Social Equity Brand Spotlight: Biko

Community • November 30, 2021

We’re sharing the stories behind some of our favorite social equity brands. This month we spoke with Timeka Drew, founder of Biko, a cannabis brand that is celebrating the rich history of cannabis and blazing a path forward for other social equity brands in the industry.

Social Equity Brand Spotlight Secondary Biko

About Biko

Biko was created to celebrate the cultivation and use of cannabis as a time-honored tradition for (and by) women specifically (but not exclusively). Biko serves cannabis connoisseurs with consistency and award-winning production quality, while helping normalize black women as curators of luxury cannabis experiences.

On her background and getting into cannabis

I came into the industry as a medical patient. Cannabis saved my life. I don’t think I would have been able to survive, as well as have my four beautiful children. I was very much told I would never be able to have kids because of how sick I was, and the number of medications that I was on, so being able to raise a family has been one of the many gifts cannabis has given me.

When I first began working in the medical cannabis industry in Los Angeles, I started helping offer doctor-patient referrals, and training doctors on how to give recommendations to patients. I was reaching out to patients to let them know where they could get a recommendation, and also where to get medicine once they obtained that recommendation.

"I came into the industry as a medical patient. Cannabis saved my life."

That was my first advocacy work, letting the doctors know what the medical cannabis community needed so they could adjust their fees to support some of the lower-income and particularly impacted communities like the LGBTQ community, the AIDS community. They were being negatively impacted by their inability to get cannabis medicine in the amount and the quality that was needed.

On how adult-use cannabis has impacted the medical community

Unfortunately, now that everything is focused on adult use, it’s become harder to support the medical community. It’s the lack of being able to offer donations to patients and give patients cheap, discounted medicines. Back in the medical days, they had a lot of programs for medical patients. If you were low-income, you could potentially get a certain amount of cannabis per week on these programs.

A lot of sick people, including myself, were on a couple of these programs and that might cover, like, half of our medicine. But then when adult use came, all of these programs ended because of the tax implications. We have had some movement in legislation so that donations are now available, but the logistics around it are still difficult. Eaze [Timeka is the VP of Licensing and Compliance at Eaze] has a compassion program that they recently launched, where they take donations from brands, and then handle all of the logistics to get the product compliantly delivered to the patient.

It’s a challenge to find the best way to help patients and get them everything they need, legally -it’s been several years of a difficult situation for the medical cannabis community.

“Cannabis is part of preventative medicine for us with diseases like Crohn's.”

The challenges with medical cannabis are a major reason why home grow is so important. People forget that when we’re doing adult-use legislation across the country, and we have politicians and community members that are against home grow - home grow is key for medical patients relying on safe cannabis. This is something we have to fight for, because we can’t make this plant just a commodity we can buy. Cannabis is a plant, and we should be able to approach it just like food.

On discrimination in the medical community

To make things even more difficult, there’s so much discrimination about the ways and reasons that you can use cannabis. As a culture, we feel like it’s only for people who are chronically ill – they are the only ones who should be able to use it. That’s preposterous - anybody can go get a prescription for treating depression or anxiety with pharmaceuticals, but when it’s cannabis, it’s different.

I have a digestive disease, Crohn’s disease which for me started as gastrointestinal problems. Then it got worse, and I was dealing with bleeding ulcers and incredibly painful flare-ups. I learned that I could stop flare-ups in their tracks by utilizing cannabis right at the beginning of symptoms or in order to help digest food or combat stress that negatively impacted my disease. Cannabis is part of preventative medicine for us with diseases like Crohn's.

On her executive role with Eaze along with starting Biko as an entrepreneur

I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I need to choose one or the other; be an entrepreneur in the cannabis space, or be an executive. But I look around this industry and I see a lot of white men doing both. It doesn’t make anybody nervous – it makes people feel more comfortable with them because they have more experience, more acumen, and their hands on all of these different things...It’s empowering when a man does it, but if it’s a black woman it’s different. It’s like, “Haven’t you bit off a little more than you can chew?” and you know these stereotypes, this is the definition of systemic racism.

This situation has been a big part of my experience because at my core I’m an activist, an organizer. That’s where I spent much of my professional life before cannabis. I’m currently the VP of Licensing and Operational Compliance at Eaze, and for me it was important to have a seat at the table when we’re discussing the way that we’re going to invest money in the cannabis industry moving forward. I built the social equity licensing program at Eaze, so we could understand how our business can work with social equity applicants and the regulations involved.

As a social equity license holder, I need to have a role in developing these programs and driving these conversations because, otherwise, we’ll never see the equitable industry we need. It takes effort from all levels, so I feel like I have a responsibility as an executive to hold that space at the table and ensure that my opinions are heard because I know what I am talking about when it comes to these issues.

“For me it was important to have a seat at the table when we’re discussing the way that we’re going to invest money in the cannabis industry moving forward.”

It’s important for those of us who have the skills and experience to stay in the industry and help guide it as entrepreneurs, but also guide it from within these larger corporate structures that are driving the industry now. It’s where many big decisions are made and you’ve got to be in the middle of them – if not, we’re all going to be on the fringe asking for favors instead of being in the middle.

On Biko and why the brand is important

We launched Biko in February during COVID. I had been building the brand for about a year before launch, and I started the process because I felt the need to create the type of brand I wasn’t seeing anywhere in the market; women-owned, black-owned, minority-owned at all. Not only that, I also wasn’t seeing many brands that were reflecting the values that I wanted to see, that were going in-depth and celebrating the beauty behind this plant.

Cannabis has an ancient history, one that is being stripped away and it’s becoming more sterile. I felt like this is kind of what we do, it’s a way to erase people of color, to erase culture and to create this new sterile culture and say, “This is what it has to be to be cannabis. You have to be like an Apple store; white and clean,” and that’s the real kicker. The way that women were starting to be approached at the beginning of adult-use legalization was like women don’t smoke, they want CBD products, all of these things that I felt weren’t reflective of me and not reflective of the women I know that medicate and enjoy cannabis.

Biko is a brand that is made by women for women (and other folks) who are connoisseurs, who like high-potency products that they can count on. Not the stereotype of like, “women are going to get too high and not be able to handle it.” No, when I want a pre-roll, I want to know that it’s going to hit. If I’m smoking something infused, it needs to be above the typical level of elevation – and I just wasn’t consistently finding these things. So I created Biko to fill that gap and be the change that I wanted to see in the industry.

This is a luxury cannabis brand as well, and this was important to me because I feel like when Black women and Black people in this industry have projects they’re often presented as social equity, which can have a dirty connotation. We have to reframe it and normalize it. This is a social equity brand, but also a luxury cannabis brand that we enjoy when we’re partying. I can be a cannabis activist and organizer, and also have a luxury cannabis brand and it all makes sense – we don’t need to be pigeonholed into only being able to do certain things. We’ve been the purveyors of luxury and the creators of experiences basically since the beginning of time, and this is no different in cannabis. So it’s just about trying to recognize that and to let the ancestors, the women before me work through me here in this industry.

The celebration and blending of cultures was something we wanted to lift up with Biko as well. I am mixed myself and my husband, who co-owns the brand and is our COO is mixed as well. He’s mixed with Korean. So the name of the brand Biko means “please” in the Nigerian language Igbo. I found out my ancestry results before we launched the brand, right as I was figuring out the name. I found that the majority of my ancestry on my Black side is from Nigeria, so I wanted to celebrate that and have some connection to my cultural heritage through the brand.

On Biko’s products

We have two pre-rolls that I’m a big fan of, first is our Juseyo, which means “please pass me” in Korean. I thought it was a cute name and a fun way to celebrate our Korean heritage, to create this beautiful meshing of the African and Korean. We also have a THCa infused pre-roll called Juseyo Diamonds.

Exploring the name has been fascinating to me, having so many people who know Biko and what it means, and then the Korean community knowing Juseyo – I love the excitement around that. Even hearing the Korean community being able to engage with their elders about cannabis for the first time by getting them to try a Juseyo pre-roll. It’s a whole conversation, a normalization conversation and something that reminds folks that this plant brings people together and we need to celebrate the uniqueness of people using this plant all over the world. That’s something we like to explore with Biko as well.

I’m also happy to share that consumers will enjoy these products and I stand fully behind them. We’ve been growing our business and have a lot of cool stuff coming out soon – fun collaborations and a new product as well in the works.

On Our Academy and the social equity community

For the social equity community, or anyone interested in becoming a licensee, it’s important to get connected to your local community and the national social equity community which is now being built up – which is incredibly exciting to me.

“It’s necessary to understand the risks that are associated with being the licensee and taking on partners who just want to manage the license and take out money. “

I’m the co-founder of Our Academy, and we bring folks together from all over the country in the cannabis industry; the specialists, the lawyers, the insurance providers, service providers, technicians, as well as all of the different companies to offer skill shares, workshops, and mentorship. These pieces are incredibly important to me because when you are first looking at things like LOI (Letter of Intent) between partners, or trying to find partnerships - just trying to operationalize it can be difficult.

You first look at the numbers, and you’re not going to understand them all if you don’t have a business background. I certainly didn’t and it took me a long time to understand deal terms and how it all works. It’s necessary to understand the risks that are associated with being the licensee and taking on partners who just want to manage the license and take out money.

On tips for other social equity applicants and businesses

For one, if you’re a retail licensee, I would implore you not to value your retail license at a million dollars like many of the social equity partners are trying to do right now. We’re trying to get the community to understand that the open market is valuing a license that’s not operational, but has the ability to operate at $3 million to $5 million. There’s no reason why stamping social equity on it should devalue it by at least $2 million. We’ve got to start pushing back against those assumptions, even when it’s hard because we’re put under deadlines and it can be like, you have 60 days to make a partnership decision and there’s nothing but bad deals in front of us.

We’ve got to hold the line or we’re going to have nothing left. Not only that, when we value our businesses too low and take in money on a loan, we’re giving partners fees to operate the business as well. A lot of times you can end up adding debt that we don’t realize is even possible. It can be to a point where you can accrue so much debt that when it comes time to sell your license, there’s nothing left. All of the profits that would go to you are going to the debt, and your partners have taken all of the revenue, all of the profits and 5-10 years later you have absolutely nothing.

“That’s why I like to be on the inside, so I can tell the folks on the other side that this isn’t just one of many risks for licensees. This could be their end all be all opportunity and it has to make sense for them, right?”

Your partners will still say that you’re lucky to know them, that your balance is at zero – because that is actually not the worst thing that can happen. The worst thing is that you could owe them money. They will say, “Look, this was your business. We managed it. It was a bad time in your state (or whatever it was), too bad.” Your partners are de-risking their investment. You have one license and they could have a hundred – they don’t care as much about your one. If your one goes into debt and ends up getting sold off for nothing, that doesn’t mean anything to them but that’s everything to you. That’s your one shot, not just one of many risks you have out in the world.

That’s why I like to be on the inside, so I can tell the folks on the other side that this isn’t just one of many risks for licensees. This could be their end all be all opportunity and it has to make sense for them, right?

On industry groups, supporting social equity, and what more could be done

I’m a part of all kinds of organizations that offer support to social equity. I’m a part of CERA, the Cannabis Equity Retailers Association here in LA which is organizing phase three round one applicants. I’m a member of the CCIA now, and the NCIA advocating for social equity in both of those groups. I am also an advisory Board Member serving Social Equity LA. With Biko, we’ve been offering social equity licensing workshops across the country for the past few months which has been awesome as well.

As long as I’m breathing, I will continue to share everything that I’ve learned and hopefully I can just continue to learn more and have more to share. Overall, I love the accountability that we’ve been seeing, even though I’d like to see it in a different way as well. I would love to see the police departments and the government offering money for actually enslaving the people who were put in prison for cannabis, that were actually going to jail for this. They have made a ton of money off of people being in prison for cannabis. But now it’s just being taken from retailers, so to me that doesn’t make sense, right?

There’s some connectivity to that money that was made and spent off of our backs on cannabis being illegal and we’re not talking about that because people are afraid of the police. I get that, but to even just have anything codified into legislation that says these folks who have been disproportionately impacted, these regions that have been impacted are going to get a leg up and be able to reinvest in their communities.

“As long as I’m breathing, I will continue to share everything that I’ve learned and hopefully I can just continue to learn more and have more to share.”

That concept is revolutionary, and if we could get energy companies to deal with that concept, all kinds of industries could have to deal with it – when you harm a community, you are going to have to give back to that community. That community is going to have to participate in your profits, because they were being harmed for you to be able to do your job.

It’s so important for us to show how it can work so that we can spread it to other industries and make capitalism work a little bit better for the people. Capitalism, and the way we do business, is going to change over time based on our needs and the demands of our economy and our society. So business owners, people within businesses, we’re the driving force and we have to take that responsibility seriously.

That’s part of it too, as an organizer. We can’t always be on the outside yelling in. We have to be willing to get in there, get our hands dirty and build something, and fail then try to build something new and bring people together. This is what we’re in the middle of here in the cannabis industry and it’s exciting, exciting times!

“...when you harm a community, you are going to have to give back to that community. That community is going to have to participate in your profits, because they were being harmed for you to be able to do your job.”

On Biko’s partnerships and upcoming news

One of the cool things we do with Biko is our creators circle initiative. It’s one of the ways that we spend some of our marketing dollars. We work with our friends, family, and community and talk to them about what they’re interested in creating and some of the projects that they haven’t been able to get done – especially through COVID. So many of our friends and family have been doing events, or having art shows, doing their music videos, and it became a lot more difficult to do those things during COVID. So we wanted to be able to fund these projects instead of using our marketing dollars in a normal way, then we utilize these creations as part of our marketing campaigns.

“...we very much feel that there is no competition between underrepresented brands and entrepreneurs in this space. We want to lift each other’s voices up and amplify all of the amazing things that are happening.”

One example is a launch campaign we did, where we went on a little retreat in the desert and worked with Jeana Turner from America’s Next Top Model, who is an amazing advocate and activist for alopecia awareness. She has an entire wig line she created which was featured in all the photos. We were able to share creative ideas, and then all of the images as well. We worked with Lady Fe, an up-and-coming female rapper during that shoot as well.

It was a way to lift up all of the things that other powerful women are doing as part of our campaign. That’s the energy and the way that we want to approach marketing in general, and overall our vibe as a company. We’re always looking to lift up what other folks are doing and we very much feel that there is no competition between underrepresented brands and entrepreneurs in this space. We want to lift each other’s voices up and amplify all of the amazing things that are happening.

On the benefits Biko has seen with LeafLink

We’re still pretty new to the market, but one of my favorite things is to be able to talk to retailers and say, “I’m on LeafLink, you’re on LeafLink right?” It’s a way to have that mutual connection, have a brand seem more put together and give legitimacy to the brand. And I see other social equity brands doing the same thing. That’s a game-changer for social equity folks as well, being able to say, “You can find me on LeafLink,” and retailers know that they can buy you through the platform. I absolutely love that.

I’m happy to sing LeafLink’s praises at any time. I’ve been impressed with what I’ve heard and seen of LeafLink’s willingness to hear what is needed for social equity brands and to develop some solutions. I just wish other folks that had the power that you guys do would do the same, so much appreciation.

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