Happy Labor Weed Queens!
I can’t think of a better day than today, to share our interview with two hard working women, Tracey Mason and Sue Buchorski of House of Saka, a cannabis-infused luxury “wine” beverage line based out of California. Based in Napa Valley, House of Saka creates and manufactures cannabis-infused luxury products by and for women. The company boasts an all-female leadership team and advisory board with more than 100 years of collective experience in wine, cannabis and luxury branding.
Tracey Mason, Co-founder and CEO, is a 25-year veteran of the wine industry with experience in nearly every facet, including roles at Diageo, Fosters Wine Estates, Goelet Wines Estates and Epic Wines. In co-founding House of Saka with business partner and cannabis industry figurehead Cynthia Salarizadeh, Tracey is excited to draw from her past experience navigating a male-dominated world and identity as a queer woman to create a luxury brand specifically designed with a particular consumer in mind – the woman.
As COO and CFO, Sue Buchorski brings over 28 years of beer, wine and spirits experience to the table, serving on the executive teams at Constellation Brands (both Global and North American divisions) and Pacific Wine Partners. Before entering the alcohol industry, Sue held roles at May Department Stores and Winn Dixie Stores.
During our time together, Sue and Tracey gave us a great understanding about what it’s like to be an executive in an industry where women don’t normally hold high positions and also gave great advice on what it takes to be successful in the weed world. Check out the interview below and don’t forget to share it with other Weed Queens!
How would you describe yourselves and what you do?
SB: I’m a long time alcohol beverage executive with Operations, Finance and General Management experience who quit ‘big corporate’, took a year off, and then decided to do something more entrepreneurial and exciting with a couple bad ass women that I really admire.
TM: As female executives in the alcohol beverage industry and neighbors in Napa Valley, Sue and I have been friends and colleagues for nearly a decade. While Sue has been focused on the operations and finance side, I have been on the sales, marketing and innovation side. Our combined experience and complementary skill sets create a powerful force. We share the kind of success-driven mindset necessary to turn an idea not only into a reality but into a thriving business and under exceptionally difficult circumstances.
What has your personal experience with cannabis been?
SB: I have been surprised that it is such a scrappy category with so many hurdles and obstacles to overcome. I come from a highly regulated, state specific industry, and yet I am still surprised at the amount of regulation, quality control, and legal hurdles. The lack of industry specific technology, financing, and distribution channels all make this a difficult industry to maneuver – you have to really want to be here in cannabis.
TM: Like Sue, I was surprised by the lack of legal and financial infrastructure in place to support and assist us in navigating the obscure regulatory environment that pseudo-governs the industry. While frustrating and challenging, it’s also part of the overall gift that the cannabis industry has afforded me – and that’s the opportunity to learn, every single day. And that, to me, is why we do what we do.
What is House of Saka about? What do you guys do?
TM: House of Saka draws its inspiration from the legend of the Saka, an ancient tribe of female warriors said to have ruled the world and conquered all they desired, and for whom wine infused with the sacred cannabis plant was at the center of their rituals and rites of passage.
House of Saka, Inc.. was founded in 2018 with a mission to bring the Saka’s ritualistic tradition of cannabis use into the modern age with elegant, infused products for the warrior all of us.
What makes House of Saka unique?
SB: The quality of the product is unprecedented, the packaging is beautiful, and the all female advisory board and Cynthia and Tracey as founders, make this a truly compelling proposition.
TM: Female founded and led, House of Saka, Inc. is a producer of luxury infused products targeting the emerging female consumer. Our innovative product portfolio is anchored by our award-winning, alcohol-free, cannabis-infused wines from Napa Valley. The first and only infused beverages to lay claim to this extraordinary provenance, Saka PINK, made from 100% Napa Valley Rose of Pinot Noir, and Saka WHITE, made from 100% Napa Valley Chardonnay, have quickly won the praise of media, customers and consumers alike as the highest quality infused-beverages on the market.
As Sue noted, our unique, luxury positioning is further bolstered by our elegant branding and elevated messaging reminiscent of high fashion and high art, the combination of which sets House of Saka apart from any other cannabis brand on the market.
Did you ever expect a career in the cannabis space?
SB: Honestly, “no”, but that is likely because I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the space. The pace of new product development and consumer adoption is really exciting.
TM: When I was coming up through the alcohol industry, a career in legal cannabis was not an option so not at all in my sights. However, as a big believer in the plant and its countless therapeutic benefits and with the passage of Prop 64 in California, I became very interested in the space and made the leap in 2018.
What inspired you both to start House of Saka?
House of Saka was originally conceived by our Founder and President, Cynthia Salarizadeh, who is a prolific publicist and entrepreneur in the cannabis space. She discovered the legend of the Saka and their use of cannabis infused wines in their pre-war rituals and rites of passage while studying her Persian heritage at University of Pennsylvania.
Her dream was to bring the Saka’s traditions into the modern age but needed an executive in the wine space to fully bring it to life. To me, the idea of combining some of my most powerful passions: wine, cannabis and innovation, was way too exciting to pass up. So, we came together in late 2018 and founded House of Saka. We brought Sue in about 18 months later and haven’t looked back since!
Were your family and friends supportive of your venture?
TM: Incredibly so. As someone with a deeply-rooted and well-known entrepreneurial spirit, they were also not surprised. Educating them on cannabis has given me deep insights into just how much work we have to do as a company and an industry to educate consumers on how and when to best enjoy cannabis.
How/do you think your involvement in this industry is going to positively impact your community?
SB: Personally, it has made me much more aware of the inconsistent treatment from a legal standpoint of people of color or lower economic backgrounds vs. those who have financial means and/or are white. The statistics are staggering on the treatment and perceptions and every one of us should be aware of that and work to create an environment where all people are treated fairly and equally.
TM: To expand on Sue’s comments, at House of Saka, we recognize that part of the beauty and real thrill of starting your own company is not just about the products and the profits. Just as important, it’s about the opportunity to create a work environment that is supportive of women and minorities, that honors the unique experiences as well as the social and political mores of our employees to create a beautiful and empowered company culture that has a positive impact on all those we touch.
What has been your greatest obstacle in this industry to date – and how have you overcome it?
TM: While I generally dislike cliches, the saying ‘we’re building the plane as we’re flying it’ is wholly accurate. That’s been our biggest challenge. Well, that and ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ Creating a new product in any industry is hard; doing so in the highly-regulated, highly taxed, profitability-adverse cannabis industry is not for the faint of heart. Success requires a solution-driven approach fueled by extreme nimbleness, extreme determination and extreme passion.
Thankfully, that approach and the values on which it leans are shared by our team and are the biggest factors in our success to date.
What factors have contributed towards your path of success?
SB: For me, hard work and grit, calculated risk taking, ethical business practices, and treating people fairly and well all pay off in the end. Work hard, be kind.
TM: What she says! I’d add having clear and attainable goals and milestones, taking wins and losses with equal grace.
What’s the biggest change you want to see in the cannabis industry?
TM: Obviously, decriminalization on a national scale, more public education, more women and POC at the highest echelons of business, more access to people that need it.
As a woman, what challenges did you encounter (if any) building your business in a male-dominated industry and how do you plan to create change and inclusiveness for future women and WOC joining the industry?
SB: I’m going to answer this from my perspective with 30 years in the highly male dominated industry of alcohol beverage. Unconscious bias exists – both in men and women. Understanding what these biases are is a good start. Insisting, for example, that any applicants for an open role must be 50/50 female and/or people of color, before you will start interviewing, at least begins to level the field. It’s very difficult to bring in women or POC to a position if 9 out of 10 candidates are white males.
TM: Not unlike Sue’s and my own experience in the male-dominated alcohol industry, it never ceases to amaze that level to which we, as women, have to couch ourselves in business dealings, how nearly every pushback or disagreement needs to be wrapped in pretty bows for the males on the receiving end or risk being labeled a bitch or ‘difficult.’ We have to take the high road so often that I am surprised we don’t get nose bleed.
Our values as a company founded and led by women are the antithesis of that, we openly encourage engagement, even descent, as long as it’s respectful and aligned with our values of inclusivity, ethical practices and quality.
What would you consider to be the most effective way or initial steps of breaking down barriers and ceilings to pave this path for women in the industry?
TM: I have always found it to be essential to lead by example, to be willing to do the work you’re asking others to do, to put their needs and those of the company before your own.
Being openly supportive of other female-founded companies – vocally and as customers – is also critical. Lucky for us, we have an incredible network of fellow female entrepreneurs that we both love and support.
What would be your best piece of advice for fellow women looking to pursue the cannabis industry?
SB: There are some amazing women in the industry already with fantastic skills and experience. Bond together, get your personal posse in place, learn from each other. Stronger together!
TM: Recognize that this may be one of the few industries in which women have an opportunity not just to participate, but to actually shape. So, jump in, we need more of us to make that happen.
There’s still a perception or stigma attached to the people involved in the cannabis industry or just consumers that partake in recreational or medical use, as being stoners- if you have encountered this kind of close minded perspective, what would your argument be to shift the conversation to one of the importance of the weed market and why it should be celebrated/normalized?
SB: When I joined the beverage alcohol space 30 years ago, it had a lot of stigma attached as well. Not as much as cannabis perhaps, but very polarizing. My mother just couldn’t tell her church folks what industry I was in. Over the years, learning that wine was a fantastic enhancer of food, and ritual and family conversations were enjoyed over a glass of wine, all led to a much more mainstream acceptance of beverage alcohol. I think it will be the same with cannabis in the future.
TM: Let me begin by saying that there is nothing wrong with being a stoner and I am grateful to the stoners in my life that led me to the plant. And it’s with education around the plant combined with more socially acceptable, consistent and predictable means of consumption that the sigma will be shifted. Saka was conceived, at least in part, to bring cannabis into the mainstream. The precise dosing, familiar formfactor and rapid onset and offsets effects make it the perfect vehicle for that purpose.
Do you have any suggestions on how we can help normalize cannabis?
TM: Continue to educate and to produce safe, healthy products that consumers can enjoy.
Where can we reach you both? IG? Twitter?
@infusedsaka, @infusedluxury, houseofsaka.co
Name 5 of your favorite women in weed that you’d like to give a shout out too.
SB: Besides Cynthia Salarizadeh and Tracey Mason of course, Erin Gore of Garden Society, Chanda Macias of Ilera, and Rosie Mattio of Mattio Communications.
TM: To add to Sue’s list: Lalita Khosla of Bad Mommy Edibles, Annie Holman and Cheriene Griffin of the Galley, Elissa Hambretch of Fume and, of course, the incomparable Yvonne De LaRosa of 99 High Tide.
Key Takeaways from Tracey Mason and Sue Bachorski:
- Bond together, get your personal posse in place, learn from each other.
- Recognize that this may be one of the few industries in which women have an opportunity not just to participate, but to actually shape. So, jump in.
- Have clear and attainable goals and milestones.
- Take wins and losses with equal grace.
- Treat people fairly.
- Work hard, be kind.
A huge thank you to Tracey Mason and Sue Bachorski, for sharing their experiences and journeys as entrepreneurial women in the highly regulated weed world monopolized by men. Check out their valuable tips and advice on how to be a dope woman in the weed world too. You can learn more about House of Saka here.
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