cannabis hydrotherapy is my heart. It has all the benefits of a topical, but so much more. It also helps with sleep, depression, pain, and dermatologically. Couples say it helps them safely lower their inhibitions, unlike alcohol. They’re really good for people who work out, and wonderful for women on their moon cycle. They cancel free radicals which cause inflammation and wrinkles. Is there anything this radical plant can’t do?”
Hydrotherapy offers a potent route for cannabinoids to enter the body through the colon and the womb space, says Elisabeth. “There is a concentration of cannabinoid receptors in the womb space and in the colon, it’s absorbed like a sponge,” she says. “There’s no chance of a bad trip in your head, just an extremely relaxing body effect and mind effect. In my opinion, there’s a consumption form for everyone.”
Om’s founder says her THC and CBD-infused bath salts are “the healing of the nation.” Not limited to women, they’re beneficial for men, for women, and for elderly people. “There’s not much these salts won't do,” says Elisabeth. “THC alongside broad spectrum CBD has a lot of supporting cannabinoids in it.”
When it comes to support for women founders and entrepreneurs, Elisabeth says: “We need all the things that men need. We need to generate sales and drive revenue. I definitely don’t think we need permission, that’s for sure. Come on in ladies, you can do this. It’s a challenging business space for anyone to enter.”
Without Om Wellness partnering with CannaCraft, Elisabeth says she doesn’t know if her brand would still be here today. “Find allies, partners, people you don’t compete with, people you harmonize with. You can’t do it alone,” she says. “Unless you have a billion dollars, it’s a good time to team up and be resourceful. Pay attention.”
The founder believes in giving back to members of the community, taking part in Pure Sativa’s giveaway for Women Celebrating Women, and speaking on a panel on Women in Cannabis during the conference Spannabis in Barcelona, Spain. Her advice was a message of hope, underlining how women need to help other women entrepreneurs in the industry thrive.
The CEO wants to expand the brand into as many states as possible. “Om’s SOPs are completely dialed in,” says Elisabeth. “We’re just looking to partner with like-minded MSOs. We don’t compete with that many people.”