Can ABC Family's 'Startup U' Lessen the Stigma of Cannabis?

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As the legal cannabis industry grows, companies across the country are struggling with ways to legitimize in the eyes of the public, and expand from niche market to mainstream. Image rehab plays a large part in this and ABC Family's new show, Startup U, is both a sign of how far the industry has come and how far it still has to go.

Startup U is a reality show in which a group of entrepreneurs go through a sort of entrepreneur boot camp at California's Draper University. The hopefuls complete a series of challenges each week, gaining the skills needed to successfully build their startup companies, and after seven weeks they will pitch their companies for real investment dollars. The show is not a marijuana show. It's not Pot Barons or Adam Scott's upcoming comedy Buds. It's a business-focused reality show aiming at a mainstream market, and it just so happens that one of the ten entrepreneurs is planning to operate in California's medical cannabis industry.

The mere fact that a company in the cannabis space is being featured on a network like ABC Family is a huge step, let alone a show about business development. David Kram, whose company Relieve is building an app to deliver medical cannabis to patients within 20 minutes, said that even he was initially surprised when he found out that he passed the screenings from both ABC Family and Draper University -- though that surprise faded the more he thought about it since cannabis is such a hot topic these days. He also remarked that the industry now is a much different one than the one he saw when he moved to California four years ago as a consultant for the tech industry.

"I saw an industry lacking technology, lacking innovation, and lacking processes," Kram said. He was surprised at the lack of structural support newcomers had, and said that information wasn't widely available forcing patients to find ways to educate themselves. "There was bottleneck after bottleneck after bottleneck. Now, though, we're witnessing the transformation and birth of a new industry."

He's right that cannabis has made huge strides in recent years from a technology, education, and marketing standpoint. Businesses are becoming more streamlined and sophisticated at every step. Despite these advances, however, the public perception problem still lingers. Stereotypes fade very slowly, and even though approval ratings -- especially for medical cannabis - are steadily rising among all demographics many people still make assumptions about the character of those in this industry. Kram said he felt those attitudes almost immediately on the show, even from Draper himself, and decided that part of his job was going to have to be educating his fellow students and the Draper U staff.

"It's a perception issue," Kram said, adding that some initially pegged him as lazy and unambitious because his company was dealing with cannabis. "It's not anybody's fault. The government has had a stance for so many years that this is illegal and that this is the same as some dangerous drugs, and this has resulted in a negative perspective. In reality this naturally growing plant can do some amazing things."

Though reality TV is by nature a bit of a spectacle the numbers of eyes watching Kram go through a program with a 3-D printing construction company, a fashion startup, and a handful of other web and/or mobile technology services could have a huge impact on how the industry is seen. The more individuals in cannabis are seen not only advocating for the plant, but also interacting with people outside of the industry, the more "normal" it will become. To expand out of a niche this industry must have entrepreneurs, business owners, and advocates who actively work to put cannabis in mainstream contexts. We are community members. We are neighbors. We are just like anyone else. We happen to work in cannabis.

"A lot of eyes will be judging me, for better or worse," Kram said. "I embrace that. I want people to talk about cannabis. I want people to judge me. They'll see that I'm not some pothead trying to get high, but that I'm an entrepreneur trying to build a profitable company, and trying to help medical cannabis patients."

Cannabis has an incredibly bright future ahead of it and the number of opportunities available is unimaginable. These first steps have been enormous, but the biggest growth is yet to come. When cannabis businesses are seen as part of the larger portfolio of companies, and when patients, customers, and lawmakers believe in the normalcy of the plant then the potential will be limitless.

Kram said that the growth he's seen even in just in recent years is unbelievable. "This space screamed opportunity, and I wanted to be at the forefront of the next great American industry."

Startup U can be seen on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC Family.

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