Discussion With Founder and CEO of Willow Industries, Jill Ellsworth: How She Started Out, Her Motivations, and The Current Reality Of Sustainable Cannabis

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AUTHOR: Heather Allman

PUBLISHER: CANNABIS LAW REPORT

 

 

Willow IndustriesWhether you have a momentary need or are looking to implement an organic kill-step in your cultivation process, Willow systems provide clean and effective solutions to cannabis and hemp contamination. Their organic technology uses ozone to safely clean cannabis flower, hemp and trim without compromising quality, flavor or effect.

In fact, this is the only protective technology taken from agriculture and perfected specifically for cannabis.

 

 

WillowPure began in early 2015, when new cannabis testing laws were passed. Cannabis contamination—by mold or other means—was an industry-wide problem, and there were no solutions on the market. But a solution did seem possible.

Over the next few months, their garage became an R&D lab. Finally, after multiple rounds of testing, Willow Industries arrived at ozone. This time, we saw great results. Ozone killed the microbials without altering the flower—the perfect solution.

They’ve now expanded into 22 new states, and kept the same core goal: to help cultivators provide clean, safe cannabis to consumers. This will never change.

Willow is a company built for cannabis, by people who care about cannabis, and according to CEO, Jill Ellsworth, they are thrilled to see what the next chapter will bring.

 

In April 2021, Cannabis Law Report talked at length with Jill Ellsworth, CEO of Willow Industries about Willow Pure and cannabis sustainability, her start in cannabis, the importance of authenticity and safety, consumer observations, and advice for others in the industry —especially fellow women and minority operators.

 

Jill Ellsworth, CEO of Willow Industries

 

Cannabis Law Report: Let’s talk about your journey in the Cannabis industry at large, culminating in your current role. What was your personal intention initially jumping into the Cannabis space?

How did you move into the specialty of guaranteeing green, clean cannabis?

 

Jill Ellsworth: I don’t think I ever intentionally looked to get into the cannabis industry.

However, 5 years ago I saw a massive opportunity in an issue that was not being addressed. My background and experience in the food and beverage industry helped me come up with an idea that would address cannabis contamination, which is now known to be a massive problem for the industry.

Ensuring consumer safety has always been incredibly important to me, and developing the WillowPure decontamination system has allowed us to help cultivators guarantee that their cannabis was clean and green.

 

CLR: Why do you love what you do? Tell me a little bit about why you care about cannabis quality so much, and about ensuring clean consistently clean and safe cannabis for consumers?

 

Jill: First of all, I love being an entrepreneur. It is what motivates and inspires me every day.

Most importantly, I care about the quality of products I put in my body, and that compassion and care extends to all consumers.

Fundamentally, cannabis is medicine, and it should be cared for and treated as such. However, cannabis is a very finicky plant and since it is a bioaccumulator, mold and contamination can’t be totally avoided.

Ensuring that cultivators have access to technology to help them get rid of surface level contamination and in turn, providing clean, safe cannabis to all types of consumers is why I love my job.

 

 

CLR: When and how did you personally first discover the potential of organic cannabis and the gaps in the market?

Jill: As I was looking for my next entrepreneurial journey, I realized there were no solutions to organically clean a product that had been contaminated with mold, yeast or bacteria.

It was incredibly important to me to find a way to ensure that cannabis could be clean and pure.

Using ozone, which is derived from oxygen and considered organic, seemed like the most applicable science for this plant.

 

CLR: How do your past professional expertise and experience help you with your leadership role?

 

Jill: Willow is my third start-up, and I have learned a ton about leadership from my past companies in regards to what works and what doesn’t.

I have also been working with a professional executive coach for the past 10 months and which has completely transformed my leadership skills and style.

It has helped me become a much stronger leader, leaning into my strengths and starting to hone in on my weaknesses. For any leader, coaching is invaluable.

 

 

CLR:  Who taught you about or how did you learn your entrepreneur and business skill set?  Do you have a mentor, concerning the cannabis industry?

 

Jill: When I was getting my Master’s, I worked for a female founder and entrepreneur in Los Angeles who really encouraged my professional growth, and through her I was able to watch firsthand how she managed a large business. But I have always been an entrepreneur at heart so that skill set comes fairly easy to me.

In cannabis, a few of my mentors happen to be Willow board members and I am always inspired by my co-founder, Jason. I continue to learn a ton from him.

 

CLR: Let’s talk about your job for a minute. What is it about your position that most attracted you to it? What do you enjoy most about your job? The upsides? The downsides?

 

Jill: Being the leader of a rapidly growing startup is like being on a wild roller coaster every day. Nothing is the same and everything changes minute by minute.

 

Of course I love the variability – I love that my day is never the same and when I walk into the office, I always wonder what the day has in store for me.

 

Closing deals and bringing on new customers definitely keeps the excitement high. But at the same time, being the leader and the CEO comes with many challenges. I am the one to have the hard conversations and make some really hard decisions.

I always say – If you want to be the CEO, you have to be willing to take all the bad with some of the good. The bad will always fall on the CEO, so you have to be mentally and emotionally prepared and strong. 

 

 

CLR:  Tell me your opinion on the importance of these areas within the Cannabis sector, to yourself, and to Willow Industries in particular:

  • Transparency / Trustworthiness/ Authenticity

Jill: This is one of our values. We are transparent with our customers. We are transparent with our team members. Trust is earned and we work hard to garner that from anyone that interacts with us.

 

  • Consistency/ Accuracy

Jill: I am a very consistent person. What you see is typically what you get. And I demand that from my team. Being consistent and accurate when you are selling a product that produces a toxic gas is of utmost importance.

 

  • Responsibility/ Accountability/ Ethical

Jill: If I can’t rely on my team and they can’t rely on me, who is responsible. We preach taking responsibility for your actions. Act like an owner. Every employee owns part of this company, which pushes the need for accountability.

 

CLR: How have consumers changed since you started in the cannabis space? What type(s) and/or demographics of consumers are you seeing now?

 

Jill: The cannabis consumer is constantly evolving and becoming more educated.

Things are becoming less about buying “weed” and more about buying products that address their specific need and desire. 

 

CLR: Most importantly, what consumer product or service demand do you see trending currently — AND— do you feel that cannabis companies and brands are adapting, changing their mindset about product priorities?

 

Jill: I don’t analyze a lot of consumer trends firsthand because Willow is focused on the B2B space, but products that call out all the different cannabinoids and their specific applications (ex: CBN) are trending and I believe will continue to be a robust sector of the retail sale.

I believe that flower will always remain king, though.

 

 

CLR: In the June edition of CBD Business Times, 34% of respondent consumers have been using more Cannabis and CBD since the 2020 COVID-19  crisis began. In case of our current crisis, Cannabis has been deemed an essential service.

—Why is quality cannabis crucial right now more than ever, especially clean and safe cannabis?

 

Jill: Since consumer demand for THC and CBD products has increased so significantly during COVID, we have to ensure that consumers are getting what they expect in that package.

It needs to be accurate, it needs to be safe, and it needs to be clean. Consumers trust cannabis companies and we can’t lose that trust with products that don’t represent the standards we are trying to set.

 

CLR: Tell me about your team at Willow Industries and the importance of these choices and this diversity?

 

Jill: I never could have built Willow without my team – they are amazing. They all come from different backgrounds, have different experiences and all of that adds up to a very diverse team that works hard together.

We have built a very strong culture here at Willow and our retention rate is a true testament to that.

 

CLR:  How is your actual job different than the job/role you thought it would be?

 

Jill: I pretty much got what I expected. Although employee management has been a bit more challenging than I anticipated.

Humans are messy. It’s just the fundamental truth about being a human.

Life happens and as a boss, you just have to roll what comes your way.

 

CLR:  Can you share the most interesting or challenging story that has happened to you since you began leading your company?

 

Jill: There have been so many! Operating in an industry that is legal in one state and illegal in another poses so many challenges.

I think some of the most challenging stories revolve around working with cultivators that did not understand the value of our technology and just saw it as a band-aid solution to a larger problem.

But also trying to do R&D with an illegal product in the beginning was super hard and we had to get extremely creative to make it happen.

 

 

CLR:  What is the biggest challenge you personally  face in your role? How do you solve it or work to change it? Anything especially difficult?

 

Jill: Banking has always been very challenging for our organization and it is something that still plagues organizations affiliated with the cannabis industry today.

We have a great partner now, but it was something that was concerning at the inception of the company.

Also I have never managed a Board of Directors before, and there was a steep learning curve for that as well.

 

 

CLR:  In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives — that are possibly not faced by their male counterparts — especially when it comes to the Cannabis space?

 

Jill: Finding institutional funding. Garnering respect. Being heard.

 

CLR: How do you succeed as a woman in the cannabis industry — what skill set(s) have you had to develop, nurture, or re-learn in a new way?

 

Jill: I am typically the only woman at the table, so I have had to learn how to make my voice heard.

I need to have a strong opinion and not be wishy-washy when it comes to my decision making.

Fundamentally, I am a strong woman, but being in cannabis and around very few women, I really lean into bringing that “female energy” to the table. It’s important for setting the stage for more women to enter the space.

 

 

CLR:  What advice or words of wisdom can you give to other leaders, especially women and minority leaders, to help their teams and companies and brands to thrive?

 

Jill: Be courageous. Be decisive. Have a clear vision. Don’t retreat when the going gets tough. Put yourself out there even when you feel insecure. Be persuasive.

 

CLR: What future impact does Willow Industries actively strive to make in the growing national cannabis space? Women-owned business sphere?

 

Jill: We want to be known as the company that innovated a solution for clean cannabis.

I personally want to be known for being a risk-taker; someone that did not give up, did not back down, and continued to pursue her mission.

Longevity is very important to me. I have been in this space for over 5 years and have seen a lot. I want to lift up other women and help them create their visions in cannabis.

 

 

CLR: What are you most currently passionate about and why?

 

Jill: Clean cannabis and continuous growth and innovation within the cannabis industry.

 

 

 

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