In this Cannabis Creative Blog, I sit down with O’Neil Rudolph, founder and CEO of CannaChange, an app that allows customers to return cannabis packages. We discuss the complexity of cutting down industry waste, the challenges she’s faced as a young Black woman at the intersection of different industries, and the unexpected way she’s planning to scale her business.
It’s no secret that the cannabis industry has a waste problem. And yet when laws and regulations call for excessive packaging in the name of consumer safety, there is no simple answer to reducing the waste. So what can be done?
That’s a question O’Neil Rudolph is tacking. Rudolph is the founder of CannaChange, an app that allows consumers to return reusable cannabis packaging back to dispensaries. Their returns are rewarded with points, which they can exchange for rewards at different dispensaries.
Rudolph first tried to tackle the root of the issue of cannabis waste, rightly thinking that cutting off the issue at the source would be the simplest route to take. But she discovered that excessive packaging was in fact legally mandated and quickly realized that this was an issue that no one person was going to solve.
So Rudolph turned their attended to tackling the issue from a different angle- keeping that waste out of landfills. And thus CannaChange was born.
Rudolph is no newcomer to the industry, a longtime medical patient and daily cannabis user. With CannaChange, she hopes to show the average consumer how small actions add up, and even a little recycling goes a long way.
Rudolph’s journey as a founder and CEO hasn’t been an easy one. As a young Black woman and a member of the LGBTQ community, she’s faced discrimination and levels of scrutiny from potential investors that others would not. But in their doubt Rudolph has found their power, knowing that no one can answer the questions she can, or do what she can do.
Rudolph exemplifies the best of the cannabis industry, where a person can see a problem and provide a solution, all while furthering their connection to this incredible plant.
CannaChange is currently rolling out for consumers in California, Colorado, and Louisiana. But Rudolph is just getting started, working on ways to expand their app to meet the needs of processers and packaging companies also looking to track their recycling.
What’s something you’re excited to see in the industry?
OR: I do see a lot more sustainability legislation coming to light. Whether it’s just being introduced or actually passed. So that’s really exciting even when it’s not fully passed, just exciting to see the bills introduced and see so much support for them. And a lot of states have already implemented them. So that’s always really exciting.
And I do see federal legalization in, in the near future. So hopefully that’ll be coming sooner than later and that’s also something that I’m really excited to see happen.
What’s something you’re not excited to see?
OR: I would still say the lack of equity and legislation and the way that it’s applied. I think there’s been a lot of progress in the conversation about it and about the marginalized communities disproportionately affected, but not a lot of action to actually combat that way that they’re affected. And so that’s something I think it’s been unfortunate because the energy is there and the drive is there to address it, but it’s just still a lot of times put on the back burner,
How are you pushing for equity in the cannabis industry?
OR: I’m a Black, LGBTQ woman, founder and owner at the intersection of like tech, cannabis and sustainability. In any executive position, it’s really difficult to navigate being a member of any marginalized communities. But I think specifically in those industries just especially at the entry point, there’s a lot of inequity that people aren’t even fully aware of. Even in cannabis, I think there’s a lot of assumptions made that it’s an equitable and very diverse industry to be a part of, but there’s still a lot of issues there.
My goal is to always be outspoken about those issues and encourage other people to do the same, because I think it’s only way to get more people able to be in positions where they are able to make full decisions for a company and feel like they have the power that they should, especially when it’s their own company. I want to always be outspoken about that and the obstacles that I run into and really just build relationships with other people who are willing to have those conversations and bring attention to them as well.
Talk to me about diversity and inclusion within CannaChange
OR: Within the company itself, it’s really me running almost everything.
It was really important to me to have the backend developers I was working with also identify as women because in that field specifically, there’s also such a lack of diversity and exposure for women in tech, especially developing software. So that was just really important to me. I felt like it also makes the whole process easier for me to navigate because there would be a mutual understanding of how difficult that all can be if you’re not navigating it with people who have been through similar obstacles.
That was a really good decision to make. I think that it helped a lot and will continue to in the future. When I am looking to expand in other ways, that’s also something that I will definitely keep in mind because that’s important to me personally, but I also think it’s important for a company to really have that mission in and fully execute everything they do with keeping it in mind.
How can the cannabis industry do better with sustainability?
OR: One of my processes going through developing CannaChange was, initially why can’t we just reduce the amount of packaging? That was just my first initial thought. Obviously it’s not nearly that simple.
Then I did so much research in how legislation has changed and how many different regulations there are around packaging now in every single different state. Even though it seems like the simplest solution and it’s definitely the best, is to simply have less packaging, and have the packaging that is there be able to be disposed of in a sustainable manner, whether it’s composted or recycled or be used, but with all the different regulations in place, it’s really not that simple. And we’re not just able to minimize the amount of packaging directly or change the material because of like the childproof packaging, for example, or Mylar bags.
That was when I had to shift to thinking about what to do with the packaging after it’s already produced. And I think that was a difficult shift to go through because I wanna to be able to tackle the simpler solution of, well, you don’t need nearly this much, but that’s been consistent argument for a long, long time. And I think that a lot of packaging restrictions are only getting stricter and I do hope see that change to offer more flexibility and, and sustainability. But I think for now the best thing is to focus on what to do with it after it it’s already produced because there’s already so, so much of it produced out there.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome?
OR: It’s really difficult to get on a business call being very young. I’m a black woman at the intersection of these three really difficult industries to be a part of. And then I also get on a call with a much older, straight, white man, that’s a very different perception that they would have of me versus someone who identifies very similar.
It’s hard to get on those calls and expect to have them see your value proposition. That’s why they reached out, that’s why they wanted to schedule a meeting with you and discuss business. And to feel completely like everything you’re saying is invalidated or like you have to prove yourself. They ask a lot of questions that they wouldn’t ask a lot of other people, as if it’s not something I would know.
For me, it’s a constant reminder, this is your business. These are not questions that other people can answer. They’re not right or wrong. It’s your business and it’s your company that you started. That’s been a good reminder for me to have. But it’s definitely difficult with other people doubting, especially the mission of sustainability and that it’s a stretch that, that the industry can be fully sustainable. So I think that also just goes into the older generations as well and with them being kind of used to sustainability being an issue that’s often neglected.
What do you want someone to take away from your app?
OR: I want them to feel and know that they did make an impact. One of my goals with allowing people to track their waste within the app was to show them that even if you’re returning this one piece of packaging or this one glass jar, it’s building up over time. You’re building an impact over time. Just like it builds an impact over time to not recycle or reuse or compost.
So with all of the negative impacts, it can have a strong, positive impact on the flip side. That’s something I want people to really take away and realize that we can fully normalize the act of returning this packaging and keeping it within the supply chain in that way. And I hope that that’s what people are able to feel when they’re using it and know that they actually do have an impact.
OR: I have gotten a lot more interest from other sides of the industry than I thought I would. From the brand side of the packaging, the actual producers of it, and the companies that are packaging their products, but aren’t actually distributing them at a dispensary, and then on the cultivation end.
I initially saw this as like a dispensary-consumer relationship in the app, the consumer goes to the retailer and returns it. And then that’s I guess the transaction, those are the parties involved.
But I’ve also heard so much feedback from other sides of the industry, for people who are also wanting to increase their sustainability efforts. I’ve been trying to figure out how those can be integrated or how I can also do something to target those areas, because I think I just wasn’t expecting that. I love that feedback and support from so many other areas of industry as well, but of course I would love to make as big of an impact as possible. I’m trying to kind of figure out the best way to offer sustainability initiatives in those areas as well.
What’s your favorite way to consume?
OR: Definitely smoking and definitely a bong is always my go to. I’ve tried to really branch out, but I’m always going back to that.
What’s your favorite fun fact about cannabis?
OR: I’ve been learning a lot about terpenes. I had obviously heard that word and kind of knew what they meant but I had no idea how many there were and that they were also in so many other things and how to identify all different types. Once I started diving into that, I was overwhelmed with information, but in a good way, because I was like, oh, this is so fascinating. So I’m really excited to keep learning more because I had no idea that it was such a complex topic.