The CEO of Viola is working to change the game in a $25 billion industry where just 2% of business owners are people of color.
Iin the late 1980sWhen Al Harrington was nine years old, getting searched for drugs by police in Orange, New Jersey was routine. Most school day afternoons, after Harrington and his friends played kickball, they would hang outside the bodega on the corner of Tremont Avenue and Scotland Road. “All the time, the police would pull up, three or four cars, and they’d jump out, hands on their guns: ‘Everybody against the wall,’” the 42-year-old Harrington remembers. “It was scary—not knowing if they’re going to lock you up.”
Three decades later, on a sunny California afternoon in April, the former NBA star who stands 6-foot-9 and is wearing a fresh pair of Nike Air Jordan 1s, size 16, is a long way from the urban landscape where he was raised . While sitting in a private hangar at the Santa Monica Airport, where Harrison Ford used to store his plans, Harrington talks about his journey from playing 16 seasons in the NBA to becoming one of the few Black CEOs in the legit cannabis industry.
In 2012, as Harrington’s basketball career was coming to an end—he was a power forward for the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, Denver Nuggets who earned nearly $100 million over the course of his career—he co-founded Viola, a Los Angeles -based cannabis company named after his grandmother. Viola grows, processes, and sells all types of pot products, from flower to concentrates to pre-rolled joints. Harrington now has operations in California, Colorado, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington, and generated about $20 million in revenue last year. In 2021, NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson joined the company and Viola launched the “Iverson Collection” line of marijuana products. Just as making it to the NBA is the longest of long shots, Harrington is a rarity in the cannabis world. In an industry that generated $25 billion in legal sales last year, only 2% of companies are Black-owned.
“That is an issue,” says Harrington, who pulled up to the airport in a white Rolls-Royce Cullinan wearing a Rolex President watch and a gold chain with a bust of his grandmother around his neck. “How can [the policing of] this drug have done so much harm in our communities,” he asks, “and now is a multibillion-dollar industry and not only are we not in position to participate, but we’re still locked up because of it?”
In January, Viola raised $13 million from investors to expand to Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The company also plans to open two dispensaries and a cultivation site in St. Louis later this year and Harrington is working on a deal to license Viola in Jamaica. (He already inked a licensing deal to bring the brand to Canada last year.) In total, Viola has raised $34 million and is valued over $100 million. Harrington invested $6 million himself and owns about 40% of the company. Other investors include some of “his guys from him” from the NBA, including Ben Gordon, JR Smith, Kenyon Martin, Josh Childress, and DeMarcus Cousins.
But selling weed is only part of Viola’s mission. Harrington’s main goal is to help Black and Brown entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry build equity in one of America’s fastest-growing economies. Today, cannabis is legal in some form in 37 states. By 2030 the industry is expected to generate $65 billion in annual sales, up 160% in a little less than a decade. “The opportunities in our communities need to be owned by us—period,” Harrington says.
Through Viola, Harrington is trying to right some of the wrongs caused by America’s drug war, one entrepreneur at a time. Like a one-man Y Combinator for cannabis, he is pursuing a plan to create 100 Black cannabis millionaires. A million dollars might sound like small potatoes, but in the context of this industry, particularly for small business owners, it’s a lot of money. Harrington has already helped mint a handful.
Viola launched its incubator program two years ago. The company has since invested around $700,000 into four companies, including Mezz, a vape and pre-roll company in Colorado and Los Angeles-based Butter Baby, which makes THC-infused butter to use in baking things like brownies. Harrington takes between a 10% to 25% stake in exchange for help with marketing and fundraising. He doesn’t invest in ideas, rather he buys into companies that are already up and running.
The most successful story to emerge from his incubator is the hemp company Gold Standard Farms, which minted one of Harrington’s first cannabis millionaires. Based in Martin, Tennessee, Gold Standard was founded in 1941 when current CEO Jarrel Howard’s great-grandfather bought 40 acres of land after saving up $3,000 over 10 years. Howard’s great-grandfather was a sharecropper in Mississippi, whose ancestors were slaves. Gold Standard grew soybeans, corn and other crops. But in 2018, the price of soy crashed, and the family had to change course. That same year, the federal government legalized industrial hemp and Howard pitched the board of directors—all family members—to plant the cannabis cousin instead. The economics were a no-brainer: soy and corn harvest at $600 an acre, while hemp, which is non-psychoactive but contains CBD, could fetch $10,000 an acre.
Howard got the green light, but the family board said he needed a mentor. Having heard about Viola, he reached out to Harrington on LinkedIn after he planted his first crop but got no response. For 18 months, Howard continued crossing different strains until he came up with one he thought would appeal to Harrington, a vibrant purple flower like the color of Viola’s logo. He sent a picture to Harrington, who responded immediately and asked for a sample. “I won’t ever forget,” Harrington says, “he felt me some hemp and it was literally dead purple.”
Harrington told Howard about his goal to make 100 millionaires and asked if he was interested in joining the incubator program. Howard’s board said they would only agree if Harrington came down and “put his hands in the soil,” says Howard. “I did, and I’m forever thankful. That was probably one of the defining moments that’s going to change the course of my family’s history for another 80 years.”
The transformation of the Gold Standard cannot be understated: Before hemp was introduced, the farm generated around $50,000 at harvest. This year, Howard expects to bring in $3 million in revenue. Harrington helped Howard find a new revenue stream by negotiating a contract to produce an Australian company’s eco-friendly hemp-based building materials. Harrington is also helping Howard to build an indoor growing facility to increase production.
Back in Los Angeles, Harrington invested about $1 million to help social equity applicants obtain licenses to operate cannabis dispensaries. Out of 70 applicants, Harrington felt 36 had the chops to run a business. Of those 36, eight were able to secure real estate (a potential dispensary must rent a storefront before getting a license). And among those eight, only four made it through the license vetting process, but only two have been issued licenses throughout the two-year period.
But the steep climb to attain a license also showed Harrington another path for creating cannabis wealth. The inherent value of a license to grow, sell, manufacture, distribute or sell cannabis is best thought of like a seat on the old New York Stock Exchange. Owning a license can make you an instant millionaire. So through his other company, Village LLC, Harrington applies for cannabis licenses across the country by partnering with local entrepreneurs. When Missouri was getting ready to launch its medical marijuana program in 2018, Abe Givins, a St. Louis native who started working with Viola in Colorado, told Harrington they should apply. Viola won a vertically integrated license, which Givins owns outright with his cousin and former NBA star Larry Hughes.
Despite Harrington’s success, the past still haunts him. In 2018, Detroit police raided his legal business, seizing crops, equipment, arresting employees, and freezing bank accounts. The location was closed for two-and-a-half years, costing the company millions. (All charges were eventually dropped.) “Even now, we worry about being killed by the police,” he says. “The fear, it lingers. I’m 42 years old, a multimillionaire, I live in nice houses, nice cars, everything—but I’m still I’m scared. I don’t know how it’s going to end up.”
But Harrington knows how his foray in cannabis started—and that also motivates him. I didn’t grow up smoking weed. Then in 2011, when he was playing for the Denver Nuggets, his grandmother de el Viola, then a Bible-thumping 79-year-old Southerner, came to see him play. She arrived with a “pharmacy” of pills to treat her glaucoma and diabetes. Harrington said that he had read about the potential medical benefits of marijuana and learned how cannabis could help her eyesight from her. “’What is cannabis,’ she asked me,” Harrington recalls. “‘Marijuana; weed,’ I said. She looked at me: ‘Reefer? Boy, you out of your mind if you think I’m about to smoke reefer.’”
The next day, his grandmother was in so much pain that she relented. Harrington’s friend brought over some bud and a vaporizer, and she took a few hits. A little while later, Viola was sitting in a chair, reading her Bible from her. “She’s crying tears and she said, ‘I’m healed. I haven’t been able to read the words in my Bible for over three years,’” Harrington says.
The following year, Harrington and a friend, Dan Pettigrew, started legally growing medical marijuana in Denver as part of a small, state-sanctioned pilot program. The two began selling cannabis to about eight patients with conditions like cancer.
But what really drives Harrington is trying to right the wrongs of the war on drugs. Black Americans are almost four times more likely to get arrested for marijuana compared with white people, even though usage rates are similar. “It was a setup, and it was a way to continue to push slavery,” says Harrington. The remedy? Give Black people the opportunity to profit from the substance that for decades helped subjugate them.
“It’s about generational wealth,” he continues. “These licenses can be anywhere from $3 million to $5 million, even more than that depending on the location. And for people who never made more than $30,000 in a year, that’s life-changing money with a life-changing opportunity.”
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