Raheem Uqdah Talks Curaleaf And Social Responsibility

As the cannabis industry continues to grow through the spread of legalization in the United States and other countries, major players are staking their claim in the market.

Among the vast range of industry players is the expansive Curaleaf umbrella brand, which has managed to claim a top spot in the world of legal cannabis.

Founded by Boris Jordan in 2010 under the name PalliaTech, Curaleaf has established itself as a behemoth in the cannabis industry with cultivation, processing, and dispensary operations in 23 states.

But along with company growth comes obligations of corporate and social responsibility, which apply to players large and small.

Corporate Responsibility

Curaleaf Director of Corporate Social Responsibility Raheem Uqdah.

Curaleaf Director of Corporate Social Responsibility (Linkdin)

Curaleaf recently announced a $950,000 contribution to advance social equity in Illinois communities, per state adult-use regulations.

But Curaleaf did not stop at contributing money, the company has started its Rooted in Good initiative and gotten directly involved in local communities.

Curaleaf Director of Corporate Social Responsibility Raheem Uqdah says that there are multiple options, including a general fund, for determining where the money goes.

Uqdah says he wanted to be very intentional about where Curaleaf was making an impact.

“We could have just written a check, given it to the state, and then been done with it,” says Uqdah. “There is an opportunity for us to make some long standing relationships with organizations across the city that are doing really great work. And I think what that does is build long term pipelines both into and out of the cannabis industry as well as just support community development and reinvestment.”

Contributing to the Future

Curaleaf contributed $250,000 for Olive-Harvey College to build a cannabis education program, create paid internships, and start a scholarship program.

Uqdah says the relationship with Olive-Harvey is about workforce development, industry development, and building an educational program to serve a community that has largely been left behind in the cannabis space.

Uqdah says that Curaleaf’s $100,000 contributions to Growing Home, the Greater West Town Community Development Project, and Cara Chicago are about giving back to people who may not want to enter the cannabis industry.

“But there’s still an opportunity for folks to receive the benefits of legal cannabis,” says Uqdah. “And we’ve volunteered with both Cara and Growing Home in the pastboth on employer panels, doing interview prep, and things like that, and ways where we can still contribute and help with personal and community development that doesn’t require folks to work in cannabis.

Uqdah began working in the cannabis industry in February 2019 when he joined Grassroots Cannabis, which Curaleaf acquired in July 2020.

With two years under his belt, Uqdah is a relative newcomer to the blossoming industry, though he is no stranger to cannabis, having been around it for much of his life.

Uqdah says cannabis helped him during art school, and his father used it as well.

But Uqdah says that activism is what pushed him to enter the cannabis industry.

Following Curaleaf’s acquisition of Grassroots, Uqdah took on the Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives role at Curaleaf before transitioning to his current Director of Corporate Social Responsibility position.

It’s Not Just About the Money

With the current state of cannabis in the U.S., there are many opportunities to enter the industry and turn a quick profit.

But Uqdah says that Curaleaf and most of the people he interacts with are in the business for the long haul.

“I also think that’s where a lot of our passion for social justice for environmentalism comes from, is that everyone’s just so personally really fired up about it,” says Uqdah. “We had our first environmental task force meeting yesterday. And just in that first hour, folks are throwing out ideas, offering to get whatever information we need as we do our first carbon analysis. It’s kind of the boring part of the work where we’re just pulling utility bills and checking square footage and seeing what our footprint looks like.”

But Uqdah says that it was exciting to see people so energized about looking at utility bills and checking square footage.

“I think it’s nice,” says Uqdah. “Because I get the feeling every day that everyone knows that we’re building an industry and a company that are gonna be here for a while.”

Curaleaf recently introduced its 420×25 initiative, in which the company aims to do business with new cannabis brands, ancillary suppliers, and advocacy organizations from underrepresented communities in the cannabis ecosystem by 2025.

Uqdah says he is very excited about the initiative because it leverages Curaleaf’s footprint to benefit other brands.

“I think the clearest story to tell at this moment is with a brand called Bouqué,” says Uqdah. “They make hemp based rolling papers, they’re based out of Maryland. And this was a conversation that started just on how we get them into our Maryland stores. They’re still going to be a regional player in a bunch of our stores. And because of our relationship, our PR agency actually pitched them to Rolling Stone—and then they were featured in Rolling Stone as one of the black brands that folks should support for 4/20”

Building Relationships

Looking at retail allocations, Uqdah says that the focus is on building long-term relationships with lots of really good brands and not competing with smaller growers.

Uqdah says they are offering fundamentally different things.

“I think Curaleaf is scale and consistency, and I think craft grow really allows for you to have very particular phenotypes, very particular strains that serve a different need,” says Uqdah. “So I really see it as an opportunity for us to throw our marketing dollars, our retail footprint, the Curaleaf machine behind some of these smaller brands to help them do some things that they couldn’t do on their own.”

While Curaleaf has started its Rooted in Good initiative in Illinois, Uqdah says that the plan is to take the program to other states.

Generally speaking, Uqdah says that Rooted in Good has allowed Curaleaf to create parameters for how the company wants to show up in communities and tailor the initiative to the needs of individual states and municipalities.

“Whether that’s helping with job training, or cannabis education, whether it’s helping with some of our work with food banks, or food insecurity,” says Uqdah. “It just allows us to tailor an approach to each community that we’re entering.”

Spreading the Love and Cannabis Compassion

In New York, Uqdah says that Curaleaf is looking to mimic what it has done in Illinois, realizing that the states are different when it comes to cannabis policy.

Uqdah says the company is working on creating relationships with First Nations and Latino communities, extending invitations into the cannabis industry that make sense to them.

Another arm of Curaleaf’s community involvement is the company’s nationwide Feed the Block initiative, which Uqdah says illustrates industry responsibility by meeting community needs.

Uqdah says that COVID-19, job loss, and other tragedies that people have faced over the past year have allowed Curaleaf to step up and make a difference.

“I think through that, it shows that cannabis companies are not some Boogeyman,” says Uqdah. “We’re just everyday folks who care a lot about these issues and want to get involved. So I think it mainstreams cannabis, it mainstreams Curaleaf a little bit more with our neighbors, and allows us to have a conversation that’s cannabis-adjacent, but isn’t about the plant. I think cannabis social justice, like all of these issues, cuts across so many demographics that when we’re more able to address them, I think we can just normalize the entire conversation.”

Uqdah says he appreciates how local cannabis has allowed Curaleaf to tailor its Feed the Block program to fit each state in which the company operates.

“So, we worked with 23 local food banks across the country, we showed up in slightly different ways where possible,” says Uqdah. “Here in Illinois, we added gift cards to folks’ CSA shares from a nonprofit. In Florida, we bought turkeys from a Latinx grocer and then handed them out in the community for folks. But then everywhere, there’s sort of this unifying…we’re taking in donations, we’re matching those donations, we’re bulking up food banks. I’m excited, as we have this kind of new normal as we’re calling it, and folks begin to get vaccinated. I’m excited for us to be able to go out and participate in community gardens, stuffing boxes, collecting canned goods, and just getting a bit more involved hands-on. But it was it was an exciting opportunity. At the end of that program, we had donated $100,000 and 10,000 meals.”

Education is Key

To help provide education to a wide range of audiences that might not generally receive it, Curaleaf has introduced First Friday.

Uqdah says that the platform allows for coverage of a broad range of issues with various partners regarding diversity and social justice work.

“It’s really being able to offer a wide range of programming to a number of folks,” says Uqdah. “Whether they’re interested in an expungement, or getting involved in the industry, or learning about personal health and wellness and their connection to cannabis. It’s really just an opportunity for, again, similar to to the goal of retail allocations, how can we leverage the knowledge in the network that we have and then share that with folks across the country and across various channels.”

Having worked in the nonprofit sector, Uqdah says that working in with Curaleaf in Illinois has been a fantastic opportunity.

“What really frustrated me about it was it felt like 50 to 75% of my job was trying to figure out how to get money so that we can continue programming,” says Uqdah. “I like being inside of a company and having the funds to then give to nonprofits to really bolster the programming that they’re doing…I know how hard it is to receive funding as a nonprofit. And to be able to say, I love what you’re doing, please just keep doing it and let’s figure out how I can continue helping you was really a fantastic experience to work through.”