Women Leaders of the Cannabis Industry

Meet Kim Rael, Harvard, and Stanford graduate. President and CEO of Azuca

Meet Kim Rael, Harvard, and Stanford graduate. President and CEO of Azuca, the revolutionary edibles brand that makes innovative, fast-acting, great-tasting, culinary cannabis available to everyone. She is one of the Women Leaders of the Cannabis Industry, she was featured as New Mexico Business Weekly Power Broker and Top 10 Women of Influence.

Who is Kim Rael? Define yourself.

I am a passionate business leader, startup veteran and investor in innovation. Currently, I am CEO of Azuca, the revolutionary edibles brand that makes innovative, fast-acting, great tasting, culinary cannabis available to everyone. We serve the world's leading cannabis brands AND the aspiring home chef and canna curious with our easy to use hemp CBD and cannabis ingredients. This is my most exciting venture yet! I have extensive experience as an operating executive in both startup and Fortune 50 environments and as a venture capitalist. I have over a decade of experience investing in early stage technology companies. As an investor and board member, I’ve worked closely with entrepreneurs advancing innovations in culinary technology, digital infrastructure, physical infrastructure, energy and water.

I have broad experience on both corporate and community boards. My corporate board experience has global perspective and spans multiple industries, including: cannabis, water technology, semiconductors, software-as-a-service, digital media, optics, hardware, banking, retail and advanced materials companies. I’ve served on and chaired active board committees including Audit, Compensation and M&A Committees. I served on and was an Officer on the New Mexico State Board of Finance (2003-2009). I’m currently Vice President of the Board of Regents of the University of New Mexico, a flagship University with an annual operating budget of $3B. Kim’s prior board service includes also includes Presbyterian Hospital ($1B Annual.)

“Show up, pay attention, get your work done, give back, and pay it forward. Tell the truth and don’t sacrifice your integrity. There is no substitute for hard work”

What were you like as a kid/when you were younger?

Apparently, I was always looking for adventure, a creative outlet, and a good, constructive debate!

You hold a bachelor’s degree in International Relations at Harvard University and an MBA at Stanford University, why did you choose those courses of study?

I chose International relations because I have always been intrigued by the interconnectedness of the human experience, across all boundaries.  So, International relations caught my attention at that age.  If I was a college student today, I would definitely major in either neuroscience or design, both current passions of mine.  I went on to get an MBA because, it seemed to me, that to solve the great problems on the planet one needed to understand 1) markets, and 2) how to get things done in organizations.

You spent 10+ years as a venture capitalist investing in early-stage technology companies. You co-founded and served as COO/CFO of advanced energy company Qynergy. You also held senior-level positions at Intel and U.S. Senate. How did you jump from the point to become the co-founder, CEO, and the president of Azuca, an investor-backed culinary technology company focused on commercializing innovative technology to enable fast-acting highly bioavailable culinary cannabis products for the legal cannabis market?

 After over two decades of a successful career in technology and venture capital, I decided to pivot for a number of reasons. I wanted to move into the wellness sector. I was unsure of my next move and unexpectedly--and by a good twist of fate--I was asked by an old friend to be in a focus group to sample a cannabis product developed by Ron Silver—Azuca’s co-founder and Chief Creative Officer. I was skeptical at first because I was not a cannabis consumer. Truthfully, I was fearful, but I trusted my friend and agreed to sample the products. In a nutshell, they were fantastic. I knew immediately that Ron’s TiME™ INFUSION process, enabling fast-acting cannabis edibles and culinary-forward products, had potential to disrupt the marketplace and make a strong impact. As I did my due diligence on the industry and Ron’s technology, it was clear that it was time to reinvent the future of cannabis edibles and solve the “edibles problem” of long latency times, poor quality and predictability, as well as to demystify the cannabis experience for new adopters like myself.

Tell us, what does Azuca make that is so unique? 

Azuca’s TiME™ INFUSION enables fast-acting cannabis edibles like no other company on the market. We have developed a way to encapsulate single molecules in the smallest possible form at 1.5 nanometers, which is the size of a cannabis oil molecule. To break that down, this process allows molecules to bypass the liver and absorb into the soft tissue of the mouth and digestive tract. Most edible applications deliver much larger compound clusters that do not get absorbed as fast and simply cannot provide the same results. Our THC and CBD products kick in within five to 15 minutes for the majority of consumers, rather than the hours long wait that most edibles typically take.

Azuca also addresses other problems in the edibles industry, and the delivery mechanism we’ve developed solves all of them. We are developing excellent tasting products that consumers trust, and are tackling the manufacturing side to eliminate waste and ensure the longest shelf life possible. It all comes down to the science behind our technology – and that is unrivaled.

“Surround yourself with a strong team. It is critical to get the right team in place, and not be hesitant to make changes quickly”

You are a very busy woman and I see you sit on the Board of Regents for The University of New Mexico, Board of Directors of the International Women’s Forum and the National Cannabis Industry Association’s State Regulations Committee, what drives you?  

I believe it is important to be an active citizen and utilize your voice and experience where it is most effective and where you can help the most. I’m not just passionate about my company, I love the cannabis industry and want to help drive and shape the future in the right direction.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the years?

For me the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far is “unlearning” my prior brainwashed understanding of cannabis.  I was part of the “Nancy-Reagan-Just-Say-No” generation, and I never questioned that mindset until I started studying the cannabis plant and industry. I was uninformed about the history of social injustice inherent in the criminalization of cannabis, and equally uneducated about the compelling wellness and medical benefits of the plant.

I see you have a certification in Reiki and Seven Habits Facilitator, did you combine this facet with your work as CEO? 

I have a passion for natural healing modalities, and energy work is one of the many I have studied, including certifications in Reiki and Healing Touch.  I think my grounding in these teachings enables me to operate with calm clarity, in a world and industry that is full of chaos, uncertainty and disruption.  I think that the effectiveness “toolkit” in the Seven Habits is a classic, and the most important personal leadership and productivity work I have done.  I use some aspect of it every day, be it in negotiation, time management, or renewal.

You have been featured as New Mexico Business Weekly Power Broker and Top 10 Women of Influence, you are one of the Women Leaders of the Cannabis Industry, What's the recipe for your success?

Show up, pay attention, get your work done, give back, and pay it forward.  Tell the truth and don’t sacrifice your integrity.  There is no substitute for hard work.

What does a normal workday look like for you?

The day starts with my mantra, which now more than ever, is “Put CBD in your Coffee!” I'm grateful that I can turn to CBD as part of my daily wellness routine. Azuca's products are water-soluble and extremely tasty, meaning they can be added into pretty much any food or drink. I add a single serving sugar stick into my morning coffee and afternoon tea every day. As I'm based in New Mexico, I love taking the opportunity to get outside to clear my head. It’s important to center the mind and focus on the positives as much as possible, particularly in today’s uncertain times, and getting a daily dose of fresh air certainly helps me do that. From there, it’s on to a day of Zoom meetings with the Azuca team, production partners, customers and investors!  Before COVID, I lived on a plane or on Zoom.  Now I just live on Zoom, and honestly, I don’t miss the travel! 

“Advocate for your colleagues, mentor women climbing the ladder, and advise them on how to advance. Of equal importance, speak out when you see gender discrimination occurring”

What do you love most about your job? And, what is the most difficult part?

I am excited and proud that we are bringing products to market that are equally attractive to my parents’ generation as they are to my adult children’s generation. It’s amazing that we can reach such diverse audiences with one product line! It’s also exhilarating to work in an ecosystem defined by unprecedented uncertainty, chaos and regulatory constraints. The industry pushes us to our limits! We are really helping people – customers, partners and our respective communities. We’re not just pushing products to market, we’re pushing products that make people feel good and, of course, taste great. Our product line is high quality, fast-acting, predictable and delicious. I love providing something that helps consumers demystify cannabis. Our products are approachable and easy to understand even for cannabis newbies.

All that said, the unprecedented volatility and inconsistency in the regulatory environment is a huge challenge. We spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and focus on understanding and complying with the multiple, complex regulatory frameworks that we operate in.  We also spend a lot of money on lawyers to ensure we are in compliance. Ultimately, it’s challenging to be a startup company in a volatile startup industry. There is no rulebook or set of norms that you can refer to, there is still a dearth of quality research on cannabis because of federal illegality. I am, however, confident as time goes on, we’ll be able to overcome these roadblocks.

What is one strategy that has helped you to grow your business?

I actually have 4 P’s that I follow:

  1. People: Surround yourself with a strong team. It is critical to get the right team in place, and not be hesitant to make changes quickly.
  2. Product: Figure out what sets you apart and lean on it. Companies and brands that define markets differentiate themselves. Consumers, partners and investors need to understand your product and brand, and how you deliver value to everyone your product touches. Be clear and consistent with your message, your concept, and your visual identity across all platforms, including social media, digital, packaging, sales collateral, trade presence and media. Your brand must be front and center in every communication and application.
  3. Pace: Stay up to date. This one seems obvious but I think something that a lot of startup founders and entrepreneurs can struggle with is getting swept up in the details of your own company—so much so that you lose focus on industry progress, competition and new applications. Time is a luxury for entrepreneurs and everything is a high priority task, so ‘staying in the know’ often, and mistakenly, gets put on the backburner. Even if it’s just subscribing to one industry newsletter or reading news headlines at the start or end of your day, an ear to industry happenings goes a long way. This is especially important in such a new and burgeoning industry like cannabis where the rules and regulatory framework, and just about everything else, are changing daily.
  4. Pivot: Evolve your strategy and business model in “real time.” In cannabis, we are pioneers in the most volatile industry of our lifetime. Everything has the potential to change every day. Successful entrepreneurs in this space will have to embrace and absorb new information daily and pivot their business model and strategy accordingly.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else does?

Remind myself to stay strong in times of chaos and unprecedented uncertainty. While I was working towards my MBA at Stanford University, I took an entrepreneurship class with Jim Collins, now the author of several acclaimed books on how companies achieve greatness and how successful leaders in the business and social sectors have built movements that last. Jim’s class was transformative and is relevant not only to my current role in the cannabis industry but also to my entire career working with startups. Jim’s recent research and publications have been particularly useful too, as he’s been working on case studies about how companies have succeeded and failed in times of chaos—and it’s safe to say that a startup industry like cannabis can be pretty chaotic at times!  I highly recommend Jim’s book, “Great by Choice,” which studies why some organizations thrive in times of great chaos an unpredictability. If I could pass on one piece of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs – read this book.

Everybody has had dark moments in their lives, what have you done to get out of that phase?

I spend time with two of my favorite elixirs:  Hot yoga and hiking in the mountains in silence.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love being outdoors, meditating and practicing daily gratitude and mindfulness to stay calm and grounded. I also really enjoy getting to spend time with my children, who I’ve gotten to see a lot more of recently during quarantine!

Many authors say women can and must strive to have everything – a shining career, a blossoming family life, and a perfectly balanced lifestyle all at once, but others point out that - then women are placing unrealistic expectations on themselves if they believe they can have it all. I don´t know if you are married and have kids, but according to your experience, what do you think about these statements? 

When I was in college, I came across this line in an article about “superwoman” expectations: “Yes, women can have it all, but not necessarily all at the same time.”  I think this is a powerful construct.  I have done everything from being a mid-career stay-at-home mom with young, exhausting, wonderful children to CEO, and everything in between.  I firmly believe in the concept of “sequencing” the experiences of womanhood, and not necessarily trying to do them all concurrently.  Also, on a practical level, many executive women I know try to carry too much, and I would encourage all women to think about outsourcing whatever you can to retain your sanity!

What are your plans for the future?

As far as our goals at Azuca and growing the company, we are in discussions with several major brand partners to leverage our core competency, which is our fast-acting technology. Besides our own CBD products, our goal is to partner with the best brands in the industry and address the consumer demand for quality products that are predictable, precise and taste great. An example of this is our recent partnership with Wana Brands, the No. 1 edibles brand in the United States, to help them launch the Wana Quick product line, which is designed for maximum bioavailability and rapid onset utilizing our patent-pending TiME™️ INFUSION process. This allows us to bring our fast-acting culinary technology to a large universe of cannabis consumers for a more controlled and positive experience.

I also believe that the cannabis landscape will change post COVID-19. While we are all grappling with how the world will never be the same, I also am filled with optimism for the future. I believe that the cannabis industry will come out from the pandemic stronger than ever.  I think we are going to see an even larger shift in consumer interest towards edibles and beverages due to health concerns. I also anticipate that products with predictable, rapid onset times, like Azuca, will continue to set themselves apart in the saturated, very competitive marketplace.

There is still the glass ceiling for women in the world: Fewer opportunities, jobs underpaid just for that fact of being a woman, etc. Have you experimented with the glass ceiling? If yes, what are the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them? 

Being a professional woman in cannabis is no different than being a woman in any other industry I have experienced. Women must make a conscious effort to help other women succeed – we have to support one another. Advocate for your colleagues, mentor women climbing the ladder and advise them on how to advance. Of equal importance, speak out when you see gender discrimination occurring.

One of my biggest concerns for women in cannabis is the effect that the Golden Rule is bound to have on the industry. In other words, whoever has the gold makes the rules.  Men still control the lion’s share when it comes to access to capital and decide which management teams get backed, and that dynamic feels like it is trending against women. I believe companies need to be aware of this and make conscious hiring decisions that reflect the industry they want to help build. We need more senior women managing investment capital in the industry or in 20 years the industry will be as male-dominated as tech is today.

I was intrigued by the Newsweek cover article a few years ago which posited that cannabis was the first multibillion-dollar industry poised to be dominated by women.  But when I look around the room at major industry events over the last two years, they are starting to feel almost as gender-imbalanced as the tech and venture capital world I left. We still have work to do.

What tips can you give to young girls who want to become an entrepreneur like you?

My biggest advice is not to get complacent. This is actually to both women and men. We all need to actively confront bias, support female colleagues and back gender parity in the workplace if any long-lasting changes are going to be made in this industry.  Echoing what I said above, we must make a conscious effort to help ourselves and to actively help other women succeed. This will build more opportunity for women to become entrepreneurs and take C-suite positions. We need women to reach their full potential.

Who is the woman you admire the most and why?

Michelle Obama. Why? You must read her book, Becoming.  She has nailed life and leadership in every facet. 

Name: Kim Rael

Sector:  Food and Cannabis

Company:    Azuca

Designation:  President and CEO

Country:  USA

Social media: Follow Azuca on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.