Two graduates of the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration have co-founded a research-based cannabis company in Ithaca, which they hope will expand into one of upstate New York’s first boutique cannabis hotels.
Cameron Wesley Scott, M.M.H. ’21, and Jeremiah Swain, M.M.H. ’20, co-founders of 8th Wonder Cannabis Company, hope to pioneer a new approach to hospitality – and make social change at the same time.
“The majority of the industry is white-male dominated, while most of those imprisoned are people who look like me,” said Swain, chief executive officer, who has a bachelor’s degree in finance from Morehouse College and an associate’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America.
“There haven’t been overt efforts to destigmatize the cannabis industry,” he said, “but I think our success will help move us in that direction. The scale of the problem is substantial, but I do see that we can play an important role in addressing racial inequity.”
According to a 2021 Business Insider analysis, 7% of executives at the nation’s largest cannabis companies are Black. Scott and Swain, who met in the Cornell Nolan School’s Master of Management in Hospitality program, are trying to change that. They are currently cultivating high-quality cannabis for the recreational adult-use market. They eventually plan to produce related goods and services and launch a boutique cannabis “lifestyle” hotel in upstate New York.
“Hospitality is our secret sauce,” said Swain. “We believe that merging hospitality experiences with cannabis will be a differentiator when it comes down to who can stay in the industry and build a brand.”
“We have a pioneering new approach for both industries,” said Scott, who leads the startup’s business strategy and has a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management from Virginia State University.
According to New Frontier data from 2019, the cannabis industry in the U.S. – including medical marijuana and hemp – for 2016 was $6.7 billion and is expected to grow to over $26 billion by 2025.
The pair credits Carlyn Buckler, associate professor of practice in the School of Integrated and Plant Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), with paving the way for them.
Scott describes how Buckler welcomed him as a business student in Cannabis: Biology, Society and Industry, a popular cannabis course offered by CALS. The class explores the history, culture, pharmacology, breeding, horticulture, policy and legal challenges to inform and motivate future plant breeders, horticulturists, farmers, pharmacologists and entrepreneurs to be successful in the industry.
“She made room for me, so I could learn all the basics – the genetics and lifecycle of cannabis,” Scott said. “She’s been a doorway and avenue for us within the industry ever since.”
“Cameron is a brilliant man. And he’s level-headed,” Buckler said. “They know what they don’t know. But they’re not afraid to ask. That’s what has really impressed me.”
In her class, Buckler emphasizes the role of policy; the cannabis industry is unique in agriculture because its policies have targeted people of color, particularly Latino and Black people, she said. “We’ve got a lot of people consuming THC and CBD,” she said. “But if you’re Black, you’re 3.6 times more likely to go to prison for marijuana-related offenses than if you’re white.” To help diversify the industry, she has organized four scholarships, each $20,000 per year, to enroll in Cornell’s Hemp Science Master of Professional Studies program.
Buckler is on 8th Wonder’s board of advisers, helped them fine-tune their presentation to investors and has introduced them to industry experts.
“She was so open to talking to us early on,” said Swain. “That’s why we were able to build the company into what it is now, and why we are able to have a strong foundation in research and development.”
The pair plan to leverage Cornell research to cultivate high-quality cannabis. In September 2021, Cornell became the nation’s only industrial hemp germplasm repository – a seed bank – at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York. The seed bank enables researchers to identify pest-resistant and disease-resistant genes, giving them the tools to breed new varieties.
“And since it is in the public domain, anyone can get the information and seeds for free,” Buckler said. “So we’re working on how to help farmers and producers. Do they have wet soil? Are they having problems with pests?”
The team has raised a $20,000 angel investment to establish a cultivation and research lab in Ithaca.
The co-founders hope their Cornell connections, including a deep pool of talent from CALS and the Nolan School, will help keep their company on the leading edge of innovation.
“Cornell is a leader in hospitality, agriculture and hemp research,” Scott said. “We know that staying in Ithaca will keep us connected to a world-class talent pipeline that can inevitably help us enhance the science-based research that drives our pragmatic innovation.”
Kaitlyn Ruhf is a digital communications manager at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.