It’s no secret that if you’re working in the cannabis industry, you need to be on top of everything coming your way. One woman who’s dominating her role in the industry is Vice President of Strategy and Product at Viola Brands, Stephanie Arakel, affectionately known across the industry as Cakes.
Arakel’s journey into cannabis grew organically starting with her culinary college career, to a few post-college cannabis enterprises after recovering from cancer, which eventually lead to the current position she now holds at Viola Brands.
Highly successful and tenacious, Arakel manages various happenings behind the scenes at Viola Brands. Aside from the daily management requirements of those markets, Arakel was also given the responsibility of choosing the first strain to be a part of the recently released Iverson collection, aptly named ’96, which celebrates the official partnership of Allen Iverson with Viola Brands’ Founder Al Harrington (’96 being the year that Iverson joined the NBA). In fact, she very proudly shared that she took over the role of working on Viola Brands’ products in all markets earlier this year.
High Times spoke with Arakel about her cannabis industry roots, her experience being diagnosed with laryngeal cancer, how she ended up at Viola Brands and the state of women in the industry.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Did you attend college? Was it with the intention of pursuing a career in cannabis, or something else?
Well, I am a born and raised California valley girl. I grew up in Chatsworth, California, [and went to] Chatsworth High School. I went to culinary school as college. That’s how I kind of got into marijuana; I started making edibles. I majored in pastries and cakes, and I had a friend that was really into weed, so I started experimenting with his shake, and before I knew it, I paid off my college tuition selling brownies, candies and eclairs. I ran a bakery out of my house for a little bit. My major clientele was either moms who needed cartoon cupcakes for their kids’ birthdays, or just straight stoners.
Would you say you had more moms as customers, or more stoners as customers?
Definitely the stoners. Honestly, back then I was younger, I was in my early 20s, so I didn’t really understand the magnitude of what I was actually doing. I grew up in a very strict Middle Eastern household. Any type of drinking or drugs or you know, it was forbidden. So when I did move out and I got a little acclimated to college lifestyle, everything was a real big shock. I didn’t realize, like, “Oh, I’m a drug dealer.”
How did you end up working at Viola Brands?
I was diagnosed with cancer a little over five years ago now. Prior to being diagnosed, I had worked in Hollywood, so during the day, I was selling my baked goods, going to pre-ICOs, and getting acclimated to a lot of the heavy hitters that you would talk to in the industry now. And basically, my network just kept growing and growing. At night, I worked at the clubs in Hollywood. I was dealing with bottles and dealing with DJs and everything, so I learned who the trappers and all that kind of stuff were, and then I was selling to them during the day.
During that time frame, I stopped working in Hollywood. I’ve always had this really raspy voice, but it aggressively got worse instead of better. I thought it was actually bad because I was always yelling over music and stuff, so for an entire year, I was misdiagnosed.
When I finally got diagnosed correctly, they diagnosed me with laryngeal cancer. My whole life completely went from being the underground baking trapper to “you have cancer, and you’re locked in an isolation room in the hospital, and none of your friends can come into the room and see you,” and [it was just a] fiasco. So naturally, during my time, I couldn’t smoke; no edibles, like nothing could come into me, and I literally lost my mind.
When I got out of there, I launched the delivery service with a couple friends that took off pretty quick. We catered to a very, very large portion of Southern California, and it caught the attention of a couple people. I was already following Al [Harrington] on Instagram, so he kind of saw what I was doing but he never realized the magnitude of it. You know, no one’s really just on Instagram like, “Hey, I sell weed.”
So two associates of his that he had teamed up with to get the licensing and everything to go for California knew me from my prior life, and they basically told Al and the president at the time that “we need this girl, we need this girl.” They were trying to get me to come in, and I kind of brushed them off. Why would I want to go to the legal market?
I actually talked it over with one of my business partners. We knew at some point, we were gonna have to transfer over if we want our delivery to be legal, or I want my edible company to be legal or anything, it would be good to kind of have the inside source. So naturally, I slowly decided “All right, I’ll do it.”
I started out as the brand director for the state of California [for Viola]. I opened way, way too many stores than we could have even thought to have in the first 90 days, and it just kept growing and growing. Over the course of the last three years, I’ve taken on many roles and many hats, and now, I’m the vice president of strategy and product for all of the markets.
You know they say when you love what you do, it’s not work. Although it’s work, and it definitely does feel like work, I am very happy and blessed to be where I am right now.
What are some of the noteworthy challenges that you’ve encountered during your time at Viola?
I think being a woman in this industry is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Really, being a woman in any industry, but this industry specifically, because there’s not that many of us especially in authoritative positions. Adjusting to personalities is something that I have not mastered, but I’ve definitely maneuvered. I think this industry requires a lot more energy from women than it would a man, and I don’t think we are recognized for it how we should be.
What do you think about the current state of women in the cannabis industry?
I think there needs to be more women-focused campaigns from a product perspective, and just in general. But really, more women-focused products. At the end of the day, when people spend money, it’s usually to impress a woman or a woman is buying it.
I think just women having the opportunities to be in roles like the one I’m in or higher, just in general. It’s imperative, and it doesn’t happen as often as it should. I’m really blessed and lucky to be where I am at with Viola because Al definitely values me. He sees the work that I put in, and he understands, like, “She’s about us.” He recognizes it, you know? I just hope that for other women and other companies, they get that same recognition.
What do you hope changes for women in this industry in the future?
Who run the world? Girls! I would just like to see more women in these higher roles. I want to see more women-driven brands, whether it’s their own brand, or they’re running it for somebody else.
I want to see more campaigns with women that are dressed. Though, I think that the community has done a really good job of steering away from that. There’s a few, like, accounts here and there, brands here and there that are still stuck in that mindset. Which I mean, I get it,—sex sells—but I would love to see women portrayed in a more you know, professional, wholesome way.
Who or what inspires you?
I think overcoming everything that I did. I think I kind of push myself knowing what I went through to continue going so that I could help people the way I needed to be helped when I was sick. I’m also completely obsessed with Dr. Sebi. He’s an herbalist. When I was diagnosed the first time, I went through chemo and radiation, and it literally nearly killed me. I got re-diagnosed three years later; they told me “Oh, you know, we caught it early,” [they] caught it on, like, one of my scans. And I literally told everybody to fuck off. I came home; I cleared out all my kitchen cabinets of everything. And I literally only followed Dr. Sebi’s food list, and I cured my cancer, along with a boatload of other things that happened to me.
During the course of going to chemo, I developed weird skin rashes. My hair fell out; my hair grew back, stronger. So I look up to Dr. Sebi the herbalist, and I think more people should look into natural remedies, which is also why I love working in the industry that I do, because it’s a plant. [Dr.] Sebi actually touches on weed a little bit too, and how beneficial it is for helping people and curing people. That’s who I look up to, and [also] my dad. I’m first generation here, so both my parents came here and started from scratch.
Do you have any advice for other women who are looking to get into the cannabis industry?
Always be cognizant of your surroundings. That would probably be the best advice. You never know who’s in the same room as you. So, just be cognizant of who you are around at all times.
I get a lot of heat for being aggressive, or I was labeled, like, “the bitch.” Everyone that works with me knows how caring I am, but at the end of the day, [if] something needs to be done, it needs to be done, and it needs to be done correctly. So I catch a lot of heat for like, “Oh, you don’t know how to talk to people.”
Don’t ever take anything personally. Keep being a beast, tunnel vision and keep going. Obviously, be nice; make sure people are taken care of and whatnot, but at the end of the day, don’t deter from what your goals are because of other people’s chatter.
What can our readers expect from Viola Brands now that Allen Iverson has joined Al Harrington?
So we’re launching in Canada next week. We are ramping up in the state of Oregon. We have a rosin launch coming in Colorado. We just launched Harrington Institute, which is a program through Cleveland University in Ohio. I believe open enrollment is right now, where we teach people the ins and outs of the business, how they can get into it, from cultivation to manufacturing, managing stores, inventory; we go through the whole gamut. We have a couple of other really cool collaborations we’re going to be announcing, too.