Women in Public Affairs to Know: Kristi Kelly

February 7, 2019

Pardon Our Dust

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This interview is part of a series on “Women in Public Affairs to Know,” by the McGuireWoods Consulting Women in Public Affairs initiative. To learn more about the initiative or recommend a woman for a future interview, please visit our website.

Kristi Kelly is recognized as one of the country’s 50 most powerful women in cannabis, and one of the top 100 political cannabis influencers in the country.  She is the executive director of Marijuana Industry Group, Colorado’s oldest and largest trade association for licensed marijuana businesses. Kristi initially entered the cannabis space as an operator, owner and investor in a group of marijuana cultivation, manufacturing and dispensary businesses. She is a founding board member of the Fourth Corner Credit Union, the world’s first marijuana financial institution and a founding trustee of CannAbility Foundation, a patient advocacy and resource network for families of children living with conditions and disabilities that can be helped by cannabis. 

The interview below was conducted by Michele Satterlund, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s state government relations team.

Q: Having been named one of the country’s 50 most powerful women in cannabis and one of the top 100 political cannabis influencers in the country, can you tell me about the Marijuana Industry Group and your work as executive director of the organization? 

Kristi Kelly: The Marijuana Industry Group (MIG) is Colorado’s oldest and largest legal and licensed cannabis trade association. The Marijuana Industry Group was formed in 2010, before Colorado had created the world’s first taxed and licensed regulatory structure governing medical marijuana. It came about after Amendment 20, Colorado’s constitutional ballot initiative that passed medical cannabis in 2000, although it took a full decade to implement a regulatory system. There was no blueprint for Colorado to follow, so MIG’s members needed an architect to put it all together, and that came at the hand of their consulting team and legislators. It was a very new issue at the time. 

It was the willingness of Colorado’s elected officials and government agencies to work in partnership with the MIG and other industry stakeholders, to put the world’s first regulatory framework for cannabis together. 

My personal intersection with MIG first began when I was a business owner. My company was one of the first companies in Colorado, and we operated in what is considered the age of pioneers. As my businesses grew, it became important to align with leaders at the Capitol, so I joined MIG and was a board member and then served as co-vice chair. When I sold my licensed businesses, MIG was in a place where they were seeking guidance on how to evolve. It has been a great opportunity for me to work with an organization that I know very well and to help shepherd it through the process of shaping the long-term future of a marijuana trade association. 

kristi kelly group

MIG meeting organized on behalf of Victoria, Australia parliamentarians as a part of an educational cannabis delegation.
Shown are parliamentarians and Colorado state senators and representatives who worked cannabis issues in 2017.

Of course, along the way, we had recreational marijuana come online, also by constitutional ballot initiative. Since then, we’ve seen the expansion of legalization into many other states and countries. Because we were the first to license and regulate, and because we have confronted almost every relevant level of business and policy on this issue – other municipalities, states, and countries, and their elected officials and regulators have come to us, and to our colleagues, to understand what has been successful and what we would do differently. To the extent that a single organization can be impactful, MIG’s perspective has influenced nearly every other state in the United States (and internationally) that has adopted some form of marijuana policy.

Q: As a business-owner, can you talk about your very first job and what you learned from that job that has to helped shape where you are today? 

Kristi Kelly: My first, “real job” was at the corporate headquarters of the United States Postal Service where I worked in corporate marketing. I was part of a fledgling internship program and through my commitment and work there, was identified as someone they wanted to retain as a contract employee. I worked in various departments of corporate marketing at the United States Postal Service. Unlike other federal government agencies, the Postal Service was the only government agency to generate their own revenue through the sales of postage and package delivery. In my opinion, they had more autonomy consistent with what you see more commonly in private industry, simply because they were generating their own revenue and not relying on federal appropriations. 

So, what did I learn there that applies to where I am today? Obviously, I parlay marketing, communications, and government affairs experience towards the reputation of legalized cannabis, in addition to supporting legal cannabis policy. Furthermore, I’m very comfortable with government systems, processes, agents and bureaucracy, and that is not common for people that are attracted to the marijuana industry.  It’s something that comes in handy with our industry’s heavy regulatory emphasis.

Q: When we met last spring in Colorado, you said something that really struck me – you mentioned your goal was to achieve excellence in the industry. For example, in operations, oftentimes you’ll incorporate a process or a system and then see a competitor adopt those same methods. In this industry, do you agree that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

Kristi Kelly: It goes both ways. We’re a growth industry and innovation is borne of being able to share ideas, whether we’re talking about processes, or technology, or finance, and then being inspired from that idea to bring your own thinking to the next level. I think that’s why I’m a huge fan of things like research and development incubator spaces where people can come together and ideate. Then, they can internalize those conversations and take them to the next level either together or independently. 

 kristi kelly event

Kristi Kelly speaking on a panel for Denver Business Journal’s inaugural symposium on the Business of Cannabis with other industry leaders.

I do believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in this environment, I think that innovation is a bigger driver. In order for innovation to occur, we have to get really comfortable with the fact that we are attracting intelligent people from different backgrounds and they’re coming together to address different issues. We’ve got innovation happening in tech. We’ve got innovation happening in operations. Innovation happening in cultivation. All of this is happening right in front of us. It doesn’t exist if people are living in their own bubble. We have to be able to work together. There’s just such great inspiration that comes from being able to co-exist with others who share the common interests, like we already see in biotech corridors, Silicon Valley, or fashion districts.

Q: What’s been your biggest “ah-ha” moment while working in the cannabis industry?

Kristi Kelly: I don’t think there was a single “ah-ha” moment, but there were a lot of redirects.  

So many people get enchanted with the idea of growing plants, and that plant-touching part of the industry. But in order to be successful in that capacity, you need some transferable skills. Or you need to be able to hire that person and trust and verify their ability to perform. You need someone that actually understands how to grow plants. This is not something where you punch a few buttons and then you have a widget that comes out on the other side. This is a large-scale commercial, agricultural and manufacturing industry that’s based upon a plant – a living thing – that has needs. In addition to being incredibly innovative and growing incredibly quickly, it’s one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world. If you’re going from Point A to Point B, sometimes the shortest distance may be a line, but because of regulatory requirements, sometimes you have to kind of zig-zag around. You have to do things in a way that conforms with the way that regulators, law enforcement and voters are comfortable – you can’t just rely on your intuition, previous pathways to success, or entrepreneurial spirit.

I have observed a lot of people who aspire to get into this space who haven’t taken the time to really understand the nuances of it and have had a lot of challenges along the way. This is still an emerging industry and presents some pretty sensitive challenges because of its federal status versus its state status in the places where it’s legalized, so, you can’t just plug and play and have a mini-franchise overnight. If you want to get into this space and you’re looking for a way, consider the pick and shovel opportunities that are out there, because pick and shovel opportunities are abundant and are equally interesting.

kristi kelly and dog 

Kristi on a hike with her dog, Stringer.

Q: Ending on a fun note, what do you do during your down time?

Kristi Kelly: In my hypothetical downtime? I love being outside. I like hiking. I bring my dogs and anyone else who wants to come and their dogs and we love hiking. We have a new puppy who has been on multiple hikes every week since he’s joined our family. It’s the one thing I make time for is being outside and being in the mountains, and of course spending time with friends and loved ones.