Marijuana MBA? USC Business School Weighs In On Legalization

Share this story:

Now that several states have legalized recreational cannabis, it’s an officially legit career path for anyone over the age of 21. But like… do you need go to college to become a grower, start your own dispensaries, or sell a line of edibles?

Youth Radio’s Noel Anaya sat down with USC Marshall School of Business’s Mark Brostoff, assistant dean and director of the graduate career services office, and Anthony Dukes, professor of marketing, to ask how they would advise a future cannabis entrepreneur.

The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.

NOEL ANAYA: Let’s say a young person wants to go into the cannabis industry after they turn 21. How do you get into something that until so recently was illicit?

MARK BROSTOFF: Every aspect of business — whether it’s marketing, finance strategy, internal consulting, or operations — is transferable to the cannabis industry. I could see entry points as including private equity and venture capital. Taking a marketing class at USC, you would learn to harness profitability from existing markets.


How do you navigate the ethical grey areas — after all, while this is legal in some states, it is still illegal under federal law..

BROSTOFF: I think one’s personal ethics always comes into play when it comes to a job search and an acceptance. I don’t think that it would be too different than if a student were offered an internship or job at one of the big wineries or alcohol distributors. Also, not everyone in the cannabis industry are users of cannabis. I think it’s important to separate out the user end, and the purchaser end.

ANTHONY DUKES: From a marketing perspective and from a brand image point of view, it might be useful also to look at the alcohol industry or even the cigarette industry. [For example] the alcohol industry very carefully emphasizes as an industry that we should enjoy this product responsibly.


Can you in really simple terms explain how the money works in this business? Is traditional banking not available to these businesses? Or does California’s legalization make it a non-issue?

BROSTOFF: There is no doubt that [lack of access to] banking can hold back a very eager entrepreneur. It’s a matter of whether the federal government is going to crack down or not. Obviously that’s an unknown question. So there’s a risk associated with any investment and just take for example the wildfires that destroyed acres of marijuana in Northern California with no insurance — [at that point in time] you could not get an insurance policy on a marijuana crop. So you have to have a pretty high tolerance for risk in this industry.


Are some parts of the industry riskier than others, from a business standpoint?

BROSTOFF: When you look at [grow operations], they may have more difficulty because they’re producing a crop that that is illegal at the federal level, and there’s implications from that end. But a brick and mortar shop that is selling [cannabis products] but not growing is operating as a legitimate business with a business license — you’re a legal entity in the state of California collecting tax and paying taxes. I think the growers have greater [risk] exposure.


What would you say if and when one of your advisees says they want to go into this industry?

DUKES: If there’s a young budding entrepreneur looking at the cannabis industry, my advice from a career standpoint would be to assess whether or not you want to take any personal risks. The opportunity to gain work experience is tremendous because it is so new. But we don’t know 10 years from now how that will look on someone’s resume. I suspect that in California that may not be a problem, but it may be a problem going into a state where marijuana is not legal.

BROSTOFF: From a career services standpoint, I would coach students to at least recognize that in the short term it could be great experience. But in the long term, we don’t know whether or not that resume item will will help or or detract you from career advancement.

Listen Now