Bettina Huang has been dreaming of creating a cannabis business before most people could even get their hands on the plant.
“I’ve just believed in the plant, and the industry, since high school,” Huang told HuffPost.
Huang is the founder of Say Hi, a highly edited online marketplace where consumers can find the types of sophisticated, design-minded cannabis products you can’t find in the locked glass closet of your local deli.
The e-commerce site, which launched Thursday, features everything from precisely dosed edibles to walnut stash boxes, color-blocked lighters and crystalline ashtrays.
Huang, 33, studied art history in college and began her career in the traditional art world. She attended business school and conceived a version of the cannabis lifestyle business that, seven years later, would become Say Hi.
“I’ve always felt really passionately that cannabis has this very inevitable path of being as socially and legally acceptable as whiskey, and lots of specialty things. But it’s actually more interesting and useful,” she said.
After developing digital marketplaces at Artsy and Fab.com, Huang was ready to create her own. She’d spent time in California and Oregon, where recreational cannabis is legal, and was excited by “what cannabis culture could be,” she said.
“The culture of cannabis hasn’t evolved much. Which is why I think it has so much potential.”
Twenty-nine states have legalized marijuana in some form with several more, such as New Jersey and Utah, considering bills this year. California, America’s most populated state, began sales earlier this year.
“At a certain point last year, I knew that personally and professionally, I was in a place where it was the right time for me to start a company; and socially and legally, it felt like the right time for cannabis too,” Huang said. “I felt, unquestionably, that this was the right time to pursue this idea that had been in the back of my mind for such a long time.”
Though cannabis use has grown in popularity and acceptance in recent decades, the culture around it has remained largely synonymous with a certain stoner aesthetic.
“The culture of cannabis hasn’t evolved much. Even now, it’s not that evolved from that stereotype of it being an underground subversive activity,” Huang said. “Which is why I think it has so much potential.”
For modern consumers, especially those who live in states where the plant is prohibited, it can be difficult to find anything other than trippy glass pipes and vaporizers that are clunky and indiscreet.
“Aesthetically, the bulk of what’s out there targets that more classic stoner vibe. At the other end, there are these really beautiful, high-end companies that are coming out. But I don’t think they feel accessible or exciting to broad audience,” Huang said. Say Hi, Huang said, connects curious consumers with innovative brands, and provides users across the country with the kind of glassware, edibles and accessories they’ll want to display rather than hide.
“If you imagine an emerging brand in any other industry, they might first go to Etsy to be discovered by consumers,” Huang said. “That’s what we want to be for the cannabis space.”
Say Hi is geared skillfully to a millennial audience in which everyone seems to be a gourmand, a design enthusiast and wellness expert. Its website categorizes inventory along these lines, dividing products into sections such as devices and accessories, edibles, health and wellness, beauty and topicals, and tech.
“If you think about what anybody might be interested in normally, food or music or science, it’s always a pretty easy thing to connect to cannabis. It’s a very small jump,” Huang said.
Because the sale of cannabis products with THC is prohibited in many states, Say Hi does not sell items directly to consumers. Instead, the site invites them to add items “to their stash” and redirects them to the brand’s own site. There, they can be purchased as long as the customer lives in a state where they have the legal right to do so.
“We’re not transactional. I think it’s more important for us to represent the spectrum of what’s available, most of which has THC” than to sell products directly to consumers, Huang said.
Say Hi originally launched as a content platform called “Hi&Lo,” which Huang always intended to develop into an e-commerce market. Through informative and lifestyle-related content geared toward cannabis users, Say Hi wants to “increase people’s comfort with cannabis as subject, but also envision how this fits into their lives,” Huang said.
Huang recently published a piece called “Can The Cannabis Industry Set the Example for Gender Equality?” which explores the potential for women, who make up 27 percent of cannabis business executives, to shape the growing field into a more thoughtful, sustainable industry with more gender parity than its forbearers in business and tech.
“If we can put ourselves in positions of authority in cannabis, and also make this industry work ― which alone would be monumental ― we could also set good precedents that could affect other industries too,” Huang told HuffPost.
“I really really care about being a woman leader period, but also in this space, that is super challenging but also filled with opportunity.”
Huang said she encounters many women entrepreneurs in the cannabis space ― especially given its relationship to wellness and beauty ― but far fewer, if any, leading companies at the intersection of cannabis and tech.
“When you look at, who are the investors in the space and who run the bigger companies? Those are typically men,” Huang said.
Expanded legalization has had a dampening effect on the number of female leaders in the industry. Cannabis businesses have become a safer investment for richer investors in industries where women are traditionally a minority. These trends threaten to displace a relatively gender-equal industry and dramatically raise the cost of entry.
“There is so much opportunity for women to take leadership roles and to create a new model of leadership: where men and women can respect each other, where hard work and competence are valued over everything else, where career paths are satisfying,” Huang said.
“I really think these things are possible ― and are trends ― in cannabis,” she said.