Aja Allen endured uncertainty from 2018 until her Central Los Angeles marijuana shop, Sixty Four & Hope, opened last September.
Allen said she now feels like a living embodiment of the dreams highlighted decades ago by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., having pivoted to the marijuana industry from working in retail fashion.
Today, Allen is the owner of a franchise location of Sixty Four & Hope after winning a social equity license with the help of 4thMvmt, an L.A. company that partners with and invests in entrepreneurs from underserved communities.
Allen is optimistic she’s creating generational wealth for her family – while giving back to her community through a local nonprofit she founded, ProjectC3: Culture, Community, Compassion.
MJBizDaily spoke with Allen in advance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to discuss her professional journey and how King’s legacy helped propel her forward.
How did you get into the cannabis industry?
I started in 2018. I had no cannabis background whatsoever outside of from a consumer standpoint.
I was presented with the opportunity to be a social equity applicant through 4thMvmt. And they were the parent company of Sixty Four & Hope and have been super supportive of my journey.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a really tough neighborhood. And I kind of got a lot of PTSD from that, and cannabis is something that I turned to as a decompression tool.
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A lot of my friends went to jail for cannabis.
Fast forward to my adult career.
I started out in luxury retail. That’s where I got my passion for wanting to be a business owner and wanting to help people.
When social equity was presented to me by 4thMvmt, I said, “Wow, this is such a great opportunity.”
It’s a retail store, something that I’m passionate about.
It’s cannabis, something I’m super passionate about. And I’m restoring hope.
It was almost too good to be true. I stuck with it, social equity, the process and everything that happened within the last three years.
It almost kind of felt like it wasn’t going to happen for a while. But you know, here we are, four months in and you know, we’re making it happen.
How has business been since you opened in September?
It’s been slow, especially with COVID-19, and everything going on in the world right now.
It’s slow, which is to be expected with a new business.
But we have a lot of traffic that goes by and a lot of people that stop in.
That’s our opportunity to educate them about Sixty Four & Hope and what the name means itself: Legalization of cannabis with Proposition 64, and now there’s a ton of hope wrapped around that.
People are getting pardoned from prison early. People like me are getting access to equity licensing and becoming business owners.
And that, I think, really turns on a light bulb for a lot of people about who we are and what we’re trying to do.
Do you consider yourself a success story in social equity, just having gotten a store open and operational?
It is a dream realized.
It’s not about having a million dollars. For me, it’s about being a pillar in my community. That was a dream of mine.
I belong to a lot of communities. I belong to the Black community. I belong to the brown community. I belong to the LGBTQ community.
So I have a ton of people that have eyes on me. And I really want to be able to show them.
I come from a place where there were dead bodies in my alley, where I felt like I could possibly never make it out of there.
And my dream was to make it out alive.
Just to achieve that is a dream for me, just being in a place where I have financial stability.
I didn’t want to die and have anybody stand up and say, “She could sell the hell out of some clothes.”
Some people want to be fashionistas. That’s not what I want to be.
I have so much more to offer this world than high fashion.
It was my dream to be a part of my community and do something that creates generational wealth for my family.
What has been the most difficult part of all this?
There’s a ton of stuff I could say, like the fact that we had to have real estate in place before we could even get the doors open, and then COVID happened.
So, a year and a half … we’re paying rent on a commercial building that had no return on investment. That was super tough.
But I can honestly say that the most difficult part was not knowing.
Just psychologically, the roller coaster that I went through emotionally, and just being in the dark for 3½ years, just literally not knowing what’s going to happen with my future, because I put everything into this because I wanted it so badly.
Do you feel like you and other successful social equity entrepreneurs represent the type of change that Dr. King had in mind?
Absolutely. We’re living his dream as we speak. This is the dream that he spoke of.
He wants us to be able to live together in harmony and be at peace with each other as a human race.
And, in order for African Americans to be respected, then we have to have financial stability. We have to have generational wealth.
We have to be involved in everything that’s going on.
And for me, Dr. King was somebody that was spoken of very highly.
I grew up in a Muslim home, so my mom is very pro-Black.
So we spoke of Dr. King, minister Louis Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammad, all of the pillars in the Black community.
These are the people that were my heroes growing up.
Do you have any advice for other BIPOC entrepreneurs who are trying to get businesses off the ground?
For any future owners or operators, all I can say is just stay diligent.
Make sure that you are putting yourself first always.
If this is your dream, do not give up.
Continue to advocate for yourself, for the rest of us as a cannabis community.
Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do this.
I’m a prime example of what can be accomplished.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
John Schroyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.