Transition From Legacy to Legal Industry Leader – Ruben Lindo, CEO of Blak Mar Farms

Ruben Lindo is a former professional football player, executive, and thought leader blazing a trail in the cannabis space. The founder and CEO of Blak Mar Farms and Phoenix Nutraceutical, Ruben is driven by a passion for plant medicine. His experience going from “the streets to the suites” as a serial entrepreneur has been both fascinating and inspiring, transcending industries and overcoming incredible odds to become one of the legal market’s first true success stories. 

Learn more about Ruben’s journey, find out the advice he’d give newcomers to cannabis, and hear his predictions for what’s ahead for the industry in this Leafwire Q&A.

Leafwire:  What is your cannabis industry origin story?

Ruben Lindo: I got into this space in 2016. I was a legacy guy for years. I dabbled throughout my playing career, I supplemented my income at times. For me, cannabis was always there for me to go to in the legacy world, to make some money, to tie up some loose ends, or make ends meet when they just didn’t seem to meet. Then I stepped away from it because after I went to prison I was scared to death to leave my kids again.

I was introduced to this industry by two very brave individuals who took a shot on a formerly convicted individual to step into leading a revolutionary company, a tech industry upsetting company, a disruptive company, in a brand new emerging industry called cannabis. When I stepped into this, it was still highly regulated, and it was still very, very, very illegal at the federal level. There weren’t those changes to the CSA yet, there weren’t changes locally in state law, and although we had a medical market, black and brown people were still going to prison at disproportionate rates still.

I came into this space with two things in mind: one, that cannabis has been a part of my life. My mother consumed it, my aunties, everybody around me consumed it, and it was medicine. It was truly medicine. I used to joke and say my mom’s got to smoke weed for her nerves because she’s got me, my sister, my brother running crazy. But when I think about it, it really was just medicine. It’s never been a drug to me. And getting out of playing professional sports, and knowing that I had teammates that were banned for playing, punished for playing, friends that were punished for consuming, really motivated me.

Before I jumped into the space I was on the verge of being homeless, I couldn’t get a job because of my felony conviction, and I had maybe $8. My wife said, “Go buy a cigar with this last $8.” But I couldn’t go to my normal cigar shop, because $8 was taboo, like who smokes a $8 cigar? So I drove to this place about 25 miles away and bought an $8 cigar, and was on the phone with Leonard Marshall having a conversation. Leonard and I were talking about cannabis, and my future employer, little did I know, was sitting in the same room talking about cannabis on a call, and thought that I was mocking him talking about cannabis, and we just hit it off. So I got into this space over an $8 cigar and two guys who took a real gamble on me.

My why was very clear. From the minute I walked into this industry, I haven’t worked a day. It’s not work for me. It is my passion. I love what I do. I love the people that I connect with. I love everything about it. But I knew that it was going to be my legacy to create a social justice change moment. As I delved deeper into the world of cannabis and started understanding the business side of it, I always said that cannabis legalization was the tip of the spearhead that would change the entire social justice and criminal justice system. And lo and behold, we’re seeing that. That was my reason why.

I brought a very corporate, Wall Street, B school mentality to it from day one, that we needed to have a level of maturity in order to be taken seriously as a future industry. When you started hearing numbers of $4 billion projected revenue in the state of California, I started saying, well there’s some real money to be made here, but I’ll never make that money, because I don’t have access to those things. I’m just here to lend my knowledge and build an industry.

LW: How did you come to launch Phoenix Nutraceutical?

RL:  We started out as a research and development company, studying the effects of CBD and how CBD, and hemp-derived CBD specifically, impacts the body. We expanded into products, and we have two product lines, Aminatu Beauty and Wellness, and we have Blitz Health and Wellness. Blitz is more focused on the sports side of the world, where we have our relief rubs, tinctures, and gummies. Then on the beauty side, we kind of stretch boundaries. We started out with shampoo. Now we have about 16 to 18 products in the Aminatu beauty line, and those products range from everything from skincare to eye care, hair care, all the way down to massage oil.

The company was really born out of necessity. My daughter in Canada was diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia in 2017. In 2018, treatment wasn’t really going so well, so I started to panic. I started reaching out to science guys and researching NIH papers on CBD and blood-borne illnesses, and I came across a doctor in Warsaw, Poland, who had written a thing on CBD and antioxidants in hair growth. I reached out to him and he was generous enough with his time, and then as soon as he found out that it was about my daughter, he agreed to fly to Toronto to meet me. He was coming to Canada anyway, so he was going to Vancouver, he flew to Toronto first. We spent two days in a hotel room, just going over different formulations and things that he thought would help, and things that he’s done in his research. Then I found a lab partner in San Diego to create the product.

I fell in love with doing custom formations, CBD products. We’ve created over 115 products. It costs a lot of money to release those products to the public, but we have them in custom formulation, and we’ve worked on getting some mechanical patents on some of the formulations. But that’s very tough in the United States, to get patented in general, but even more specifically in a hemp-derived CBD product. Because the United States government holds so many of those patients already. It’s been a wild ride.

Out of that, we started exploring THC and cannabis-derived products. We looked into two different areas. As you know, I broke into this industry designing and developing lighting spaces using natural light. We looked at building cultivation spaces, and I said, “You know what, I know enough about cultivating and I know enough cultivars; let’s jump in and create a company.” So we created this company Black Mar Farms in 2019, but we didn’t do anything with it until 2020.

LW:  How did you end up developing Black Mar Farms?

RL:  I partnered with some guys up in Eureka who had a grow, legacy guys as a matter of fact, and we transitioned them into legal, and we partnered. I managed and ran the business side, and they did the work. They grew the product. It was a marriage made in heaven. It gave me a chance to own a cultivation facility and be part of our first regulatory licensed environment.

Black Mar Farms really became my purpose project. Coming out of the tumultuous summer of 2020, I started really paying attention to things that were hurting us. One of the things that I noticed was, black and brown people, although social equity were words that were still being thrown around, and I was considered a thought leader in the social equity space, we weren’t doing it for our people. So I said, “Black Mar Farms is going to be the brand for the people.”

We made a low entry for investment for folks who wanted to invest, and we went up to Michigan and we partnered with another predominantly white company who, I didn’t realize that his daughter was black. He had adopted a black daughter. But we just never talked about race. But I always just knew he was super hip. Then he found out the name of our company was Black Mar and he said, “Would you be interested in a partnership, in doing a model?” I was introduced to him by a gentleman by the name of Errol Service, who was the first black McDonald’s multi-franchise holder. I reunited with Derek Coleman of the NBA, and DC and I have been doing this dance to put together this magical moment.

So I just jumped in, and we purchased the real estate, and we created the same exact thing that we had in Eureka. We created it in Michigan with these partners, and we own the real estate outright, and we leased the cultivation operation to the cultivar. My one condition was that he had to train some black folks in the business. He had to train them to be cultivars, not cotton pickers, not trimmers. And we did it, and it was wonderful.

LW: How can the industry go further when it comes to improving social equity opportunities?

RL:  I stand on the platform of social justice and social equity. But I changed the language and the narrative of social equity a little bit because we all know what the problems are. We need to now create social change, and people are starting to use the words social and economic equity. Yeah, there’s a problem with economics, but black people never have a problem getting money. We have a problem with getting access to the information that leads us to the money. So I’ve kind of changed things and say, it’s no longer about having access because just because you have access doesn’t mean you have accessibility.

These are the things, and this is the direction in which the messaging needs to go, because out of that is what spawns change. So now we have social equity, and the term social equity has been really watered down. It’s kind of like the term GOAT, in sports. Everybody’s the GOAT. Well now you have people calling people equity entrepreneurs, and I think that that’s a little bit of a slap in the face. We’re creating a subclass or a sublicense in our own industry by calling it a social equity license. No, they’re license holders. They have to follow the same compliance as everyone else, we have to do the same thing.

The only thing that made it equitable wasn’t a handout, it was just the fact that some of the barriers of entry were removed that were unnecessarily placed there in the beginning. And it’s not a reparation, it’s a restoration. Because again, if we’re being honest, this industry was built on the backs and liberties and lives of black folks. That’s how they criminalized it, they made money off of it when it was illegal, by capitalizing on the fact that black and brown people were prolific in the industry of cannabis, and they marginalized it, they criminalized it, and then they penalized it. 

Now we have black-owned businesses, and we have multi-state operators that have risen to the highest heights, and Al Harrington, Chris Weber, and guys like that are jumping in and putting their name behind it, but we still need to have accessibility. We need to be able to disseminate truthful information to people so that they can educate themselves and learn to become business owners rightfully, and operators in a once-in-a-lifetime industrial revolution.

As my brother, Steven DeAngelo said to me, “Ruben, you’ll never be able to operate in this space, in an opportunity like this, again.” And I take it a step further in saying, we took this from the streets to the suites. We’ve taken this from the dirt to the boardroom. And this is the only industry that this has ever happened in. We actually are seeing the formation of a new industry in front of our eyes that originated on the streets, in the alleys, and now it’s in boardrooms and banks, and low and behold, clergy breakfasts. It’s just amazing where we are.

LW:  If you could give some advice to budding entrepreneurs, what advice would you have for them for trying to get into this space, or for trying to start a new business? What would you say to them?

RL:  I’d say three things. First, I’d say find a mentor that is established and running a business. Find somebody that’s willing to invest in you. 

The next thing that would say is, become a sponge, become a student again. Learn as much as you can, from whomever you can, and discern what you can store in your toolbox. Because you’ll come back to it, especially in this industry, at some point.

Then the final thing that I would tell a young entrepreneur is to come into this industry with the desire to give back and reach back. Especially black entrepreneurs. Have a spirit of reaching back, paying it forward every chance that you get. Any time that someone shares the knowledge, go back and share the knowledge with someone else.

Our job is, like Jackie Robinson said, to knock on the door. And Reggie Jackson was supposed to hold the door open so that everybody else could come into major league baseball. I’m using a sports analogy, but my job was to crack the door. It’s kind of like I’m wedged in there, and I’m like, “Come on y’all, come on, come on, and I’ll hold the door open for you!” That’s what I want to see.

LW:  What’s on deck for Phoenix Nutraceutical and Black Mar Farms?

RL:  With Phoenix Nutraceutical we’re hoping to get funded so that we can push ahead with our bio-hemp research. Prior to the pandemic, we started researching hemp as a biofuel to power Trion Supercars. Then we pivoted and said we might as well create a fuel that runs at 82% octane or less that can run farm equipment. Because sustainability is really got to be the focus of this industry now, right, and where we’re headed.

For Black Mar Farms, my baby, and my pet project, some exciting things are in the works. We’re negotiating a deal to acquire three facilities in the state of Massachusetts and partner with two other black entrepreneurs. We’re looking at an expansion in Michigan, moving down into Detroit, and really launching our equity brand. We have a brand called Equity Farms, and Equity Farms is really twofold: we want to launch our indoor cultivation, and 50% of that cultivation revenue will go toward independent rooftop gardens throughout the city. Those gardens would provide the community with fresh fruits and vegetables.

And finally, we’re going to start a project working with the First Nations folks, the Senecas, here in New York. I’m super excited about that. We’re moving very quickly in a partnership deal, and we’re going to go there and teach the first real social equity folks of the Americas how to get into this industry, and how to run and maintain their business. That’s our path from now till the end of the year, and that will take us into second-quarter 2022, some of those projects. But that’s where we are, that’s what we’re looking at.

LW:  What do you think is ahead for the industry in 2022 and beyond?

RL:  Let’s look at cannabis on a global landscape. Let’s look at what’s happening in emerging economies like Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Zaire. Even in Jamaica, Jamaica’s always been, the kaya plant, the plant of the people. But even in Jamaica as a business, it’s expanding. So we’ve already seen the growth in 2019, 2018, in Europe; now we’re going to see these other countries, these other places in the world globally, again, not making it a black or white thing, but predominantly black communities, black regions, of the world, really exploding, and changing the trajectory of this industry. I always say there’s a force multiplier of one and a half times when we get into these emerging economies because we’re going to teach people how to do two things: sell their culture, which is big, and then the second thing is, we’re going to teach them how to sell finished products.

So again, I’ll go back to this and mention Steve. Steve DeAngelo’s down in Mexico, and I’ve been following Steve, and Steve’s been active in talking to the people, and before he left I said to him, “We have to start teaching people how to sell finished products. We can no longer sell raw goods. Especially these African countries, in the continent of Africa, and South America, and indigenous folks. We need to teach them how to take finished products and combine it with their culture.” That’s what we’re going to see in 2022. We saw a little bit of it, and then the pandemic hit. Now we’re going to see the explosion of it through this industry globally.

LW:  You’re a role model for so many BIPOC entrepreneurs and legacy operators. How do you manage that responsibility?

RL:  I take it with a tremendous amount of gratitude, because of what I was able to overcome, and for those who gave me an opportunity. I feel like I worked super hard to get to a place, and some people will say, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” I’m not royal. I’m just loyal to this game and to life. But truthfully, it feels good to be a leader in the industry, and it feels good to be in this position.

It does force me to maintain my integrity at all times. And it forces me to operate transparently because of the things that I’ve gone through and the places that I’ve been. It really makes me remain accountable to my word. And there are two things I always say: with integrity comes justice, but also, with integrity, you have to be transparent. I am fortunate that I’ve gotten an opportunity to show this. The one thing that I regret the most is that two people who are very dear to me only got to see the beginning of this.

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