Spotlight: Tsehaitu Abye, founder and CEO of Black Dragon Breakfast Club, on building community

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"There's a lot of power in reclaiming narratives and telling your own story"

Tsehaitu Abye founded Black Dragon Breakfast Club (BDBC) in 2018. The lifestyle brand and marketing agency focuses on helping minorities and women enter the cannabis industry.

Abye founded BDBC after moving to Philadelphia from Hawaii, where she attended high school and college. In The City of Brotherly Love, Abye found that the cannabis scene was lacking, particularly for women of colour.

“I needed to build a community for individuals like myself,” she tells The GrowthOp from Philadelphia.

Four years later, Abye is heavily involved in the cannabis and art scene in the city and is still working to push Black-owned businesses forward.

During the pandemic, she learned that her father was deported from the U.S. to Ethiopia for cannabis cultivation. That bit of previously hidden family history has provided extra motivation for the work that she does, particularly around reclaiming narratives about cannabis in the Black community, she says.

“Cannabis is what reconnected me and my family in a way. And there are a lot of people like that. Trauma hides people’s stories,” she says.

“So there’s a lot of power in reclaiming narratives and telling your own story.”

How was Black Dragon Breakfast Club formed?

Like many other businesses, it was inspired by an event.

After living on a cannabis farm in Hawaii, I needed to find a community for myself in Philadelphia. I went to a cannabis conference at our convention centre and there were barely any Black people there. I thought I have this knowledge and understanding of the industry and so I invited three people with me and we started this company.

That was almost five years ago now. We started off doing this event called ‘The Rise and Grind.’ It was a daytime networking event. And I connected creatives and activists and cannabis enthusiasts. So I was able to cultivate a community and host a variety of different events. We would do networking events, specifically a ‘Women in Cannabis’ networking event at a co-working spot. Fast forward, I’m now supporting one of our clients on a Black cannabis retreat in Costa Rica.

I try to do what I can with our business and have it be a platform for other creatives and folks who want to get into the industry. So for example, say you want to be a writer in the industry. I have a credible brand and platform, let’s start building your portfolio. I come from a startup background, I’ve had good and bad experiences and know what it’s like to build a company and have it feel like you’re not part of it. I’m just trying to create an environment where we can do a lot of things together in addition to shifting the perception of cannabis.

What does that sort of work look like? Are you seeing results?

Through this work, I’ve been able to become the board secretary for the Pennsylvania Farmers Union. And I’ve been able to connect some dots with urban farmers and form an understanding of what cannabis could look like in relation to an arugula farmer, for example. So it’s just putting them on the same platform.

And I’ll be honest, Philadelphia has a lot of race issues and poverty issues and we’ve been able to bridge some gaps through the cannabis work. Education is a problem and perhaps we can get some of the cannabis tax dollars into the education system and then cannabis can provide some kind of healing to the city and the state.

Storytelling and giving a voice to people is a large focus of your work. What role does storytelling have in righting the wrongs of cannabis criminalization?

I learned through my experiences as a data director for a state campaign that storytelling is what moves things. If you know anything about organizing political campaigns, storytellers are the proof that the fundraising dollars work.

I also know how hard it is to tell your story. I don’t always feel comfortable. I don’t like telling people the story about my dad as the immigrant who started to grow weed instead of taking the perfect job but that’s the kind of work you need to do. Here in Philadelphia, the minimum wage is $7.25. How is anybody going to live here? Like, let’s talk about it. White, Black, brown people, they need to find a way to live here, so they’re growing or selling cannabis so they can have a livelihood. But it’s like, what are we really talking about? What are the real problems?

How can cannabis play a role in empowering communities?

I’m an activist. And at first, you’re trying to change the world. And then you realize, Wait, I’ve got to make money. I’ve got to pay my bills. So I’ve got to get those business skills. But there’s still so much to learn, right? Now we have legal cannabis, this whole new economy, this new industry that we can maximize and we can leverage. We can make money. But we have to have our business acumen at a certain place. We have to have our community in a certain place. We have to have an understanding of cannabis, not only for ourselves but what it means for our community.

So there are a couple of things you have to do. But I would definitely say you have to be rooted in your own personal experience and understanding of cannabis.

Has your relationship with cannabis changed through your work?

It’s transformed my understanding of wellness. Even though I’m a vegetarian and I have a conscious understanding of wellness, I was incomplete and I still journey in my relationship with cannabis. And that’s why we focus on changing the perception and reducing the stigma and shame. People are using coffee, sugar, tobacco, and alcohol to manage things. Why do I feel so bad about cannabis? And why are we talking about that, rather than the core issues? We’re all going through something. And my work as an organizer, and even working at startups, made me realize that cannabis was helping me show up and be calm and managed and be an activist and an entrepreneur and a mentor to people. But I still feel embarrassed by this. So I think we just need to redefine what medicine and wellness mean.

Do you have any advice for those seeking to enter the industry about how they can find a path that works for them?

Take your time and try to work with folks that you align with. Don’t try to do this all on your own. Network and find a community and take your time building trust in that community so that you can feel comfortable and vulnerable and explore the things that you want to do.

Region: Pennsylvania