It was March 2016 when Ebony Payne stumbled upon an advertisement for the first annual National Cannabis Festival in Washington DC. It was a month away—naturally on 4/20 weekend—and there was a CannaTank contest for budding businesses in the local cannabis scene. She knew immediately it was the opportunity she had been waiting for.
Ebony had recently started a full time marketing job and had also been running her part time massage therapy practice since 2012. She was just a few months away from finishing her training as an herbalist at the Mid-Atlantic School of Herbalism (MASH), a three year program where she studied traditional Western and Ayurvedic herbal medicine, in which plants and food are used as medicine. As the end of her training neared, Ebony was looking for direction in her herbal medicine career.
“I know what you’re probably thinking,” says Ebony. “There’s a big stereotype that herbalists are just weed-obsessed hippies. But in my three years of training at MASH, cannabis came up only once in a protocol for glaucoma. I’ll never forget our instructor’s response when asked about it. She called cannabis a persecuted herb. Even though it has many medicinal uses, the fact that it is federally illegal meant we couldn’t recommend it to our clients, and so we wouldn’t spend much time learning about.”
Ebony saw this as a missed opportunity.
Washington DC legalized medical and recreational cannabis in 2014 and the level of excitement around cannabis was palpable. Ebony figured that if an herb as persecuted as cannabis could be accepted as a form of medicine, then the medicinal potential of all herbs could also be integrated into healthcare.
Ebony entered the CannaTank contest with her idea for District Herbs, an herbal formulating company with a mission to combine cannabis with other medicinal herbs for enhanced and targeted effects. She placed as a finalist, which opened her up to a new world of cannabis industry professionals. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and her foot was officially in the door.
As new opportunities started to unfold, Ebony quickly recognized that she needed a strong team she could trust to help take District Herbs from an idea to a reality. Ebony knew just the person she wanted with her on the journey: Claudia Joy Wingo, her mentor and founder of the Mid-Atlantic School of Herbalism. A seasoned Australian trained clinical herbalist with over 40 years of experience in natural therapies, Claudia is also a public health educator, a certified Naturalist, a registered nurse who has worked across the world, and a trained chef with a speciality in pastry.
“Claudia is pretty much everything I aspire to be as an herbalist” says Ebony. “She fully understands both the medical and herbal medicine worlds. I couldn’t think of anyone better to bring on this journey with me.”
There was just one catch.
“I was in the green closet as they like to call it,” says Ebony. “Claudia had no idea that I smoked weed, and since cannabis was hardly spoken about during my training, I just assumed it was because serious herbalists looked down on cannabis users. We laugh about it now, but at the time I was very nervous to tell her about my idea. But I knew I needed her level of expertise. So I worked up the nerve to call her.”
To Ebony’s surprise, Claudia loved the idea and was immediately up for coming on board. Soon after, Colleen Zuntag, Ebony’s classmate who is now an instructor at MASH, joined the team, and the women-owned herbal company set out on a mission to inform, inspire, and connect people and communities to the art and science of herbal medicine.
The trio bonded over the summer during extended study sessions Claudia taught, which involved herb walks where medicinal herbs are identified growing anywhere and everywhere an observer may be, even on the sidewalks of the city or suburbia. Little did they know that the time they spent together would lay the foundation for the District Herbs team.
There are many challenges to starting a cannabusiness, especially in Washington DC where cannabis regulations create a grey area that entrepreneurs must carefully navigate. It is illegal to sell cannabis or cannabis-infused products without the proper licensure, and startup expenses can easily reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.
In addition, making connections with ethical cannabis companies proved to be a lot harder than the team of three had anticipated. Finding ethical and organic herbal sources is paramount to District Herbs’ philosophy, and that extends to cannabis.
In October of 2016, District Herbs was invited to give the keynote presentation at Women Grow, a networking group for women involved and interested in the cannabis industry. Determined to make the most of the occasion, the team took the opportunity to introduce six medicinal herbal tea blends targeting health benefits ranging from stress relief to detoxification and to cardiovascular support. Unsure of how receptive a cannabis-focused crowd would be to non-cannabis herbal products, District Herbs teamed up with a local edibles maker to surprise the audience with a gluten free breakfast cannamuffin infused with an herbal energy support blend, including maca and ginseng root powder.
It was a huge success.
District Herbs successfully created a bridge connecting the cannabis community with the bigger picture of herbal medicine and spreading the knowledge and power of all medicinal herbs, including cannabis. By offering a line of medicinal herbal tea without cannabis, District Herbs found that they could reach any tea lover as they work to expand into cannabis products.
Ebony and her team spent the next few months developing the packaging and launched their medicinal loose leaf tea line at the second annual National Cannabis Festival of 2017.
District Herbs best sellers include their Adversi-Tea Adaptogen Blend, a formula made with adaptogenic herbs such as holy basil that help the body adapt to stress and nervines such as oat tops that soothe a stressed nervous system. Their Spicy Kava Chai features kava kava, a popular Polynesian herb that creates a calming effect in addition to a blend of warming spices of ginger, cinnamon and cardamom. Heal Thy Heart, their cardiovascular blend, not only tastes amazing but is also visually beautiful with hibiscus, calendula, lavender, and rose flower petals, combining to create a modulating effect on the cardiovascular system.
Ebony’s busy schedule juggling multiple business endeavors started to drain her. She was working seven days a week, working full time in marketing, seeing clients for massage on weekends, and working on District Herbs in between. The physical toll that massage therapists endure coupled with her long work hours began to catch up with her. Ebony felt her energy was dispersed and as a result, was hindering the growth of District Herbs. The desire to end her massage therapy practice had been gnawing at her for the past two years, and she wanted more time to focus on District Herbs.
Ebony decided she needed some professional help prioritizing her goals. She sought out a consultation with Catherine Wood, founder and executive life coach of Unbounded Potential. Their sessions began to uncover uncomfortable truths that were holding Ebony back. She was dragging her feet on ending her massage practice due to feelings of guilt over abandoning her clients, she was avoiding breaking her office lease, and she wasn’t sure leaving was the “right” decision. The transition seemed too big of a step to take.
Catherine challenged Ebony to pick up the phone right then and there to negotiate the end of her lease terms. After much prodding, she did it and to her surprise, it worked. The second step followed naturally. After six years of practice, Ebony notified her clients that she would be ending her massage practice at the end of the month.
Ebony immediately felt like a weight had been lifted, which was the sign she needed that she made the right decision. The worry that she was holding about abandoning her clients was alleviated with her belief that through District Herbs she would be helping her wider community.
“Catherine helped me to do in one consultative session what I had been talking about doing for the past two years. It was then that I knew I wanted to hire her as my life coach,” Ebony says of that first phone call.
Over the course of six months of professional coaching, Ebony and Catherine spent time identifying what she really wanted in life, not only as a businesswoman but also for herself personally.
The process wasn’t easy.
Ebony remembers it took a lot of courage to sit with the discomfort as she and Catherine worked to identify and move past obstacles that were standing in the way of her own success.
“There can be a perception of life coaching that it is all rainbows and butterflies and you just hired this professional cheerleader to remind you every second to ‘just put your mind to it and all your dreams will magically come true.’ But as with anything in life, it’s a process, and you have to be patient and do the work.”
Ebony’s advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is this:
“Obstacles are an inevitable part of business and an opportunity for growth. Surround yourself with people you can trust and make sure you’re doing something you love. You’re going to need the passion to get you through those times where you might doubt yourself.”
Asked if she would recommend life coaching to others, Ebony says, “Do it. Working with a life coach can help you gain clarity and create tangible results. It will take you to the next level.”
Ebony and the District Herbs team are now fulfilling orders online and are working to expand their medicinal herbal teas. Future product offerings will include a women’s health line and non-psychoactive CBD products including topicals that target pain relief to their product offerings. Through educational webinars, lectures and classes, the trio plans to continue educating the community and empower individuals with an understanding of herbal medicine’s role in everyday self care.
Catherine A. Wood is the Founder and Head Coach of Unbounded Potential, a personal coaching firm dedicated to helping high performance individuals who are committed to making a big impact in the world. She helps them fall in love with themselves first so they can take bolder actions, push past their fears, and get bigger results in the direction of their dreams. A visionary, entrepreneur and world traveler, clients have referred to her as a guardian angel for their dreams. You can learn more about Catherine and what she offers by visiting her Online, on Instagram, on Facebook, or by signing up for her newsletter and grabbing her Unbounded Potential manifesto.