Each week we highlight entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry for our viewers to learn more about the leading cannabis executives of our time. This week, we highlight Larisa Bolivar of Bolivar Hemp Company.
Meet Larisa Bolivar
Larisa E. Bolivar, M.A., has over 17 years of cannabis-related experience and is a recognized trailblazer and pioneer in the cannabis industry. Noted by the Washington Post as “one of the city’s [Denver] most well-known proponents of decriminalizing marijuana nationally,” Ms. Bolivar has a long history in the cannabis space as an activist, advocate, policy-worker, and entrepreneur. A serial entrepreneur, she is Founder and CEO of Bolivar Hemp Company, a hemp-based topical and skincare line; Co-founder and Managing partner of TCMS Global, a cannabis-related business development and management consulting firm; Executive Director of the Cannabis Consumers Coalition, a Cannabis consumer watchdog organization known for pushing for standards and laws regarding issues such as pesticides use and consumer safety. She also serves on the Board of Directors of Colorado NORML, and is Vice Chair of the National Diversity and Inclusion Alliance (NDICA), a Los Angeles based nonprofit that works with groups most impacted by the war on drugs to create ownership and empower workers to develop a more inclusive and diverse cannabis industry.
Ms. Bolivar, began her career by assisting patients in navigating the early and complicated process of finding doctors who would recommend cannabis and matchmaking them with registered caregivers in an effort to create safe access in a legally ambiguous space. This resulted in her shepherding and helping to register the first few thousand patients in Colorado through her organization Caregivers for Safe Access, which was renamed the Colorado Compassion Club and in 2005 evolved into one of the first dispensaries in Colorado, long before regulations were created in 2010. Through her advocacy and activism, she was able to find and promote one of the first doctors to publicly help review and sign recommendations for patients in a climate that was still under threat of DEA intervention and the threat of license revocation. Through the years, she has accumulated substantial Cannabis related experience in the area of advocacy, policy, market and behavioral analysis, public relations, communications, strategy, and business development. Ms. Bolivar was recognized as a cannabis industry pioneer by Sensi Magazine in 2015 for her hard work and constant dedication to advancing the social and business interests of the cannabis movement.
For the last several years, Ms. Bolivar has devoted her cannabis advocacy work towards creating a more diverse and inclusive cannabis industry. Her master’s thesis was “Enduring disparity after cannabis legalization,” which she wrote because she saw a grow underrepresentation of people of color in leadership roles and as licensed cannabis business owners. She comes from a very diverse family, including Peruvian, Chippewa Indian and African American, and has seen firsthand what the war on drugs has done to communities of color, including the disparity of drug arrests, and was inspired to work towards creating social equity in the new cannabis industry. Ms. Bolivar was part of the founding team of NDICA, and through that vehicle and the Cannabis Consumers Coalition, she has helped on policy impacting people of color in California and spoken globally on the need to create a more diverse cannabis industry for business and consumers. She is also currently on a workgroup in Colorado with a team of policy experts working with the Department of Revenue to explore policy initiatives to create more diversity in cannabis business ownership in Colorado.
In our interview with Larisa, we asked a variety of questions to learn more about Bolivar Hemp Company, and what it takes to build a startup in the cannabis industry!
DCN: Larisa, congratulations on being featured as this week’s entrepreneur of the week and for all that you do! Can you please share with our readers your elevator pitch for Bolivar Hemp Company?
Larisa Bolivar: Bolivar Hemp Company is a hemp-based topical and skincare line dedicated to providing the highest quality and effective ingredients geared towards health and beauty. We are founded by and operated by a woman and cannabis pioneer, and our products are made from hemp cultivated and manufactured by military veterans.
DCN: What ignited the spark in you to launch your business?
Larisa Bolivar: I have always wanted to have a cannabis product line. I did not have the resources or connections to raise capital to start a marijuana-infused cannabis line when I first moved back to Colorado in 2013 after A-64 passed. Ironically, in a state where I am a recognized pioneer of the cannabis industry from my early years carving a pathway for patients to have safe access to cannabis, including erecting a store-front dispensary in 2005, long before regulations, I did not meet the residency requirements either to start a cannabis business.
In the meantime, I worked on the ancillary side of the market building my consulting business. Hemp provided an opportunity for me to launch a product line without having to pay tens of thousands of dollars in licensing fees. A friend of mine, who is a veteran and hemp farmer and manufacturer, as well as a marketing consultant, called me up and said he wanted to help me launch a line with my name on it. Bolivar Hemp Company was thus born!
DCN: When you finally decided that you wanted to launch a business in the cannabis industry, what was your experience like when telling your family and friends? Were they supportive?
Larisa Bolivar: In the beginning, not so much. My mother worked in law enforcement on the administrative side for Vice Narcotics and my dad is an immigrant from Peru from a conservative Catholic family. Keep in mind that when I got involved in cannabis in 2001, Colorado had just legalized medical marijuana and people were still going to jail for having six plants, regardless of their medical condition or caregiver status. It was not a very popular time to be in cannabis as it was uncertain and very dangerous. Through the years, as cannabis became more mainstream, my family has become more supportive. In fact, my mom likes to joke about how I made a career out of the one thing that I always got in trouble for while in high school.
DCN: What is unique about your business?
Larisa Bolivar: Bolivar Hemp Company is unique in multiple ways. We are a minority woman-owned business founded by a recognized cannabis pioneer. The hemp is grown on a farm owned by a veteran and processed by a veteran. Our products, which are made from plant-based, natural and organic ingredients, are blended with plant extracts and essential oils that are scientifically formulated to target specific results.
DCN: What are some challenges you faced early on and how’d you beat them?
Larisa Bolivar: My biggest challenge was overcoming myself and my busy schedule. I am a caregiver for a 100% disabled veteran and am a managing partner for a consulting firm, both with immense responsibilities. On top of that, I have a nonprofit that works on policy to protect cannabis consumers, which also takes a lot of time. However, my desire to have a hemp line superseded all of my fears and doubts. I work late nights and have enlisted friends for help.
The other challenge is cost. I have always bootstrapped my businesses, and to bootstrap, another one seemed super daunting. I come from a working-class predominately minority family who is very risk-averse, especially when it comes to cannabis. Loans are hard to come by and finding the right investor is not easy, so in the meantime, I had to rely on myself, business partners and a couple of friends along the way. Enrolling people into my vision and helping them along the way helped me grow as well.
DCN: How did you come up with the name of your company?
Larisa Bolivar: The same friend who wanted to help me launch a hemp line really stressed using my own last name somehow for the name of the line. The name Bolivar is associated with revolution. Simon Bolivar was a revolutionary from Caracas, Venezuela liberated most of Latin America from Spain. My dad’s family is from Peru and my dad moved here seeking asylum in 1969 following a regime change in 1968. Hemp and cannabis liberation overall is indeed a revolution.
I really resonate with the whole revolutionary theme, in general, has been an activist and support progressive policies in general. A revolution does not have to be violent, it can also be a sudden change, which is exactly what cannabis legalization represents. The change took decades of pushing forward, with a surge in the late 60s. Many of my cannabis mentors and life mentors were those who were involved in the counter-culture revolution.
DCN: What did you give up to get where you are today?
Larisa Bolivar: This answer hits my heart hard, but I sacrificed having a family to get where I am today. I began my journey in cannabis in Colorado almost 20 years ago when I moved here as a medical marijuana refugee. Despite Amendment 20 passing and giving Coloradans the constitutional right to consume cannabis for medicinal purposes, patients and caregivers were still getting raided and going to jail for legally and constitutionally protected 6 plants.
Local gangs and black market operators were also attacking and robbing medical marijuana caregivers and patients for providing cannabis at a fraction of a cost to sick people, with little help from law enforcement because there was no regulatory guidance from state officials, resulting in law enforcement defaulting to federal law and treating all cannabis consumers like criminals equally. It was simply too dangerous. In 2008 I left an abusive marriage to start my life over again, including going to college to carve a path in cannabis professionally.
Now, at 42, I look back and realize that I never started a family or remarried, or even found my soul mate. This is not sound sad, it’s just a that it’s a true sacrifice and has been on my mind a lot lately as I get older. I consider my businesses brainchildren, and that helps me keep a positive outlook on the choices and sacrifices I made to get here.
DCN: What is the best piece of advice you can give to others looking to launch a company in the cannabis industry?
Larisa Bolivar: To keep your eye on the prize, whether that be funding, being bought out, knowing when to scale, and knowing when to pivot. Launching a business takes a lot of flexibility and knowing when and how to grow. Time and tides change, and they do so very quickly in the cannabis space. Be prepared to grow with it all.
DCN: What’s the hardest part of founding and running a startup?
Larisa Bolivar: Making time for yourself to do good self-care. It is easy to fall into bad habits when stressed. Sixteen hour days aren’t unusual and I find that outside of the obvious challenges to running a business, like fundraising, business planning, meeting customer needs, it is super critical to carve time for yourself. You have to be on your game all the time and being in optimal health is critical.
DCN: Is there anything that surprised you about being an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry?
Larisa Bolivar: I think I am surprised most by how many hours it takes to build a competitive business. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s called a green rush for a reason. Many of us refer to cannabis years like dog years. I have worked in other startups that had successful launches and exits, which is rare in of itself, and I know that it takes a lot of work.
However, in those environments, I was a staff member and not CEO or a managing partner. I also have three businesses. My other two are a consulting firm and a nonprofit consumer watchdog and advocacy organization. These are all to fill the needs and demands on my time. I have a policy degree and work on cannabis policy and have been consulting since 2008, first on the communications side, and then on the business development side. All of these grew organically to meet the demands that were asked of me. Back on those days, there were very few people with cannabis experience in the professional and policy worlds. Now, I have to work as many hours to remain competitive as new players enter the space.
DCN: How do you stay balanced?
Larisa Bolivar: I am an avid gardener in the spring/summer and I love to work out for stress relief. I find gardening to be very grounding and the results of my work to be very satisfying. Exercise is critical for managing stress. Even if it’s a half hour on the elliptical, it makes a difference in your mindset. I also live in Colorado, which helps. I often take what I call the “long way home” and drive through the mountains exploring and just clearing my head. It helps tremendously!
DCN: What book has inspired you the most?
Larisa Bolivar: The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer. I read it in 2002 after a suggestion from one of my mentors and it was what made me make my final decision to dive headfirst into the burgeoning cannabis movement in Colorado. At the time I was on the fence about getting fully involved, and it took down so many veils about how policy is made in this country to benefit a few and how cannabis can truly save the planet. There was just no turning back.
DCN: Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
Larisa Bolivar: United Cannabis Company. It was started by someone who was a caregiver and grower just like me and evolved into a multi-million dollar publicly traded company that has been leading the charge on cannabis product development ever since and social responsibility. UCann has been providing medical marijuana to patients for free for many years and they strive to keep the integrity of the cannabis industry.
DCN: How can we as an industry continue to make a positive difference in society?
Larisa Bolivar: I think we are at a challenging time in our history and people are questioning the value of capitalism and how it benefits society. It is viewed as a winner takes all mentality at all costs, and values, morals, and integrity come into question. I think that we have a unique opportunity to show that we can support each other’s growth. Cannabis is a conscious plant used in sacred medicine for personal growth and enlightenment. It will be interesting to see how that manifests in society as it’s use becomes more mainstream, but idealistically I would like to see more social responsibility to ourselves and our environment.
DCN: Thank you, Larisa, for sharing your story and offering such real and insightful advice to DCN readers! Before we let you go, do you have any final words for our readers?
Larisa Bolivar: I really want to express how grateful I am that cannabis has put me in contact with the most amazing people. There is so much talent and genius out there and it’s fun to watch the industry develop, for good or bad, it’s something that I never thought would happen so quickly. What a ride!
For those looking to learn more about Bolivar Hemp Company please check out, www.bolivarhemp.com and on Instagram at @bolivarhemp