Over the last few years, the edibles market has grown rapidly with cannabis legalization in various states, along with increased awareness about possible health advantages of cannabis. This month, we interviewed Kim Sanchez Rael (Class 11), CEO and president of the cannabis edibles brand Azuca. Kim founded Azuca with chef Ron Silver four years ago after recognizing a gap in the cannabis industry for trustworthy and predictable edibles.
Prior to founding Azuca, Kim was a venture capitalist and executive at various technology companies. She spent several years investing in startups as a general partner and partner emeritus at Flywheel Ventures. She also co-founded an advanced energy startup called Qynergy and was a manager at Intel. Earlier in her career, she served as an aide to then- U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman.
Kim has been featured as a “Power Broker” and “Top 10 Women of Influence” in New Mexico Business Weekly. She currently serves as Vice President of the Board of Regents for The University of New Mexico. She has a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford.
In this interview, Kim shares her views on the cannabis industry, including the importance of “graceful resilience in the face of chaos and uncertainty.”
What does Azuca do?
Azuca serves the global cannabis industry with best-in-class, fast-onset edible formulations. Azuca’s products are chef-created and powered by its patent-pending TiME INFUSION™ process which encapsulates cannabinoid molecules, making them easy to metabolize and more “water friendly,” for a predictable and controllable experience every time. Azuca’s hemp-derived CBD products are sold online at azuca.co/shop. Azuca TiME INFUSION™ is also available in the Wana Quick THC gummies line. Azuca’s THC products are also available in select Massachusetts dispensaries.
How have your roots in tech shaped your approach to the cannabis industry?
I find myself articulating business lessons from the tech world often. My current mantra is that, in cannabis, traditional edibles are dead. Like dial-up internet is dead. Traditional edibles are slow (up to 90 minutes to take effect), hard to rely on, and all-around unacceptable quality, similar to what dial-up internet was at the time. Azuca’s fast-onset formulations are like “broadband” for the cannabis edibles industry. Once someone has tried our products, they will never go back to “dial-up.”
For our segment, I also find great lessons in the rapid growth and proliferation of innovation from the tech world, and in particular, find my years at Intel during breakneck growth cycles instructive for how to scale new innovation while maintaining quality.
After over two decades of a successful career in technology and venture capital, I unexpectedly found myself in the cannabis industry. I had decided to move from tech into the wellness sector because wellness had always been an interest and had grown into a passion in recent years. As I was exploring the wellness ecosystem, I was asked by an old friend to be in a focus group to sample a cannabis product developed by Ron Silver—Azuca’s Founder and Chief Creative Officer. I was very skeptical at first because at that time I was not a cannabis consumer, but I agreed to sample the products. In a nutshell, they were fantastic. Given my tech background, I knew immediately that Ron’s proprietary process, enabling fast-acting cannabis edibles and culinary-forward products, had potential to disrupt the rapidly growing cannabis ingestible segment. As I did my due diligence on the industry and the effects of Ron’s innovation, 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.
When it comes to navigating this nascent field, I’ve also found it helpful to draw parallels between what we’re up to now and my experience in the tech boom. We focus on innovation, quality, people, and scalability. We are building not only a company, but also a new industry.
How do you deal with the complicated regulatory landscape of cannabis, particularly given that it is still illegal at the federal level?
There is only one way to deal with a complicated regulatory environment: A commitment to compliance at all times, with no gray areas or shortcuts. Period.
There is no rulebook or set of norms to refer to in this industry. Things that are routine in other sectors, like purchasing business insurance, opening a banking account, securing payroll and merchant services, are either more complex and expensive in cannabis, or sometimes just impossible. There is also unprecedented volatility in the regulatory environment. Federal regulations are lacking and there is a complicated patchwork of state and local laws. Coupled with a need for more research, it all adds up to form an extraordinarily complex industry.
We are partnering with legislators and regulators to create a safe and sustainable cannabis ecosystem. On the local level, I have worked on New Mexico’s Hemp Manufacturing Act (HB581) to establish affirmative legislation enabling the use of hemp extracts in food. I am also an advocate for the recent adult use legalization legislation that is moving through the legislature in New Mexico and am hopeful that laying the groundwork for my state will be helpful for federal legalization as well. In New York (our headquarters) we collaborate with regulators at every level. We believe in a positive, constructive alliance between the industry and our regulatory bodies.
What is one goal that you would like to achieve in the next five years?
My goal at Azuca is to deliver best-in-class, helpful solutions for both end consumers and industry partners. I want to delight our partners with quality and service and continue to grow and partner with the best brands and operators in the industry. I’m happy to say we are on our way to achieving this with partnerships like Patriot Care, the Massachusetts arm of Columbia Care, and Wana Brands, the top brand in the industry. These partnerships have allowed us to bring our fast-acting culinary technology to a large universe of cannabis consumers for a more controlled and positive experience.
What is one important skill that you think everyone should have?
Graceful resilience in the face of chaos and 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 his book, “Great by Choice,” which studies why some organizations thrive in times of great chaos and unpredictability. If I could pass on one piece of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, it is to read and internalize this book.
Resilience alone, however, isn’t enough. I believe now, more than ever, that a commitment to a values-centered core for all of one’s decisions and interactions is the most powerful and enabling stance in business and life. That’s what I mean by “graceful” resilience. I don’t mean weak or accommodating. Quite the opposite, but I do mean the kind of strength and resilience that is grounded in the practice of kindness, honesty, and integrity. There will always be episodes of chaos, disappointment and struggle. Face them fiercely and gracefully with your heart, mind and soul aligned to your most cherished values.
What woman leader inspires you the most?
Michelle Obama. Speaking of books, you must read her book, Becoming. She has nailed life and leadership in every facet. Her intellect, resilience, impact and grace are unmatched.
KauffmanWomen features insights from women investors, entrepreneurs, and executives within the Kauffman Fellows network. The series is edited by Ernestine Fu (Class 17) and Jessica Straus (Class 22), co-chairs of the Kauffman Women’s Group. Have ideas for future articles? Submit your ideas here.