• World Biz Magazine

JESSICA BILLINGSLEY, CEO OF AKERNA - INTERVIEW WITH WBM TOP 100 INNOVATION CEO


JESSICA BILLINGSLEY, CEO OF AKERNA HAS BEEN SELECTED BY THE JUDGES OF WORLD BIZ MAGAZINE'S ANNUAL AWARDS TO BE A RECIPIENT OF THE TOP 100 CEOS IN INNOVATION AWARD 2021.

THIS SELECTION FOLLOWS A STRINGENT PROCESS THAT EVALUATED OVER 40,000 NOMINEES TO SELECT THE EXCLUSIVE LIST OF 100 WINNERS.



Jessica Billingsley serves as Akerna’s Chief Executive Officer and Board Chair. She is an accomplished innovator, executive, and board member in public and private international technology with over 20 years of experience. She co-founded MJ Freeway in 2010, where she served as President until April 2018, and later as the CEO until MJ Freeway was acquired by MTech to form Akerna. Shortly after, as CEO, Jessica led Akerna to become the first cannabis technology company listed on Nasdaq. Akerna provides the most comprehensive technology ecosystem for cannabis operators, governments, and brands, from seed-to-sale, providing transparency along virtually every piece of the supply chain.


Jessica has received multiple prestigious awards and recognitions for her leadership in technology, cannabis, and female entrepreneurship. She is an expert in new markets, growth sectors, advanced technologies, M&A, integration, complex transactions, private and public capital markets, P&L ownership and board governance, cyber security, data privacy, media, and public relations.


Jessica Billingsley serves as the Chair of the US Cannabis Council, the broadest and most diverse collection of organizations, businesses, and individuals ever to assemble to legalize cannabis in the United States. The USCC seeks to build a future of legal access to cannabis delivered through an equitable and values-driven industry by advancing cannabis legalization at the federal and state level, and promoting restorative justice for communities harmed by cannabis prohibition.


Jessica Billingsley has long prioritized bringing more diversity into the cannabis and technology industries. There is a smaller percentage of women in technology careers today than there was 25 years ago – and of those remaining, 56% drop out within the first 10 years. Unsurprisingly, most of these dropouts are due to feeling undervalued, receiving lower pay than men, not having a seat at the leadership table, and balancing their personal lives. Studies show that most of these women leaving the tech workforce don't want to walk away from their passion, but the male-dominated industry hasn't presented the most favorable climate for them. Recognizing the need for help on the micro-level and how that can transition to changes on the macro-level, Billingsley launched her One Woman Challenge. Through the challenge, Billingsley asks people working in technology and cannabis to find ways to support women daily, weekly and monthly, by setting up mentoring relationships, networking opportunities, and more, so they can feel more comfortable, appreciated, and valuable in their careers. Billingsley herself dedicates her time to mentoring female entrepreneurs and future movers and shakers.



"Consumers are increasingly caring about the products they put in and on their bodies, and it's pertinent that businesses are transparent about the lifecycle of their products, from where they are sourcing their ingredients to how the products are made and kept. This need for accountability is precisely why we do what we do at Akerna – to innovate the cannabis supply chain. The connected data and information that Akerna provides is modernizing the cannabis industry."




Tell us about the technology from Akerna.


Akerna offers the most comprehensive ecosystem of cannabis technology solutions. We have prioritized creating an ecosystem of products and integrations that will grow with cannabis businesses, from the day they apply for a cannabis business license, to when they open the door for their first customer, to becoming an MSO (multi-state operator), and, eventually, becoming a global brand. As our customers scale, they rely on our different tools and integrations to propel that growth.


Over the past decade, there has been much change in the political and social environments surrounding cannabis. As the cannabis industry grows, Akerna has prioritized building a one-stack solution to help cannabis businesses optimize their company. Akerna provides its customers with the most comprehensive portfolio of cannabis solutions of best-in-class tax, financial, compliance, consulting, training, data analytics, product development, and more.

The services we provide our clients with are crucial to the cannabis industry – we are the technology backbone upon which the cannabis industry is built.



In what ways is Akerna advancing the cannabis industry?


We are always looking forward and developing the products and services our clients and industry need for the problems of today and tomorrow.


Consumers are increasingly caring about the products they put in and on their bodies, and it's pertinent that businesses are transparent about the lifecycle of their products, from where they are sourcing their ingredients to how the products are made and kept. This need for accountability is precisely why we do what we do at Akerna – to innovate the cannabis supply chain. The connected data that Akerna provides is elevating the cannabis industry.



Share with us the importance of innovation at Akerna.


Innovation is one of Akerna's core principles; we are always thinking forward to develop the products and services our clients and industry need for the problems of today and tomorrow. We were the first cannabis technology company to list on the Nasdaq, and have been innovating since the beginning.


Although cannabis was deemed essential at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was work to be done to ensure safety guidelines were met in farms, productions, and dispensaries. From curbside pickup to automated training and launching new offerings MJ Retail, MJ Analytics, Akerna Connect, we developed innovative software that supported our clients through much-needed transitions amid the unprecedented year.



"Akerna offers the most comprehensive portfolio of cannabis solutions including best-in-class tax, financial, compliance, consulting, training, data analytics, product development, and more. We have prioritized creating an ecosystem of products and integrations that will grow with cannabis businesses, from the day they apply for a cannabis business license, to when they open the door for their first customer, to becoming an MSO (multi-state operator), and, eventually, becoming a global brand. As our clients scale, they rely on our different tools and integrations to propel that growth."


Why is Akerna's unique approach crucial at this time?


Akerna offers the most comprehensive portfolio of cannabis solutions including best-in-class tax, financial, compliance, consulting, training, data analytics, product development, and more. We have prioritized creating an ecosystem of products and integrations that will grow with cannabis businesses, from the day they apply for a cannabis business license, to when they open the door for their first customer, to becoming an MSO (multi-state operator), and, eventually, becoming a global brand. As our clients scale, they rely on our different tools and integrations to propel that growth.


In addition, we are proud to offer an open API, which allows external technologies to integrate with ours easily. This means Akerna clients have the flexibility to choose customized integrations and partnerships that meet their specific business needs. Competing solutions in the market do not allow for the level of customization that many cannabis operators desire.

The services we provide our clients are crucial to the cannabis industry. We are the technology backbone upon which the cannabis industry is built.



Share with us some of the key recent developments at Akerna?


We closed the strategic acquisition of Viridian Sciences, a cannabis business management software built on SAP Business One, and announced the acquisition of 365 Cannabis, a cannabis software system built on Microsoft's Dynamics 365 Business Central. Through these acquisitions, Akerna now offers a complete portfolio of mainstream tax and financials, with a solution for businesses of any size.


In addition, we launched a new offering called Akerna Connect, an eCommerce platform enabling cannabis dispensaries to offer online ordering, loyalty programs, and text messaging, which has already garnered so much interest in its first month.


These acquisitions and launches further our strategy of consolidating cannabis technology companies to create the most transparent and accountable consumer packaged goods supply chain while solidifying Akerna as the most comprehensive technology ecosystem. Through this connected data, Akerna ensures complete transparency and safety of products to businesses, governments, and consumers.



What's next for Akerna?


Akerna's vision for the next few years is to be the dominant provider of software technology to the cannabis, hemp, and CBD industry, as well as serving additional verticals, like agricultural commodities, ultimately providing complete supply chain transparency and accountability for what is put in and on consumers bodies.


For the cannabis industry, federal reform is more likely now than ever. Upon legalization, scaling to expand into new markets will be crucial for cannabis brands looking to compete nationally. To successfully scale a business, there is an increased reliance on supply chain software systems and enterprise-class accounting to improve operational efficiencies and track seed-to-sale compliance. Akerna provides the most comprehensive portfolio of cannabis software, complete with seed-to-sale, track and trace, and access to all of the mainstream tax and financial planning systems.


From an ecosystem standpoint, we recognized early on that even after federal legalization, compliance and regulation requirements would still vary state by state and frequently change, creating a complex regulatory system much like the tax code in the US today. By re-architecting our platform and abstracting the compliance layer, we've created a solution that can rapidly integrate new compliance requirements without re-writing code for each product offering, thereby enabling our clients and us to scale quickly as the industry grows. Competing solutions in the market have not developed this capability, and we believe they will have difficulty scaling to meet the challenge.



"The first and most important priority for the cannabis industry is criminal justice reform and ensuring social equity for those who have been affected by the war on drugs. Thousands of Americans are still serving jail sentences for nonviolent cannabis offenses, and millions have criminal records resulting from the War on Drugs. This creates fundamental injustices, especially for Black men and women, who are arrested and incarcerated at much higher rates than Caucasians."


What are the most important priorities the cannabis industry needs to address?


The first and most important priority for the cannabis industry is criminal justice reform and ensuring social equity for those who have been affected by the war on drugs. Thousands of Americans are still serving jail sentences for nonviolent cannabis offenses, and millions have criminal records resulting from the War on Drugs. This creates fundamental injustices, especially for Black men and women, who are arrested and incarcerated at much higher rates than Caucasians. As more markets legalize cannabis, it is critical to address these harms incurred by those who have served criminal convictions and prison sentences due to nonviolent marijuana offenses. Our work with the USCC is helping to address these issues with politicians as they work on cannabis policy.

After that, it’s all about catering to the cannabis consumers, who power our industry and are becoming increasingly more conscious about what they put in and on their bodies. Consumers deserve complete transparency and accountability along the supply chain from seed to sale to self, so they can be confident the cannabis products they are using are safe, regulated, and labeled correctly. Our technology does precisely that – ensures safety to consumers, patients, governments, and businesses.



What external factors are most challenging for your industry and vital to keep an eye on?


Even though cannabis is legal medicinally and/or for adult use in many markets, it remains a Class I controlled substance at the federal level. This means that cannabis businesses cannot access traditional banking services that are a given with other mainstream industries, which creates a variety of problems from accessing capital, processing payments, receiving high fees, and in some cases, can impact payroll.


Operating in various markets while meeting each region's compliance and regulatory requirements has also proved a challenge. Laws can vary significantly from one state to the next and even from one municipality to another, which complicates compliant operation. To keep up with these variations, our clients rely on our compliance gateway, which offers all the necessary regulatory checks and needs for every legal cannabis market.


In addition to banking and compliance challenges, the tax burdens on cannabis businesses are much higher than in other industries.


Between stressed cash flow, banking, compliance, and the difficulties of operating in different markets, the challenges have been plentiful, but we've found solutions and remedies to them all and look forward to continuing to do so.


However, that is just the economic side of it – it is also imperative to talk about the massive social injustice and wrongful imprisonment crisis that needs to be addressed, as there are thousands of Americans still serving jail sentences for non-violent marijuana offenses, and millions with criminal records due to the same, a result of the war on drugs that is creating fundamental injustices, especially for BIPOC.


With federal reform must come the descheduling of cannabis as a narcotic substance, decriminalization, and expungement of prior non-violent cannabis offenders. These matters must be addressed to create trust, fairness, and equity in our industry, which has disproportionally and wrongfully affected BIPOC people for so long.


As the Chair of the US Cannabis Council, I work with many other leading cannabis organizations to build a future of legal access to cannabis delivered through an equitable and values-driven industry that promotes restorative justice for communities harmed by cannabis prohibition.



How is the cannabis industry moving forward after the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?


Although cannabis was deemed essential at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was work to be done to ensure safety guidelines were met in farms, productions, and dispensaries. From curbside pickup to automated training and launching new offerings including a mobile retail product named MJ Retail, advanced data and analytics through MJ Analytics, and a marketing and ecommerce tool called Akerna Connect, we have developed innovative software that supports our clients through much-needed transitions and long-lasting effects of the pandemic.


Recognizing the negative economic impacts of the pandemic, many states and politicians legalized or are working to legalize cannabis. For states, legalizing cannabis brings additional tax revenue and creates jobs. For patients and consumers, legalizing cannabis provides healing remedies.


The cannabis industry has largely proven its resilience throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and continues to grow as we live in this “new normal”.



Share with us some examples of diversity programs by Akerna?


The Last Prisoner Project Donation: We've added a donation functionality into our MJ Platform as a meaningful way that our technology can give consumers the ability to contribute to The Last Prisoner Project, and soon a charity of their choice. Last Prisoner Project focuses on three critical criminal justice reform initiatives: prisoner release, record clearing through clemency and expungement, and reentry programs to ensure that every last victimless cannabis prisoner walks free.


Cannabis Trade Federation (CTF) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force Membership: Comprised of a diverse collection of prominent national minority and cannabis industry leaders, the DEI Task Force is developing an industry-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion policy to be adopted by the full CTF board, which includes Akerna, that will effectively require all CTF member companies to meet specific diversity requirements. The DEI Task Force will also be developing benchmarks and goals to measure our industry's progress and craft policy proposals to incorporate into future legislation.



"It's essential to have an entrepreneurial mindset, business fundamentals and not be scared to fail. There are many ups and downs in any leadership role, and without those characteristics, you will likely struggle."


What excites you about your work in the industry?


My favorite thing about working in cannabis is the reason I entered the market - the plant's proven health and wellness benefits. Although we are not directly talking to the patients who benefit from the medical benefits of the cannabis plant daily, we change their lives by ensuring safety throughout the supply chain, from seed to sale to self. Our technology empowers the cannabis industry to prove outcomes that positively change lives every day.

In addition, I love working in an emerging market. How lucky are we to have this unique opportunity to forge a path in this new industry, making history for years to come?



What are your keys to entrepreneurial success and leadership?


It's essential to have an entrepreneurial mindset, business fundamentals and not be scared to fail. There are many ups and downs in any leadership role, and without those characteristics, you will likely struggle. You need to anticipate the future of every scenario, from the best to the worst cases. It's also important to leverage your connections – networking is invaluable and crucial to success, especially for women. If you don't have relationships, reach out and make them. You have to try.



Akerna

Established in 2019, Akerna (Nasdaq: KERN) is the first cannabis software company to be listed on a major U.S. exchange. Since that time, Akerna has continued to grow and evolve, focusing on key acquisitions of technology companies specifically designed to support the cannabis industry. Through its growing family of brands, Akerna connects data points across the global cannabis supply chain to create one of the world’s most transparent and accountable consumer packaged goods supply chains on a global scale. Akerna believes connected data and information will modernize and propel the cannabis industry forward by increasing the power of businesses, governments, patients, and consumers to make smart decisions.


The cornerstone service offering of the Akerna family is MJ Freeway, the world’s largest, global cannabis software company. Established in 2010, MJ Freeway invented seed–to–sale technology and developed the industry’s first cannabis enterprise software solution, MJ Platform. To date, MJ Freeway has tracked more than $20 billion in legal cannabis sales.


Built on the MJ Platform infrastructure, Akerna’s regulatory compliance arm, Leaf Data Systems is a software solution that enables governments to track cannabis plants from seed-to-sale and ensure patient, public, and product safety.


Over the past 18 months, the Akerna family of brands has continued to grow, with the acquisition of solo sciences, Trellis, Ample Organics, Last Call Analytics, and most recently, Viridian Sciences.


Find out more: www.akerna.com