It’s Friday night, Brian and I sat down to watch a movie at about seven o’clock and we smoked a joint, which we actually hadn’t done in a few months. I don’t even remember what the movie was because as soon as it started my phone buzzed and I was like, “I got to turn that off” but I looked at the email I got and it was from the AGCO saying, “You’ve been selected to participate in the cannabis retail store licence program”. Now, I’m high af at this point so I’m like, “wait….what? Is this a joke? did I just get selected!?”
I hadn’t officially planned to join the legal cannabis industry. Had never officially dreamed of it like many did. A lifelong consumer? Sure I was and proudly. But my day-job was working at the Rotman School of Management and, at 53, I was wearing the “golden handcuffs” and banking on a great pension in 12 years. My brother was working for a large cannabis company and at a family gathering over the 2018 holidays had told us that Premier Doug Ford was opening up cannabis retail to the ‘free market’, and anyone was going to be able to apply for a retail store licence.
We were always fascinated with the goings on in the industry and were like, “cool yeah let us know when it happens.” That was kind of it.
So one morning the week that the lottery was happening, he emailed all of us. I’ve got a bunch of brothers, their wives, my grown nieces and nephews, and he emailed everyone that the retail license lottery was on. It was $75 and here’s the link. So I submitted an application for Brian, and I submitted one for me. $150 into the lottery abyss. It felt like buying a Princess Margaret Hospital Lottery ticket, buy-it and forget-it” unless you get the phone call. I got ready for work as usual and made my way to the subway.
Flash back a few weeks before and I had asked my brother, who’s an award winning marketer, to speak in a Marketing Strategy program at Rotman. The previous week, he was nominated as Marketer of the Year by Strategy Magazine, so I went on Twitter to do some promo for the course, and shared that my brother was lined up to speak in the Rotman program (so ‘sign up now!’). Little did I know that my Twitter page was about to be raided – searched by all these people I didn’t know, and they’re going to immediately make the connection between me being a lottery winner and my brother working in the cannabis industry.
Where was I? Right – the night that changed my life. Shortly after getting the email from the AGCO, and while I was still trying to figure out whether or not it was real, my phone started to blow up. I got what felt like hundreds of emails, social media notifications and text messages within the first few hours. I was completely overwhelmed and I went into full panic mode. In an attempt to anonymize myself, I changed my last name on Facebook to my husband’s without having the chance to tell my close friends. That honestly made things worse because now I had all my friends messaging me about changing my name. I couldn’t breathe.
But here I was getting bombarded by consultants, lawyers, “investors”, cannabis retailers, and random people who wanted to know if I was ‘the Lisa Bigioni who was selected in the lottery’. The AGCO had set a few milestones in the application process, and lots of people knew they were lofty for anyone not familiar with the process (who was?!) to meet.
At the same time cannabis Twitter started dragging my name through the mud. Cannabis activist Jody Emery is tweeting about me. And of course, she had a massive following and everybody is tweeting and retweeting and slagging me online and I’m like, “what is going on? I don’t even know what’s happened here. But all of a sudden all these people hate me.”
One guy said, “If the sister of an executive got picked, then the lottery is fixed. I’m going to Vic Fideli’s house (he was the finance minister for the province) and I’m going to ask him what the hell is going on.” It was really intense. There was an article above-the-fold in The Globe & Mail Report on Business that said, there’s at least one familial connection to the lottery. I was like, “Holy Fuck what is going on?!
What have I done?” I was being cancelled before I had the chance to be…anything!
One of the challenges imposed by the lottery process was needing to have the store open by April 1st, or face a $50,000 fine (more on that later). It was already mid-January and I needed to find a location in the western part of the province—a big swath covering London, Windsor, Niagara, Hamilton. We had to find a landlord willing to rent to cannabis retailers, negotiate a lease, build a store with all the security and regulations considered.
If that wasn’t enough I also needed to stock that store with a shit-ton of very expensive weed that I knew nothing about yet (turns out there’s a lot more to know than it gets you high and giggly) hire a staff, add security to the store and a lot of other blah blah blahs that cost a lot of money. And a final challenge reared its head: banks were not willing to lend to the cannabis industry. That’s right, they wouldn’t lend $1 towards helping me or anyone else build a successful, legal (!) small business.
I didn’t have a ton of time to figure out options, so Brian and I decided we’d consider partnering with an established cannabis retailer to open the store and then when they bought it from us, we’d take that money and do our own thing. In exchange for the use of my licence, they’d foot the bill for the whole shebang. I’d still be the owner (I had to be because it was my licence) but they would have the right to put their name on the store.
The following Monday morning I found out that media people had been calling the University of Toronto looking for me. Unfortunately they started to reach out to another Lisa who had taken over a job I previously held. So people are phoning her saying,” Are you Lisa? Are you the one that won the lottery? Can we have an interview?” She messaged me later that morning “um, did you win a lottery or something, cuz my phone is ringing off the hook.”
The Globe & Mail, the Canadian Press, the CBC, local radio stations – all of these journalists were reaching out to me and the other 24 lottery winners to give interviews. The Rotman School had to put out a bulletin saying if anyone calls asking for Lisa Bigioni, please forward all requests to the communications department. Big, staid, oldest university in Canada and….cannabis? No. They were having none of it. I was mortified! like, “my God this is gotten out of fucking control.”
That first afternoon I’m in my boss’s office and my first offer came in from a prospective retail partner. They were a group from out west that had sold all of their stores, and were now trying to open up in Ontario. I got the first offer and….it was big. I started to cry. I showed my boss my phone and she’s like, “you need to go home and take the week off.”
So I did, and I got to work finding a lawyer, and an accountant. And as I read through that first offer, I realized I knew nothing about contracts and I didn’t really understand what had been proposed. I’ve never felt more stupid in my life. One of my brothers works in construction and works with contracts regularly so I wrangle him into the fray.
Throughout that first week my stress level was through the roof. I was getting two hours of sleep a night, I was fielding all these calls and questions I had no idea how to deal with. I was trying to negotiate at levels I had never negotiated before. I was spinning in circles. The first thing that the AGCO required was that you had to have a signed letter of credit for $50K from a schedule 1 or schedule 2 bank by the following Friday (narrator: she had to google what a schedule 1 and schedule 2 bank were). So we had a week to get that. I think to myself, we own a home and we have a home equity line of credit that we could draw the 50K from, so that’s not a problem. (Narrator again: it was a problem.)
One of the other lottery winners called me on Monday night and asked if I had my letter of credit yet? This is the first day any of us could have tried. And I said, No, I’m just gonna go to the bank tomorrow but I have a home equity line of credit so I’m not worried. He said, “None of the banks are giving letters, nobody can get this letter of credit. It’s a huge problem.”
So, I go to my bank first thing Tuesday morning and they have no idea what I’m talking about. They’ll call me back. I speak to another bank I’ve been told is ‘cannabis friendly’ and they have no idea what I’m talking about. They’ll call me back. I don’t have time for call backs. A friend knows someone at BMO and that friend puts me in touch with an executive there who was ‘in charge of the cannabis file’. So now it’s Tuesday, and they’ve scheduled a meeting for me to meet this VP for Wednesday morning. Remember I need the letter for Friday or I get disqualified by the AGCO – and I’ve already paid retainers to a lawyer and an accountant.
On Wednesday I go to an office on a super high floor of some big ass office building. And remember, I haven’t slept in days and I am frazzled. I would put my head on the pillow and then I’d pop back up to take notes or send emails, or stress about something that I’d forgotten about. I was so stressed out. So we go to this meeting and this VP of blah, blah, blah brings a team of three other people into the room.
He says, “okay, so we found out that the AGCO doesn’t actually need the letter by Friday. They just need confirmation that the letter is in process because, by the way, we can’t give you the letter this week. It takes at least three weeks for us to do the anti-money laundering due diligence. And I’m like, “that’s what the AGCO told you? Do you have that in writing?” He says, “I have an email from my colleague, who said the AGCO said they just need confirmation the letter of credit is in process.”
“Do you fucking think that I’m going to believe you – some random dude who says he has an email from another random dude and not from the AGCO directly?! Are you fucking kidding me?” Apologies for the language but I kind of lost it on him. He was wasting time I didn’t have, and he’s got 3 people in the room trying to learn from me. Sorry but I’m not here to educate you guys on the process. I need a letter of credit STAT.
Eventually I was able to get the letter from the only bank that was offering them (actually a credit union that was backed by a schedule 2 bank) and they ended up working with all 25 lottery winners. The writing between the lines here is that the AGCO imposed a condition on the lottery that was almost impossible to meet. There was literally ONE bank that could do it. But banking was only the first of many hurdles I had to jump over, and only one of the ridiculous challenges imposed by the AGCO. From application fees to professional fees, I had committed about $80k within the first 2 weeks into a virtual unknown opportunity and so far, I was seriously questioning whether or not it was worth it.
This was the most stressful process I have been through my entire life and I didn’t know if I could do it. For two and a half months I cried at least seven times a day (seriously, ask Brian). For the first three weeks I was running on two hours sleep a night. I was so stressed out at the prospect of being disqualified and losing all of this money for pursuing this opportunity on a whim. And everyone would know if I screwed it up cuz my name was splattered all across the fucking country!
This story’s getting long now, but it ain’t over. I’ll follow up another time with some details on needing to find, negotiate and sign a lease the following week, and partnering up with a big brand from B.C. and the chaos that ensued. But as crazy as those first few months were, I’m incredibly lucky to have won the lottery that changed my life in so many ways. I have choice words for those that made the process way more difficult than it needed to be, but overall I look at what the lottery has done for Brian and me, and what Stok’d has become and I wouldn’t change that for the world.