Brand Story: NBA alum Al Harrington grows economic prosperity in minority communities using the plant once blamed for weakening them.
As a kid growing up in New Jersey, Al Harrington was no stranger to the impacts of cannabis on the world around him. None were positive. He saw classmates arrested for possession, teenagers subjected to stop-and-frisks and families torn apart as their youth were jailed.
Those memories stuck as he navigated young adulthood. Society had made it clear that success and cannabis could not coexist. He stayed away from it, spending his time on the court in pursuit of a career with the National Basketball Association.
“The first time I saw people who were successful using cannabis was when I got to the NBA. Teammates were using it after practice, and then they were in there the next day dominating,” Harrington recalls. “I started to see that everything I’d heard was a lie.”
Al Harrington, co-founder and CEO of Viola
He began paying closer attention to the evidence. In 2012, while playing for the Denver Nuggets, his grandmother came to visit, her brimming pillbox in tow but her glaucoma as bad as ever. Harrington suggested she turn to cannabis for help. After initial resistance to dabbling with “reefer,” she acquiesced.
“Her eyes hurt so badly she could barely see, but one and a half hours later when I went to check on her, she was crying and said, ‘I’m healed. I haven’t been able to read the words in my bible for three years,” Harrington says.
That day solidified his view of this “magic plant” for good and inspired the name of his future company: Viola. According to Harrington, naming it after his grandmother speaks volumes about the quality of its cannabis products, which span concentrates made via butane extraction, vapes, pre-rolls and the flowers themselves.
“We want to give people quality products. If I’m going to have my grandma’s name and her legacy on a product, I want to think global and make the experience, from the packaging to the product, the best quality I can,” he adds.
Just as central as Viola’s products is its purpose: to uplift and empower the community with cannabis.
Harrington saw that the individuals who played an integral part in enabling the cannabis industry (many now incarcerated) might once again miss out on the rewards of its heyday, as was the case with tobacco and alcohol.
If he has anything to say about it, history will not repeat itself: “When you think about the history of cannabis, the people it affected in a negative manner are blacks and minorities. For us to not have any representation didn’t sit well with me. Being a black man, I didn’t know until later when I started winning awards that I’m the only person in the industry who looks like me. I’m part of the three percent.”
Viola aims to harness a plant once demonized and used as a destructive force within minority communities to fuel economic prosperity in those same communities.
Viola’s ultra-premium indoor flower comes from cultivators with over 10 years of experience, crossing a wide variety of smooth, aromatic strains.
The purpose-driven company plans to lead a lifestyle movement that results in more than 10,000 jobs, hundreds of new business owners and increased industry diversity through job opportunities, training programs, cannabis startup incubation and more. A recent educational program in California, for example, invited 30 individuals to learn the ins-and-outs of the industry.
“It takes time to really grow a business, but I think we’ve gotten to the point that we can start to bring other people up with us. That’s what I’m most excited about, empowering and changing people’s lives together,” Harrington explains.
To those considering a career in the industry, he recommends reading as much as possible, but more importantly, just getting into the game and figuring things out because, “It’s not rocket science.”
The numbers suggest a blindingly bright future for this industry, whether in terms of growth potential, job creation or initial public offerings. Consider that 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain and that the prescription opioids used to treat them were involved in five times more deaths in 2017 than in 1999 without altering statistics on chronic pain, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Perhaps the industry’s biggest challenge is a lack of robust research to back up the effects that many have already witnessed in treating anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain and more.
This October, the company closed a $16 million investment round led by Gotham Green Investment, fueling the continued growth of their team and facilities across California, Michigan, Colorado and Oregon, where it runs a 40-acre farm.
Viola currently operates in Oregon, California, Colorado and Michigan, with plans to expand into Maryland, Nevada and Arizona in 2020.
“I’m happy I stuck with it,” Harrington says. “There were a lot of things that should’ve taken us out of the game but never did. I never got to the point where I was beaten down and broken. I took it all as a lesson.”
Intertwined with his hopes for society and his grandmother’s legacy, Harrington’s business vision amounts to more than a global brand.
Viola spreads the benefits of quality cannabis, but not without spreading its economic opportunities too.
Brand stories are paid content articles that allow Oregon Business advertisers to share news about their organizations and engage with readers on business and public policy issues. The stories are produced in house by the Oregon Business marketing department. For more information, contact associate publisher Courtney Kutzman.