Name: Zoe Reece
Location: Waikato, New Zealand
Title: Founder & CEO, Ora Pharm
One word to describe your cultivation style: Process. Being an engineer, I have a big focus on process and commercialization.
Indoor, outdoor, greenhouse or a combination: Combination – currently greenhouse but soon expanding to outdoor and indoor as well.
Can you share a bit of your background and how you and your company got to the present day?
I decided to move home to New Zealand in 2019 to bring back [the] extensive cannabis industry experience [I] acquired in the U.S. I am a civil/structural engineer who graduated from the University of Auckland with Honors. After graduating, I worked in the mining and construction industries in engineering, supervising and project management roles.
At Curaleaf, [I acted as] the director of engineering and project manager, [and] reported to the chief operating officer. I played a leading role in the company’s expansion by completing the design, planning, build, and start-up of more than 80 operational facilities in the two years I was with Curaleaf. I helped secure licenses in nine states and was involved in implementing state regulations for the company in 16 states. During my time at Curaleaf, [I] had exposure to the end-to-end operation of the business, including scaling a cannabis company from a start-up to a high-volume business.
Ora Pharm started in July 2019; we received our medicinal cannabis license in New Zealand in January 2021. This month we received a government grant through Callaghan Innovation to further our R&D cultivation program. We are currently raising our Series A capital raise in order to expand our cultivation and fulfill export contracts.
What tool or software in your cultivation space can you not live without?
Safety Culture app. This has transformed our data capture process and transferred almost all paperwork processes to the digital world, helping to reduce time spent on capturing information as well as being able to review and use data a lot quicker.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your business in the last six months?
Bluelab meters. These have been an integral part of the cultivation and data collection processes.
What cultivation technique are you most interested in right now, and what are you actively studying (the most)?
We have our grow running well and are now in the process of holding a number of trials in our greenhouse to compare different growing techniques, especially around light, watering frequency and products available in New Zealand.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
Being an engineer, “failure” is just an opportunity for improvement. I like to approach the operations with a scientific mentality, and when we don’t get the desired result, we take those learnings, study the data, and come up with a new method.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven grower about to enter the legal, regulated industry? What advice should they ignore?
I am a big believer in transferrable skills, especially in a sunrise industry like medicinal cannabis, where it hasn’t existed legally and we are creating the industry’s best practices. The best advice I can give anyone wanting to join the cannabis industry is [to] learn as much about it as possible as a steppingstone, enter the horticultural industry, learn the basics of growing plants, and take courses in growing.
Being a cultivator isn’t always glamourous; there is a lot of other work that is involved, especially in the medicinal cannabis industry, like cleaning, record keeping and repetitive tasks. Attitude and passion are very important too.
How do you deal with burnout?
Burnout can happen, and [when working for a] start-up, everything is 24/7. Making sure I take time to wind up and wind down every day is important. I have two crazy dogs, and taking them for walks at [the] end of [each] day is important, [and] so is being present, sharing laughs with my partner, and ensuring I get enough sleep and nutritious food daily.
How do you motivate your employees/team?
The best thing you can do is trust your team, make sure you hire smart, driven people, [and] provide them with the tools they need to succeed and trust them. This gives them ownership over their work, encourages teamwork and helps create an exciting culture.
What keeps you awake at night?
Everything. Being responsible to my team and investors and making sure that I am doing my best [for] them can cause a lot of stress and sleepless nights.
What helps you sleep at night?
Having a good wind-down time before bed, [and] if needed, I will also use a white noise app to help turn my brain off.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.
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