One day in late January, Ebele Ifedigbo ’10 was prepping for a panel appearance at the Yale Business School on the legal cannabis industry, doing a phone interview with Fast Company and writing grants — all while handling the day-to-day business of keeping a nonprofit humming along. Ifedigbo is the co-founder of The Hood Incubator, an organization that is fighting to bring the economic benefits of the legal marijuana industry to underserved communities. Named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list in November in the Social Entrepreneurs category, Ifedigbo is working to ensure that, as marijuana laws change across the country, low-income black and brown communities receive equal business opportunities and consideration.
Ifedigbo grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where their (Ifedigbo uses the gender-neutral pronouns “they/them”) father took them on regular drives in the city, noting the predatory behavior of rent-to-own businesses, payday lenders and check-cashing places. “My dad would point out all these different businesses that, instead of nurturing the community, were just taking the resources that people already didn’t have — places that just charge poor people exorbitant rates for basic services and basic goods,” says Ifedigbo. “That’s when I started to think of business as something that could either help or harm a community.”
Those early experiences spurred them to study economics at the College and also sparked an interest in finding ways to create wealth and economic sustainability in struggling communities. In the years after graduation, Ifedigbo watched as attitudes toward the legal marijuana industry began rapidly changing in the United States — in 2013, recreational marijuana was illegal nationwide; by February 2018, nine states and Washington, D.C., had legalized it. They realized there was huge opportunity in the fast-growing industry.
“Who’s been most negatively affected by the war on drugs?” asks Ifedigbo, a 2016 graduate of Yale Business School. “The same people from my community who I grew up with — they’re the ones who were being arrested, going to jail, having families torn apart because of marijuana prohibition. So it made sense to me that now that marijuana is being legalized, the people who have taken on most of the risks and most of the consequences from it being illegal should be first in line to get the benefits.”
Founded in Oakland, Calif., in 2016, The Hood Incubator quickly moved to address barriers (such as lack of capital, real estate, professional networks and formalized business startup experience) to black and brown ownership of legal marijuana businesses. The organization — which has four employees — takes a three-pronged approach, focusing on community organizing (hosting legal, wellness and financial clinics), policy advocacy and economic development.
“I started to think of business as something that could either help or harm a community.”
The organization is working to ensure that as marijuana laws change nationwide, “they actually meet the interests of communities of color, not as an add-on or an afterthought, but at the core of whatever legislation is happening,” says Ifedigbo. The Hood Incubator played a role in Oakland’s spring 2017 passing of the cannabis Equity Permit Program, which prioritizes black and brown inclusion in the legal cannabis business. Says Ifedigbo, “[It was] the first of its kind in the nation — really focusing on racial equity as part and parcel of the marijuana industry in the city of Oakland.”
The Hood Incubator is perhaps best known for its economic development work: a business accelerator program and an apprenticeship program. The first cohort of the accelerator program graduated last June. The 10 fellows received mentorship, technical assistance, business education and access to cannabis industry resources; Ifedigbo themselves guided participants through creating business plans and running business models. Of the 10 graduates, nine are still actively engaged in the industry — six working on their businesses and three employed within the industry. The next cohort will begin in mid-2018.
Ifedigbo says of the whirlwind year, “When I was in business school I had a commitment in my heart that this is what I wanted to do. But when I came to Oakland I was sleeping on a couch — I didn’t know whether I would be here for just six weeks or what would happen... throughout the year we just had that traction and people really took to our mission and our work. It’s a validation and an encouragement.”