Yummi Karma envisions an industry with no glass ceiling.
The weather on the beach boardwalk next to Santa Monica Pier was remarkably summer-like on April Fools’ Day 2017—the date of the Los Angeles 420 Games. Four young, attractive women in T-shirts and shorts looked utterly normal at the beach…except for the staffing-a-booth-at-a-medical-cannabis-fair part.
“It was all women coming up, and then they were dragging their husbands and boyfriends over,” Chelsea Kitahara, Yummi Karma’s co-founder and chief operating officer, said after the show. “It started with the women, but then it kind of spread to the men. They liked the lip balm.”
YK’s chief marketing officer Kymber Ward is always tweaking, always looking for ways to get the brand more exposure. With a critical eye, she added, “The thing I saw at the 420 Games, they didn’t know how to use the products and they didn’t understand why [cannabis-infused] lotions, as opposed to using a regular lotion or lip balm or something. I did a lot of educating, like, ‘Do you know what an endocannabinoid system is?’ They have no idea.”
By noon, the Yummi Karma/High Gorgeous booth was running low on samples of High Gorgeous giveaway lip balms and bags of Yummi Karma chips, handed out to a responsive crowd of curious attendees. In addition to good aisle position, the YK booth stood out in a sea of green, with its bright white and fashion colors—perfect for the beach.
Curious sample-seekers stopped to talk to the Yummi Karma executive team, in most cases without realizing with whom they were speaking. Co-founders Chelsea Kitahara and sister and Chief Executive Officer Krystal Kitahara, Chief Communications Officer Alysia Sofios, and Ward were not mere “booth babes,” but product-knowledgeable, professional, and friendly, working the crowd like pros because, after all, that’s what they are.
After sniffing at the new cinnamon-bun-flavored Nice Buns cellulite cream and Pina-Co-Cana Body Butter (both infused with THC/THCA), some attendees asked about sunscreen, which would have been great to have on such a high-UV-index day. The situation made a good opening to tell people about High Gorgeous sunscreen, which will be out this summer. The sisters Kitahara, Sofios, and Ward barely had a moment to take in the big, blue horizon over the ocean, with not a cloud in the sky.
Women of substance
The “Yummi” part is easy to figure out. Kief-dusted chips and popcorn are definitely yummy—perfect with an ice-cold beer on a warm, lazy day. And the new High Gorgeous beauty line is full of flavor appeal, a topical cannabis experience that’s sassy-sensual with scents like Sugar High and High-biscus.
But the “Karma” part? Think of karma not as payback but as destiny, the reward for hard work and ethical behavior.
“As women, we are more open to taking risk, and I know that’s the opposite of conventional thinking,” said Sofios. “But we put products out because we believe in women, and we believe they’re going to buy them.”
The team is dedicated to creating female-friendly products made to change the way women look at cannabis. They also believe the cannabis industry is the right place and time for professional, pioneering women to build a billion-dollar industry from the ground up—with no glass ceiling.
They know other women feel the same way, like Bhang Chocolates owner Shanna Droege. Gender aside, Droege is O.G. in her own right as a cannabis professional and entrepreneur, and she’s started a buzz in a hive full of queen bees.
“Until we met Shanna, we really had the belief that all the advice we got from people in the industry was we needed to be sexier. ‘Oh, wear little shorts to your promo days,’” Sofios explained. “And we weren’t comfortable with that. We kept feeling like we were a square peg in a round hole until we met Shanna and she validated our feelings.
“That’s her message: We want women to be here, and we can work together to elevate the status of the industry,” Sofios added.
Droege concurred. “We have to make this opportunity, and it’s not just in the cannabis space,” she said. “It’s everywhere you look. Look at the government. How many women are sitting there representing us? They’re not. We have to step up and represent and be strong, and we can do anything our male counterparts can do. We just have to step up and make it happen. That’s what we’re doing.”
Droege became a cannabis professional by default. She and her husband spent years practicing their craft the old-fashioned way: on the underground market. Eventually, they owned and operated eighteen dispensaries in Southern California. Once the legal California market was allowed to organize, they parlayed their connections into Sol Distribution. In 2012, an opportunity to take over Bhang Chocolates arose, so Droege and her husband took it.
In spite of obstacles and because of sacrifices, Droege finds herself in the position she’s in: the corporate head of a multi-million-dollar cannabis brand and product distributor, plus wife and mother. So, she figured she might as well own it. Part of that is working with other women to help them own it, too. She laughingly refers to the developing plans for taking her companies to the next level as “cannabis-world domination.”
Indeed, destiny may be playing a role. Through a series of personal connections, Droege has been able to secure a long-term lease on 20,000 square feet of business space in one of twelve permitted business facilities in Costa Mesa, California.
During the same period, the YK crew and Droege struck up a distro deal for YK’s already popular edible and tincture lines and, now, High Gorgeous. After finding they share a similar visions for industry women and female consumers, they’ve agreed to share the office and production space. But that’s just the beginning.
The collaborative location will house an extraction facility, production facilities, and a distribution center, with offices on the second floor. The larger goal is to create a female-operated business vertical, from grow through sales, made up of women-run and female-friendly businesses. Emerald Family Farms, located in Humboldt County, has agreed to be part of the collaboration and will be supplying exclusive flower crops for High Gorgeous beauty products, as well as the soon-to-launch HG signature vape, concentrate, and flower line.
“That’s the big future push, but I think also building up other women in the industry, working together and being able to see the beauty in their product and also feel secure with myself still,” Droege said.
Male-dominated business rhetoric she’s heard from men and other women sometimes makes her feel as though others are somewhat suspicious of women banding together.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Like, why are you helping those girls?’ I’m not helping them. They run their own business, and it’s a mutually beneficial business,” Droege explained.
“You mean, ‘Why am I working with them?’ As if we’re women, so we can’t work together,” she continued. “There’s a lot of that, and I’m just not interested in it. I think they’re ladies, and I think they’re smart, and they have a good product. [Yummi Karma products] compliment my products, so why wouldn’t I work with them? There needs to be more of that going on, because otherwise I feel like everyone is fighting internally. Egos in the cannabis business… nobody wants to work together.
“No, let’s work together and get to the next level,” Droege said.
She mentioned how many mothers and families are involved in the industry and how often women are called on to run a cannabis business out of necessity, with or without a partner. Droege believes women are the backbone of families and society, and they have the skills necessary to run the cannabis industry.
“Shanna is being humble, but she really paved the way for so many women, and that was one of the things that drew us to her,” Sofios said. “She told us stories about when people would be like, ‘Who’s your owner, honey?’ I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I think that may be why she’s taken us under her wing: because she sees we’re facing the same challenges. She really did pave the way for many of us.”
Bridging the gender gap
“It doesn’t come across right,” Krystal Kitahara said. “We’ve tried to say this [before], and it’ll sound like, ‘They only like to sell to women.’ But we want to sell to everyone.”
Sofios took a shot at explaining. “We like men,” she said. “We just have a culture here that’s very women-friendly, and we attract a lot of women who want to come work for us, and we make products that we target women with. So, the people most qualified to make those products are other women, and that’s kind of our culture. But if a man could be like, ‘I know exactly what women are thinking, and here’s the next product that’s gonna fly off shelves,’ we’d welcome that.”
Ward added, “It’s important to us what women think.”
In fact, the Kitahara sisters, Sofios, Ward and the rest of the team are tuned in to marketing fact: Women consumers behave differently from male consumers. Longstanding market research has indicated the hunter/gatherer dynamic may be at play. When shopping, men aim at a target and go get it, continuing to hit the same target until something causes them to switch stores or brands. Women are more discerning and will shop around. They must enjoy the sales experience, be educated about products, and establish trust in order for brands to generate loyal consumers and repeat sales.
That’s important to businesses because, currently, the global economic power wielded by women is estimated at $20 trillion, and that’s expected to increase to more than $30 trillion in the next decade.
“It’s funny, but it’s like Shanna says: When they bring in the wholesale sheet now and list all the products, all the male buyers say, ‘Uh, I want to see the lotion,’” Krystal Kitahara said. “That’s not how it was two or three years ago. We hear a lot of [men who own or manage dispensaries] saying people have been coming in and asking about this stuff, but then, when they finally see [the product] …”
It looks like their female-fueled business strategy may be starting to work. One gets the impression the Kitahara sisters have been strategizing for quite some time. Like the other members of the YK team, they’re literally and figuratively daughters of the first generations of American women to wield real economic power, as well as benefit from women’s rights.
Krystal and Chelsea Kitahara’s mom inspired YK’s flagship tincture, Drift Away, which they formulated to help with her sleep issues. Their dad, once a staunch anti-dope, a conservative businessman, is now their biggest public relations guy, forwarding emails to the girls from his friends who have a variety of ailments and inquiries about products.
Krystal Kitahara and Sofios worked together at a TV station while Chelsea Kitahara was away at college in Oregon, majoring in psychology and business. Ward, who worked for Edibles List after a long stint in fashion marketing, watched Yummi Karma grow from the early days, until the opportunity came for her to join the company.
Finally, the budding executive team relocated, one by one, from California’s Central Valley to Los Angeles, to share a house. Throughout college, Chelsea Kitahara split her time between Oregon and California, pursuing her education while the position at YK waited. After graduation, she moved to the L.A. house and took up residence on the couch. Not long ago, Sofios moved into her own place. Despite—or perhaps because of—living and working together, a real camaraderie radiates from all of them.
“We really do work hard and play hard,” said Sofios, “and we genuinely do enjoy each other’s company.”
The newest member of the team is office manager Jerilyn Favia, who joined YK in late 2016. After a sixteen-year career as an insurance agent, Favia said she’s thrilled to be out of the cubicle and into a work environment full of women, especially in the office-casual cannabis industry. She’s a mom and appreciates the time flexibility that comes with the new job.
Men work at Yummi Karma, too—both of them in the warehouse. One is Ward’s brother. Like with so many businesses in the cannabis industry, nepotism is a way to make sure you’re working with people you can trust.
Krystal Kitahara pointed out a big part of the mission is to spread the message of the benefits of not only cannabis, but also of supporting local, homegrown businesses that employ women and families. Also, that consumers can “come out of the closet, so to speak,” and help advocate for intelligent adult cannabis use.
“Our new slogan is ‘Be Brave; Crave’ because we’re trying to refocus people to be proud,” Krystal Kitahara said. “It’s a new time, a new era. You can say, “Yeah, I’m a lawyer and I use cannabis lotion.’ We’re creating products you can use. You could go to CVS or, by saying you’re going to purchase a product with cannabis in it, you can do your part to move the whole cannabis movement forward.”
Ward added, “Topicals are amazing.” The YK team members switch easily into groupthink, sometimes finishing each other’s thoughts and sentences.
“Once people understand that your body already creates [cannabinoids], and this is like a supplement; once people think like that…,” Krystal Kitahara said. “That’s why we didn’t start with vape pens or flower, because we knew we were going to target women, especially elderly women. That was not the way to get them to try cannabis. But to start with a lotion, then maybe they’ll try the chips or popcorn, which is low-dose. Now, when they’ve been around it and they feel comfortable, they might trust us as a brand and purchase a vape pen to try it, because we’ve already laid the groundwork.”
With High Gorgeous, the ladies are ready to go high profile. They’re shopping a docu-series and producing a sizzle reel. The pop-culture website POPSUGAR featured them and the beauty products. The following week, they were scheduled to shoot some video for the TV channel VICELAND. Even Bhang’s Droege, who hasn’t been in the media spotlight much, is getting interest from women’s magazines and lifestyle publication, with some help from Sofios.
The sky’s the limit when you’ve got big, gorgeous goals.
High Gorgeous Beauty Buzz
Aimed at millennials, High Gorgeous’s topical beauty products also show promise with the adventurous, open-minded, over-40 female demographic. Because women are curious and discerning consumers, they look for education and credibility from cannabis brands, according to Ward.
- Pina-Co-Cana body butter, 200mg THC/THCA.
- Sugar High and High-biscus body lotions, 100mg THC/THCA.
- Plain Jane fragrance-free body lotion and bubble bath, 100mg CBD.
- Pop the Bubbly and Smooth Sailing bubble baths, 200mg THC/THCA.
- Nice Buns Cellulite Treatment, in cinnamon roll flavor, 100mg THC/THCA.
- High Gorgeous lip balms, in Juicy Cherry and Luscious Lime flavors, 25mg THC/THCA.
Female Consumer Stats
- 85% of all consumer purchases in the U.S. are made by women.
- 93% of food purchases are made by women.
- 75% of women identify themselves as the primary household shopper.
- 50% of products typically marketed to men are purchased by women.
- 80% of healthcare decisions are made by women.
- 68% of new car purchase decisions are made by women.
- 66% of PCs are purchased by women.
- 92% of vacations are organized by women.
Source: FONA International, “Purchasing Power of Women,” Fona.com
Coming Soon from Yummi Karma
- A High Gorgeous signature vape line with flavored concentrates and brand-exclusive flower. Think flavors like Sugar High and High-biscus and a vape pen with rose-gold cartridge and LED logo light-up, in always-popular pink.
- New headquarters in a permitted 20,000-square-foot facility located in Costa Mesa, California, in collaboration with Bhang Chocolate’s Shanna Droege, as well as other female-friendly cannabis businesses.
- In the future, the YK crew sees a flagship storefront location with YK and High Gorgeous non-medicated merchandise; eventually, an end-cap display at Sephora, next to other mainstream lifestyle products.