“I fell in love with the plant and it changed my life,” Harrington tells Boardroom. “We wanted to create opportunities for people who look like us.”
Monday marks a special anniversary for Al Harrington. The 16-year NBA veteran can now say he’s spent a full decade as a cannabis entrepreneur with Viola, a company he founded at a time when the obstacles facing would-be marijuana moguls were more imposing than driving in the lane on Dikembe Mutombo.
But he saw an opportunity, and was undeterred in his quest to form a company that could not simply respond to a demand, but empower communities historically harmed by the wayward War on Drugs.
“In the cannabis industry, you never know what to expect. I fell in love with the plant and it changed my life,” Harrington told Boardroom. “I didn’t grasp the full picture of what Viola could become, especially looking at where we are now, but we knew we wanted to create opportunities for people who look like us.”
From legal barriers to cultural stigma, the landscape of the cannabis industry when Harrington founded Viola was unrecognizable compared to the visibility and accessibility of today. He noted that just three years ago, Viola’s facility in Detroit was raided by law enforcement and multiple staff members were arrested despite the operation being fully compliant with the law.
“We knew it could be big, but the industry wasn’t there yet,” he said. “We were aggressive and competitive because the industry was new and we wanted to get ahead.”
Harrington’s dream began to be realized through hard work and persistent advocacy — but it couldn’t have started at all without a special assist from his grandmother.
Initially met with resistance, Harrington convinced his grandmother to try medical marijuana to relieve the symptoms of her glaucoma. The decision was a game-changer, and got the retired big man thinking about the countless others out there who could benefit from the therapeutic effects of cannabis products.
With one deeply personal moment, the seeds for Viola — his grandmother’s name, naturally — had been planted.
While there’s much more work to be done, Harrington is encouraged by what the ongoing state-by-state wave of decriminalization and legalization efforts means for bringing marijuana, hemp, and CBD products out of the shadows and embracing them as essential tools for individual and community wellness.
“This year alone, legalization both on state and federal levels has been a large topic of conversation with New Mexico, New York, and Virginia recently voting to legalize and decriminalize cannabis,” he said. “Just this last year, cannabis was deemed an essential business during the pandemic. We’re operating in six different markets, and soon in Canada. We touch almost every part of the industry from seed to sell. You can clearly see how much it’s changed.”
Legalization without equity and inclusion, however, will prevent the kind of systemic changes that Harrington wants to drive with Viola. As more and more cannabis entrepreneurs generate wealth, our society still bears the scars of a criminal justice system that has disproportionately hurt minority communities.
“Minority ownership is only 4% of the [cannabis] industry, and the only way that will change is to elevate each other,” he told Boardroom. “At Viola, we use our platform to help those most affected by the War on Drugs and provide opportunities for ownership for people of color.”
A plant doesn’t just need time to grow — it needs some tending to as well. And as he takes stock of his company’s first decade and looks toward the future, Harrington envisions Viola as a helping hand that can do the kind of pruning and cultivating that empowers others in the industry to put down roots of their own.
“Over the next 10 years, we’ll look to expand into new markets, increase our cultivation capabilities, and grow our product offering. Another large effort for us over the next few years is to help create 100 Black cannabis millionaires through mentorship, our incubator, and creating a strong network of minority business owners, ” he said. “We’ve also got some dope product collabs in the works, which we’re excited about.”
But ultimately, the products themselves may be secondary to the meaning behind them and the doors they can open for the underserved and overlooked.
That, along with the woman who was the inspiration for it all, is what has Harrington bullish about what’s still to come.
“We operate with the mindset one community at a time, one flower at a time. It really starts there. It’s important for us to be a part of each community that we expand into,” he said. “Viola bears my grandmother’s name. That continues to drive me to build a brand that will make her proud.”