Equity in cannabis: Q&A with Sumayyah Emeh-Edu, Canopy’s VP of diversity and inclusion

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Image of Canopy Growth's Sumayyah Emeh-Edu

Sumayyah Emeh-Edu, the new vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at Canadian cannabis producer Canopy Growth Corp., says marijuana businesses trying to achieve equity can’t rely on goodwill alone.

Instead, inclusionary practices must be embedded into the inner workings of a company and guided by leaders who consider diversity a business objective and not just a symbolic gesture.

Building an equitable business might be particularly important for Canopy, which has its eyes on expanding its footprint into the United States, where diversity has become a key political issue and an integral component of new state marijuana markets.

In the U.S., multistate operators such as Illinois-based Cresco Labs and Massachusetts-based Curaleaf Holdings have taken steps to appoint vice presidents in charge of promoting DEI.

MJBizDaily spoke with Colorado-based Emeh-Edu, nearly three months into her new role, about what her job entails and to gain insight into the potential benefits of hiring a diversity leader in the cannabis space.

You were previously the director of diversity and inclusion strategy at Charles Schwab. What motivated your move into the cannabis industry – and specifically to Canopy?

I believe in the power of CBD in particular and obviously THC as well. I see what it’s done for people in terms of improving their life and helping them manage pain or chronic medical conditions.

Canopy put in their job description that they recognized what the war on drugs had done to communities that were disparately impacted by the war on drugs.

I’m going to be honest with you: In corporate DEI, people don’t often use the word “race.” They don’t use the words “social justice.”

It’s usually what social justice folks would call a bit “fluffy,” in that you just talk around the edges of DEI.

But I thought that was bold for (Canopy) to put that. They said, “Black, Indigenous, Hispanic.” Just from the job description, I knew that they were serious.

Not that other companies aren’t serious. But that is the difference between DEI work and social justice work – sometimes you’re just trying to get a means to an end and there’s lots of tap dancing you do in order to get there.

On a day-to-day basis, what does your work actually involve?

I really see my role as an internal consultant. I would say about 70% to 80% of the things I work on, I don’t “own” as a part of my job function. So I don’t “own” any (human resources) process. But my objective is to integrate DEI into those processes.

I’m usually a consultant to the (subject matter expert) who is well-versed in that particular talent practice, and I am helping them integrate DEI into it.

The objective of any DEI strategist is to really look throughout the company, whether it be how you engage with clients, the experience that employees from underrepresented groups are having, and with leadership, in helping build the capabilities of our leaders so that they’re more inclusive.

Is there a goal by which your work is being measured?

I think the objective is that we understand we have the responsibility that our employees mirror the communities we serve.

Oftentimes in DEI, and with past clients that I’ve had, the focus is on hiring. I used to work a lot with tech companies. And they’re like, “Just find us this magic place where all these underrepresented candidates live, and we’ll hire them.”

If people from underrepresented groups do not feel welcomed, they don’t feel supported, they don’t feel like they have the same advancement opportunities as their peers from homogenous groups, then they don’t stay.

If people are leaving, then what’s the point of all the hiring initiatives that you’re doing?

My goal is to figure out talent management, from hiring to advancement opportunities and everything in between, and also our physical environment of the workplace – how do I make people from underrepresented groups feel like they belong, so that they will stay and we can hire more of them and promote more of them?

And do you have the power to achieve those goals?

I think, in general, we have to let go of the trope that one person solves (every problem).

Our companies are reflections of the inequities that are present in our communities. I don’t have to fix everything outside the walls of Canopy, but those (realities) influence what happens inside of our proverbial four walls.

When we think about it from that perspective – I, Sumayyah, will not solve diversity, equity and inclusion for Canopy.

But my role is to influence others, so that they have their own journey. And my job is to integrate into our systems. This is why inequities exist, in general, that our systems are usually wrought with bias.

My job is to embed how we mitigate bias, and how we integrate inclusion into our systems, so that we’re not just leaving it up to goodwill for Canopy to make change – we’re embedding it into how we do business and how we work and how we promote talent.

I think it is fair to say that Canopy’s top executives and board are predominantly white. Should we expect that to change as a result of this focus on diversity, equity and inclusion?

I would say that this is going to be a journey. This is my 11th week (with Canopy), and there are lots of priorities to tackle.

Of course, having a diverse board, having diverse leadership is going to be on the priority list at some point.

But I am starting at bare bones, building foundational things that are going to be relevant for the entire company.

Unfortunately, like many companies, and at the last organization I was with, our company mirrors most companies in terms of who’s a leader and who’s on the board of directors, etc.

You said earlier that corporate DEI initiatives can sometimes be “fluffy,” or used as a means to an end. How do you keep a role like yours from being purely symbolic?

It all comes down to leadership. Is the leadership team ready for the experience that is going to take a lot of work?

It’s going to take focus and attention, just like a business objective, because it should be seen as a business objective. There’s tons of research to show that diverse teams are more innovative, are better at decision-making.

Unless you are intentional about embedding DEI into what you do, you’re not going to make progress.

It comes down to leadership, and I’m very lucky that not only did I interview with (CEO David Klein), but I’ve only been here 11 weeks, and I’ve had several engagements with him.

I know this might be hard to believe, but there are a lot of DEI professionals that don’t even get that level of access.

For cannabis companies that are reading this, and are interested in improving diversity, equity and inclusion at their companies, do they need to have a DEI lead like yourself in order to achieve that?

I would say you need at least part of a role.

There needs to be someone to go to say, “Hey, I have this idea. How would I make sure that I’m equitable as I’m thinking about it?”

I would say it has to be a role where that person has some agency and some power and some relationships to get the work done.

I’ve seen a lot of times where it’s a 500-person company and the DEI person is at a coordinator or specialist role.

That person has no power, they have no agency, they don’t have the ability to influence leaders. It has to be someone that has some influence and some power and that is elevated and supported to do so.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Solomon Israel can be reached at solomon.israel@mjbizdaily.com.