Cannabis entrepreneur Audrey Wong talks industry hardships
As an Asian-Canadian woman, Audrey Wong feels lonely in the cannabis industry. “It is very much dominated by white men and a lot of legacy players as well,” say the founder of Zyre.
Since we last spoke in 2022, Wong’s vape brand has gone from selling to one shop in B.C. to 143. But as a former lawyer with big business experience (she used to be an executive at the BC Liquor Distribution Branch and also served as VP of multinational company Aurora Cannabis), the way she interacts in business is different from the usual suspects in cannabis, who, according to her, are white and come with some black market experience.
So now she feels like the things she previously regarded as “normal” are actually things that she took for granted. “By all accounts, I am an upstanding, credible person. Yet every step you take, you are treated like a criminal,” she maintains.
Despite her expertise in provincial distribution, Wong has been denied bank accounts and continues to fight the stoner stigma prevalent in the Asian community. But she says it was still fundamentally easier for her than most newcomers.
Normally an entrepreneur in this industry would need to build what Wong calls the “four walls” to get a cannabis license that meets Health Canada’s requirements. The barriers to entry are high, the system demands a lot of time, energy and capital, and Wong isn’t sure that the right skills are learned in the process. “What you actually need to do when you get to market is really excel in product, sales and marketing,” she adds, noting that she was shocked by how many people say, “the product will sell itself.” There’s no such thing, according to her.
Coming from alcohol distribution, Wong understood the industry regulations, she was familiar with the taxes and she knew that she would have to go through multiple layers to be able sell her product. So instead of taking the four walls approach where she would need to spend a ton on “construction and applications,” she decided to partner with existing companies who already have a license to sell in the market.
Expectedly, this model comes with a lot of back-end headaches. “It puts companies like mine at risk,” she says. “This [third party] becomes the owner on record when I sell a product—they're the ones selling it to the province, so the province pays them.” Cash flow is extremely volatile in the cannabis market, as Wong puts it, so the timeline of how the money comes back to her is longer than most can afford. On top of that, she takes the risk that maybe the third party isn’t going to pay her. What then?
Trust is tricky business and Wong questions whether the model that the industry promotes is even profitable. “My burn is strong,” she admits, adding that, unfortunately, a lot of people go in without the right numbers.“The government is taking 47 percent of [the retail price] before I even account for my costs.”
But she also notes that laws are evolving and that the government is “open to conversations,” which is good, no matter how difficult it can be to work with them. In navigating her own business, Wong finds greater meaning in working with partners she resonates with, which usually include BIPOC women and people in her age group (even if they're rare to find).
She also sees a lot of potential for newcomers. “There absolutely are challenges that go in cannabis, but a lot of them coincide with just being an entrepreneur, period,” she says. “Getting to be in a new industry, if you arm yourself with the right knowledge to preface it, there’s also that great opportunity to be a change maker. And that's why I found myself in it.”