By Authority Magazine Editorial Staff | July 7, 2024 | Authority Magazine

Be careful who you partner with — Do your due diligence. Don’t be fooled by showmanship. Take partnerships very seriously and have very clear expectations, documentation, and objectives.

Introduction to Jill Ellsworth and Willow Industries

As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jill Ellsworth.

Jill Ellsworth is the founder and CEO of Willow Industries, the leader in cannabis kill-step and post-harvest microbial decontamination technology. In 2015, leveraging her science and consumer safety expertise, Jill founded Willow Industries, the industry’s first cannabis decontamination company. Her mission was, and continues to be, providing cultivators with a solution to cannabis contamination and ensuring patients and consumers have access to consistently clean, safe products.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?

Before I started Willow Industries in 2015, I owned a cold-pressed juice company in Denver, CO. As I scaled that company, I learned a lot about food safety and protecting consumers through various kill-step methods. As I was selling that business, I saw an opportunity to bring my food safety knowledge to cannabis, as Colorado state was requiring cultivators to test for mold and yeast but if presented with the problem, there were no solutions. I had a light bulb moment and wanted to find a way to “clean weed” using a kill-step.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

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?

Inventing a new product for a nascent industry is filled with many, many ups and downs. There have been countless interesting stories that have happened to me and my team since the inception of Willow, especially with a solution that was so new, and still is unique to the industry. Some of the best ones come from the unexpected requests we get to clean things way outside our usual zone. Ozone is handy in lots of areas, but our WillowPure technology is fine-tuned for cannabis. So, when someone asks us to clean bully sticks, wine corks, or even hockey gear, it’s brought new perspectives and has pushed us further in our innovations. While we usually stick to what we know best, those unique calls definitely make for some great stories!

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?

Trying to use our ozone technology to clean clones. That did not work and it definitely made the clones very unhappy. Thankfully, my good friend was the owner and head grower so it was not a huge disaster but I learned to tread carefully when using our technology for items outside our typical use case. Not everything is going to work well with ozone!

Journey to Leadership in the Cannabis Industry

Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?

Most people I have known for a long time were not surprised since cannabis was something I enjoyed when I was younger (and still today!), but those that didn’t know me well were definitely surprised. What I found very interesting was that there was very little prejudice against working in cannabis. Most people wanted to know more about what the industry was like and what it’s like behind the scenes.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There were so many amazing people that helped me along the way. The one person that supported me unconditionally was our first investor who is now running the company with me — my husband, Jason Ellsworth. Even when the going got tough (and it did often — still does!), he was always there to encourage me and remind me to stay the course. Once the company became profitable, he left his finance job and joined the company full time as the co-founder and COO. It’s not easy running a business with your husband but we have worked hard to make it an enjoyable experience.

Innovations in Cannabis Decontamination & Microbial Control

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We recently released a new product called WillowAir. It’s an air filtration device that captures and removes pathogens floating around a cultivation or manufacturing facility. It’s effective, easy to use, and not overly engineered to keep the price down for businesses. It is a product we are very proud of and addresses the needs for cleanliness in facilities not only for plant quality and safety, but also for employee health. With this device, we partnered with the Cannabis Research Coalition who works with the Flowering Physiology Laboratory at Clemson University, developing science-based research to address cultivation and post-harvest issues that challenge today’s cannabis industry. To support their initiatives, we donated WillowAir units to the coalition, ensuring the highest standards throughout the research process.

Insights on Gender Parity

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite 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?

The cannabis industry is not alone in gender disparity. It is seen across industries and engrained in our culture. But the cultural norms are shifting. You are seeing more women in executive positions and more women feeling empowered to start their own companies. We need to continue lifting women up, giving them the confidence and courage to step outside of their comfort zone and into their own power. Sure, there needs to be more positions that support women and boards that include women, but the onus is on us to show that there isn’t a disparity among genders and we are just as competent as men.

Advice to Succeed in the Cannabis Industry

You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 nonintuitive 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.

  1. Be patient — This isn’t the gold rush everyone assumed it would be. Things take a lot longer in this industry but if you are patient, it will happen.
  2. Be careful who you partner with — Do your due diligence. Don’t be fooled by showmanship. Take partnerships very seriously and have very clear expectations, documentation, and objectives.
  3. Don’t unnecessarily burn cash — Conserve your cash (especially if you have raised investor money). Don’t spend it on dumb stuff and take it very seriously.
  4. Treat your employees well — This is obvious but a value that isn’t super common in this industry. They can make or break your company. Do right by them.
  5. Try not to burn bridges — Be gracious, be kind and be thoughtful. You never know how someone might show up in your future.

Opportunities and Concerns in the Cannabis Industry

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?

  1. Innovation.
  2. New dispensary shopping experiences.
  3. The signs that we are growing up and becoming mature.

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?

1. Inability for companies to pay their bills. Something must be done to improve the financial health of all parts of the industry.

2. Lack of banking. Still does not make sense to me after all these years.

3. Consumer safety. It’s still lacking despite best efforts by regulatory bodies.

Thoughts on Federal Legalization and Future Outlook

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?

We need to absolutely and quickly move towards federal legalization. A recent study by the Pew Research Center said that 88% of respondents believe that cannabis should be legal for medical or recreational use by adults. The people have spoken. It’s a plant that provides an incredible amount of medicinal benefits and there is no reason it should still be outlawed.

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?

I am sure recreational cannabis will end up in this same category, however, we must treat medical cannabis differently. Cigarettes offer no medicinal value, whereas with cannabis it’s a totally different ballgame!

Conclusion

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be in the now”. I have spent, and wasted, too many years and too much of my time living in the past and the future….especially worrying about the future. I can’t even count how many vacations I have ruined worrying about work, worrying about things that never came true. When I started adopting this mentality, my life got simpler, my brain became calmer and I realized I only have today. So be here.

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. 🙂

Treat everyone with kindness and respect. We live in a world where judgment reigns King but it all starts with the self. Perhaps if we were gentler on ourselves, our approach with others would be softer as well.

Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!

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