Given that high school is generally the time kids first experiment with smoking pot, it’s not every day that a high school invites two of its alumni back to speak about the strides they’re making in the cannabis business.
But with legalization comes the dawning of a new era. The Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco took that step on Aug. 30 when Ezra Malmuth (class of 2006) and Jeremy Weiss (’08), founder and production manager of Atlas Edibles, a company that makes cannabis-infused granola clusters, took the stage along with several other entrepreneurs to talk about their businesses at an event called “The Big Pivot: The Secret Sauce of Founders.”
It was the first “i2i Integration and Innovation Forum” for the JCHS community, a series designed to “bring together machers and shakers of any age who are interested in engaging with innovative, inspiring and creative ideas.”
“I’m so happy to be talking about cannabis at my high school,” quipped Malmuth, with Weiss adding that he had been cooking with Malmuth since he was 14, in the school’s barbecue club (given that the school is vegetarian, Malmuth took it upon himself as a student to petition the faculty for two grills to have once-a-month meat lunches, and is proud to say that the club still exists today.
The other participants were Shmulik Fishman (’06), the founder of STRATIM Systems, whose software manages fleets of vehicles; Renée Torchio MacDonald (’13), founder of Method and Madness, an L.A.-based classical Shakespeare theater company; and Noah Alper, a co-founder of the high school and the founder of Noah’s Bagels. Skyy vodka founder Maurice Kanbar was supposed to be present but had to cancel. Congregation Emanu-El Rabbi Sydney Mintz served as moderator.
The high school opened its doors in 2001 with 26 students and now is nearing a student body of 200, which made Alper kvell just a bit.
“It’s beyond thrilling to be here in this context,” he said. “Especially since we didn’t even know whether we’d get a class to begin with. As a serial entrepreneur over the years, who started six different ventures, this school, to me, is a much bigger achievement than anything I’ve done professionally.”
Fishman spoke of how his business started as an app that moved cars around and, through trial and error, eventually became a software program that moves entire fleets of cars, one that is now used by such companies as Avis and Tesla.
“The app wasn’t that good anyway,” he said. Invoking the theme of the evening, he said “Pivot is a fancy way to say ‘Find something that works.’”
Meanwhile, MacDonald spoke of how she and her co-founders are redefining what the word “success” means to them, as in their case, it has nothing to do with finances.
MacDonald works as a program manager at her college alma mater, UCLA; she and her co-founders all have day jobs while they run the theater company on the side.
Pivot is a fancy way to say ‘Find something that works.’
“Our success isn’t centered around how much money we make,” she said. “Of course, we need to pay rent for our shows, but the goal of this company is to do world-class theater and do it really well and that’s it.” A sold-out weekend for a production of “Measure for Measure” meant success in her eyes. “All these people coming were not our friends,” she said. “People just found out about us and are saying, ‘We love Shakespeare and don’t see it done well in L.A.’”
Malmuth and Weiss spoke about their efforts to bring a kosher edible to market; their granola clusters are not certified (yet) but are gluten-free, vegan and are made only from ingredients that have a hechsher (rabbinical certification), so that someday they hope to have a kosher-certified product.
“I tried to get both of these guys to open a kosher restaurant and instead they want to do kosher cannabis,” Alper quipped.
While the audience had many questions for the alumni, Mintz ended by asking each entrepreneur what his or her advice would be if a young person interested in founding a business approached them.
Malmuth said “Disrupt. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Take the journey and you’ll be better off learning from it rather than wondering ‘what if?’”
Weiss said, “Be humble. No task is too big or too small, and be consistently yourself.”
Alper said, “Being passionate about what you want at the start will get you hugely ahead of the game. Make sure the fundamentals are firmly in place and don’t let emotions get in front of your judgment.”
MacDonald said, “Be clear with yourself about what success means to you,” and Fishman said, “Find amazing people you love to work with every day.”
After the panel, guests got to try samples of Atlas Edibles — the non-medicated variety.