Wisdom From The Women Leading The Cannabis Industry, With Karen Debroni of Ekosi Health
An Interview With Ben Ari
As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Debroni, MPA, BA, Chief Experience Officer at Ekosi Health.
An innovative, customer-oriented professional with a far-reaching network of national and international contacts, Karen brings over 25 years of executive-level leadership & general management experience to Ekosi Health as a result of running her own small business enterprise as well as from her tenure in senior positions in the public sector, private and publicly traded organizations. Since 2014, Karen was instrumental in the building of a commercial-scale cultivation and sales licensed cannabis company, fulfilling a plethora of roles to assure the company’s licensure. She is committed to driving continued innovation related to cannabinoid-based medicines to help build resilience in individuals, and in turn, communities. Recognized for integrity and delivering results, Karen is also active in the community, volunteering and serving on the boards of several professional and charitable organizations including the Biosciences Association of Manitoba, North Forge, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s Starry, Starry Night, and the Women’s Enterprise Centre of Manitoba where she served as Chair of the Board. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Manitoba and a Masters in Public Administration degree from the University of Winnipeg.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
Way back in late 2013, a senior leader in our Provincial health system here in Canada, who I respected greatly, let me know he was embarking on a new entrepreneurial venture in the cannabis industry and asked if I was interested in working together with him to help build the undertaking. I was excited by how the industry, to me, represented an opportunity to work in three sectors including agribusiness, advanced manufacturing, & health all at once while truly helping individuals and communities.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Over the years I have seen and experienced a lot of very interesting things in this industry. Since Ekosi Health Centre’s incorporation in 2019, I have had the good fortune to work directly with several Indigenous organizations and individuals. It was one bitterly cold (or character-building as I like to say!) day in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Prior to our meeting with one Indigenous-led organization, all of us were chatting, and, yes, potentially complaining, about the very far below-zero temperatures we were living with.
When the Elder opened the meeting, he talked about the very many things we all had to be thankful for, including the fact we were all able to get up, walk, see the bright sun and feel the crisp air as we made our way to that meeting. While one of my favourite sayings has always, from the time I can remember, been “the sun is always shining even if it is behind the clouds”, this experience with the Elder served as a reminder I hold close: it is very important to always look at things in life from alternate viewpoints; it will help you see much more clearly.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We were in the throes of setting up our state-of-the-art, compliant security system in our large facility. We had a meeting in a little used room. I was the last in the building on a Friday night, running out to do the children’s pick-up duty and realized I had left my keys in the meeting room. I went to retrieve them and the door closed behind me, locking me in. Fortunately, I had my phone on me (which I frequently also misplace!) and was able to call for the calvary to come and get me out. I was appreciative and thought all would be forgotten until Monday morning when I arrived at work and, plastered all over the facility, were posters of myself behind bars, with the tagline “Escape from Alcatraz” Part II! I wish I could say I have learned not to misplace my keys or phone since then, but …
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
No, I don’t have one story in particular. Everyone was keen to invite me to their parties though!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are countless people — my family, friends, and colleagues — who have served as pillars of strength for me over the years. I am grateful to each and every one of them for the role they have played in my development and growth. If I think about the inspiration I have drawn from a public figure, two Foxes -Terry and Michael J.- come to mind. Both of them have faced incredible adversity. They have not only overcome it but have each created something incredibly special in communities that will live on well past themselves. I often think of them whenever I face challenges, and carry on.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At Ekosi, we are proud, under the leadership of our Chief Innovation & Systems Officer, to continue to build a real-world evidence data asset to help advance the science of cannabinoid-based medicines and, in turn, assist people all across the globe with pain, mood and sleep challenges they are experiencing.
We are very excited about the Observational Study which we presently have underway in partnership with Cerebra to assess sleep quality in patients utilizing cannabinoid therapy. In working with such a leading firm whose proprietary Sleep System is now authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration as a Class II medical device, we are thrilled to be building the body of knowledge surrounding cannabis and sleep, for the benefit of the patients in the study as well as for the millions upon millions of persons who are not their best possible selves due to the problems they have getting enough and/or good sleep.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite the great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to this report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a )individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?
I am somewhat encouraged by what we have seen in recent years — arguably there is now, more than ever before, at least a broader recognition of the value of diversity in everything we, as humans, do. To support equity among gender, in particular, it is important that we, collectively, continue to foster systems and environments which place persons of all gender in positions of power in our society. Having more persons of all gender on all types of Boards, in all aspects of the financial industry, in all levels of government, in the bureaucracies developing public policy to support these same governments, and in leadership positions, in general, will help affect desired changes. To get us to this point, education needs to begin at a very young age, in our homes and in our early childhood education settings.
You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non-intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each.
While I certainly don’t think all of these are non-intuitive, they are 5 things I would advise to help individuals achieve success in the industry:
1. Act with Integrity and Professionalism at All Times: There are many individuals and opportunities that will continuously present themselves to you. In addition to it making business sense for you, choose to work with those individuals whose values align with your own. When choosing not to work with individuals or pursue opportunities for whatever reason, be professional in how, and by when, you communicate this.
2. Expand Your Horizons: Many people tend to do business with those they feel comfortable with. It is natural to ”hang out” with people like yourself. Early on when working in the cannabis industry, our team carried out focus groups with hundreds of people. My highlight group of 9 for me consisted of three “soccer moms”, three persons from whom English was not their first language and 3 people who had been utilizing cannabis for years. It was amazing to see what happened when people who would not have normally spoken with each other in the course of their everyday lives connected and learned from each other. It’s incumbent on each of us to get out of our own comfort zones to learn and grow.
3. Chart Your Own Path: It is natural to want to be part of a large group and to follow trends. While it is a heavily regulated industry, using creativity to innovate and uniquely drive change, moving forward with your unique value proposition will help you stand out. At Ekosi Health, we have a strong focus on the real-world evidence data collection we are carrying out — we see this as being an asset that will help advance the medical application of cannabis for many in terms of basic care, product development and, ultimately, health care system coverages for cannabinoid-based medicines.
4. Understand the Rules of the Game: If you are constantly aware of and keep up with the legislation and associated regulations that are pertinent to your operations, you will be better positioned. The more jurisdictions you operate in, the more you will want and need to devote organizational time and energy (&, therefore, working capital) to do this.
5. Be Adaptable: Because change is constant, ensuring you have nimbleness built into your operations is critical. What happens if distribution models change? How will your product/service delivery be impacted? Where does it make the most sense for you to focus? The more you are able to anticipate and prepare for different future scenarios and intelligently diversify your current and potential revenue streams, the better.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
Well, fundamentally, I think it is the fact that the industry is still in its infancy. There is so much growing up we have yet to do. As this happens, I am confident strong brands and companies that truly resonate with the market — whether patients on the medical side of things or adult consumers from a recreational perspective — will not only survive but thrive. There is so much power in the plant to do good. More and more people, and governments, across the globe, are recognizing its socio-economic potential.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
Cannabis is a very complex public policy file — it crosses over agriculture, industrial, health, justice and environmental sectors. As legislation and associated regulations get developed, it would be useful if multi-faceted public sector policy teams were deeply involved in the process.
If the policymakers and, indeed, all our Relations, were to shift perspectives from a historical harms-oriented view to a harm-reduction-focused one, it would be good.
Recognizing cannabis is not a panacea, and it is not without its harms, to shift focus and look at the industry through the lens of the power it has to affect positive socio-economic change, would be a step in the right direction.
What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?
Being located in Canada where, in 2018, the government legalized the production, distribution, sale, import and export, and possession of cannabis for adults of legal age, I would say “thank you” to my Senator. If I were located in the United States, I would concentrate the discussion on how there are incredibly great economic and societal benefits and potential overall health impacts that can be realized for the country in supporting the federal legalization of cannabis. This is because US policy and lawmakers have the opportunity to learn from what has been done in other jurisdictions, to truly understand the reasons behind success and failure, to set objectives, and then to establish in legislation and related regulations what makes the most sense for the benefit of the country.
Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?
Science suggests the potential health impact of cannabis is different from that of tobacco. Cannabis has therapeutic clinical applications where tobacco does not. This said it should be treated differently from a taxation and regulatory perspective.
At Ekosi Health we consistently advocate that cannabis used for medicinal purposes should not be taxed. We also are working hard to help build up the evidence for cannabinoid-based medicine to be covered under health care plans as we believe, not only are there typically fewer negative side effects for individual patients, the cost to our heavily-burdened health care system could be lessened.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Being from Canada, I could go with Wayne Gretzky’s “Always skate to where you think the puck is going to be” but my favourite, albeit related, life lesson quote is: “The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Create It”. We cannot go backwards in time — unless we are Benjamina (yes, said on purpose as I am advocating for a sequel with a female lead) Button! I believe we can and should learn from the past; I believe also if we wake up each day thinking about what we can do and actually do it, we make advancements for ourselves and for future generations. This is reflected in what we are doing at Ekosi Health. Dr. Shelley Turner, our Founder and Chief Medical Officer, always speaks with our patients about how they are participating in research with every interaction, not only for the benefit of themselves but for the benefit of those that come after them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Here I have to go with what it is we are endeavouring to do with Ekosi Health; we are laser-focused on helping people help themselves; on Building Resilience in the populations we serve. We lend support at all times and encourage individuals to find their Strength Within. We are doing this by combining cannabinoid-based medicine with a heart-based approach, backed by research, data and science all the while putting individuals directly in the driver’s seat of the “Own Health” vehicle. We sincerely hope our innovative and logic-based approach to care will bring about positive change for an incredibly large number of people not only here in Canada, but, indeed, across the globe.
Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success!
Source: Authory Magazine