In this Cannabis Creative Blog, I sit down with Sarah Ahrens, founder and CEO of True Labs for Cannabis, LLC, the first certified women-owned cannabis testing lab on the East Coast. We talk about the importance of safe cannabis products, the challenges of raising capital as a woman, and making conscious business decisions to have a positive community impact.
In immerging cannabis markets, the people talking to regulators matter. These experts shape the policy that will become the guide for the legal market, so it’s important to have the right people in lawmaker’s ears.
In New Jersey, Sarah Ahrens is one such person. She is the founder and CEO of True Labs for Cannabis LLC, the first certified women-owned cannabis testing lab on the East Coast.
Ahrens wants everyone to know what’s in their cannabis. A self-described health-conscious consumer, Ahrens reads the labels on every product she buys for herself and her family. She is also a long-time cannabis user and feels like the ingredient label on your cannabis products should be just as clear as what’s in the grocery store.
This focus on transparency and safe products has pushed Ahrens to get involved in the industry in more ways than one; in addition to her scientific testing lab, she also advocates on the state level for a safe and operationally effective market for everyone in New Jersey.
Ahrens comes from the business world, with an MBA and over 20 years of experience. When the New Jersey put out RFPs for plant-touching businesses in 2019, she knew it was the perfect time to combine her knowledge with her passion for product safety.
But having passion doesn’t mean the road will be an easy one. Raising capital is notoriously hard in cannabis, and the challenge is compounded when you’re the only woman in a room full of men. Most industries allocate less than 3% of investor capital to MWBE businesses, and cannabis is no exception. Ahrens relied on her skills from the sales and business world, but know there are many who aren’t as fortunate in a restrictive boy’s club.
With the New Jersey cannabis market now open, Ahrens and her team have been spending the last several months at “all hands on deck” and have no plans to slow down any time soon. As for what’s coming next? Ahrens is keeping that close, but there’s no doubt you’ll want to stay tuned.
What’s the one thing in the industry you’re most excited about right now?
SA: In a new and growing market like New Jersey’s, there’s so much to be excited about! I’m probably most excited about New Jersey’s potential to have a best-in-class cannabis market. This state has a strong history of innovation, from Thomas Edison to Bell Labs to being the pharmaceutical capital, and we can continue that tradition for excellence in the cannabis realm.
What’s one thing in the industry you think needs to end or change?
SA: Access to capital, banking, and excessive taxes are all seriously pressing issues. For a startup business in the cannabis industry, obtaining capital or accessing loans is extremely difficult – more so than it needs to be. Federal small business loans are not an option due to Prohibition; most banks avoid working with any business in the industry out of concerns around stigma, and women and minorities are at an extreme disadvantage in raising capital in the first place, let alone in cannabis.
In any industry, less than 3% of investor capital goes to WBE or MBE entities, and you can imagine the odds are a bit worse in the cannabis industry. Top that with the “double taxation” that cannabis businesses face with IRS tax code 280E, and it’s very expensive to operate a cannabis business compared to any other type of business.
Talk to me about diversity and inclusion in your organization.
SA: We are all about diversity and inclusion! True Labs is the only certified woman-owned cannabis testing lab on the East Coast, and I am proud to be the first with this distinction, although I hope to not be the last.
We believe that everyone brings different life experiences to the table from across races, genders, religions, gender identities, and other life experiences. It makes us a stronger, smarter company. We encourage people to bring their whole selves to work each day.
How are you pushing for social equity in the cannabis industry?
SA: True Labs is very supportive of the individuals and businesses in our New Jersey cannabis market who are represented and managed by people from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs.
Some of the ways we are pushing for social equity include: through our hiring practices; by providing advantageous pricing to microbusinesses, which is a small business license type in New Jersey that is targeted at incorporating greater social equity; and our lab is located in an impact zone – communities identified to be disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs, where cannabis businesses are given state priority with the intention that they hire more locally and give back to these communities.
How does sustainability factor into your business choices?
SA: We’ve designed our laboratory to be environmentally conscious. This includes installing a new HVAC system that has an energy recovery ventilation system built in, which will help reduce electricity, and the use of dishes and utensils to avoid additional waste. We are also big on recycling as much as possible. I would love for True Labs to become a Certified B Corporation at some point, which among other things, demands high standards for environmental performance.
What do you see the future of the cannabis industry as?
SA: There remains a lot of work that needs to be done within the cannabis industry as well as the cannabis testing ecosystem. Regulations need to be honed, the market is in a growth stage that will ultimately stabilize, and during the next two years or so, labs will be adapting in real time as regulatory bodies and producers alike grow with this industry.
As the maturation of the market starts to materialize, labs will be embedded as an integral part of the supply chain, and more traditional operating challenges should become the focus, from increasing efficiency, bringing the newest technologies into our operation, and providing the best customer service.
What’s the biggest challenge you/ the company has overcome?
SA: There are challenges associated with starting any business. What stands out to me, though, are the challenges I’ve faced as a female entrepreneur, and specifically access to capital. Securing funding becomes a steep hill to climb due to all the factors I mentioned earlier. It has certainly helped that I have a lifetime career in sales, but most female entrepreneurs are not so lucky. There’s a lot more the industry could do to break down gender barriers when it comes to financially supporting WBEs.
What’s something you’re proud of but don’t get to share a lot?
SA: Starting a science-based business without having a scientific background has been a journey. Certainly, True Labs has an amazing scientific leadership team, particularly Dr. Carl Christianson, True Labs’ Chief Science Officer, and I would not be able to continue this journey without Carl or the rest of the team.
For me, there has been a ton of self-discovery that has happened along the way. From fighting and overcoming very real imposter syndrome, to understanding some of my innate behaviors are internalized gender stereotypes and how to navigate around that. It has been an immensely rewarding experience to see my dream of starting this business become a reality. I’m proud of the team that I’ve built, and I’m proud of how far True Labs has come, the integrity that pulses through our existence, and how we are so uniquely different in so many ways.
What do you want customers to take away from an experience with you?
SA: I’m real, honest, transparent, ethical, dedicated, hard-working, caring, and thoughtful. These attributes have been weaved into True Labs for Cannabis, from our culture, to our hiring practices, to our scientific methods and business operations, to how we interact with customers. True Labs is fully dedicated to partnering with our customers to really understand their processes and be able to provide them with excellent value-added service.
What’s next for your company/ you?
SA: Right now, we are “all hands on deck” with the anticipation of the New Jersey cannabis market opening and expanding. We are eager to support this initial phase of the market and are currently focused on preparing our lab to be ready to operate efficiently at these early stages.
Beyond this, we already have ideas for which projects come next, although I’m not going to publicly reveal what those are yet.
What’s your favorite way to consume?
SA: I’m not sure I have a favorite, but my preferences have certainly changed over time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more health conscious. Lighting up and smoking anything is not on the menu for me.
Another consumption change for me — and a huge benefit to having a legal market — is that I always ask for a Certificate of Analysis (COA) before buying. Cannabis COAs certainly didn’t exist 20 years ago, when you just “got what you got” and that was it. Knowing how easily the cannabis plant and products can become contaminated has been eye-opening. But also knowing that we have cannabis testing labs like True Labs to verify product safety is reassuring, and I make sure to read the CoA every time. I appreciate the transparency and knowing what’s in each product.
What’s your favorite fun fact about cannabis?
SA: The cannabis plant contains more than 100 active ingredients, or cannabinoids. While we all know the common ones, such as THC and CBD, 90% of these cannabinoids have not been researched. There’s so much versatility to this amazing plant and so many benefits, yet so much about cannabis has yet to be discovered.