Sakara Barnes is not your typical cultivator. The New York native is quick to admit that her success in the cannabis field is not due to her green thumb, but rather, to her gift for moving large quantities of weed.
Barnes currently runs Four Twenty distribution and Mother Exotic Flower (MEF) in California. The two businesses combine to form a powerful operation that specializes in premium flower that is white-labeled and delivered with partners like Australian brand Stoned Apes, and delivery service See Canna. MEF also anticipates working with Cookies, Seed Junky genetics, and Backpack Boyz in the near future.
Now that Barnes is reaping the rewards of legalization, it’s easy to assume that it all came easy. But despite her recent success, Barnes recalls her Purple Haze days in 2000s NYC with fondness and gratitude. Before zaza was in wide supply, she risked making illicit sales to provide the plant to others and herself, both in New York and California.
To learn how she grew her empire from the ground up, Leafly caught up with Barnes to discuss her journey, to experience her brand, and to gather game for aspiring “en·trAp•re·neurs,” Barnes’ self-assigned title in her Instagram bio that celebrates her journey from illicit trapping to the trappings of legitimate success.
For those hoping to carve a similar path into the legal cannabis industry, here’s a free zip of Sakara’s dankest game, direct from the source’s mouth. The hustle is sold separately, though.
1. Pro Tip: Deliver a lasting experience
In early October, Sakara invited Leafly to a relaxing SoCal beach rendezvous. The elegant Mother Exotic Flower (MEF) Smoke session went up at California’s famed Dockweiler Beach. The invite-only event was the kind of Sunday kickback every cannaseur dreams of. From accessories to ambiance to the three-course menu, the attention to detail was stunning.
Barnes understands that cannabis products can only offer a temporary experience. After the cultivation and production process, the goods disappear in seconds. So, the moments customers experience right before, during, and after they spark up carry a lot of weight in future shopping decisions.
Mother Exotic highlights Sakara’s gift for curating experiences that people can hold on to long after the smoke has cleared. When the flower is gone, customers have both mental and physical keepsakes that will keep them connected to MEF forever.
To stand out in California’s surplus of high-THC Zaza, Mother Exotic stands apart by weaving bold terpene profiles and touch points into an unforgettable sensory journey. From the fluffy nugs of MEF flower to the plush pillows and live grooves from the deejay, the experience was a vibe.
2. Data is a seed for future sales
Barnes and MEF didn’t just use the beach sesh to connect with fans and influencers. The event also collected consumer feedback on the brand’s latest line of strains.
“With our new genetics, I wanted people to give me that feedback,” Barnes said. “I wanted to do it structured, like, ‘His gave me this feeling, like a Leafly review.’” Ultimately, she kept things informal, while collecting data points here and there.
Attendees got to try new Mother Exotic strains like Kimmy, G41x, and Rainbow Sherbert while watching the sun set, munching on gourmet hors d’oeuvres, and indulging in exquisite desserts.
3. ‘Yes we can-nabis!’
Barnes’ advocacy for the plant started back when Barack Obama took office: “In 2008, 2009, I was in college,” she recalls. “Around that time he got inaugurated, I started trying to sell.”
In 2009, medical cannabis was only legal in 15 states. It wouldn’t be until 2012 that Colorado became the first state to legalize adult-use. She modestly served fellow students in her dorm, but was more interested in the possibilities of legalization.
“I was trying to make a little movement, but I didn’t really put too much traction into it,” Barnes said.
4. Remember your roots
Barnes’ passion for the plant dates back to her earliest days of consumption. Classic cultivars like Purple Haze still hold a special place in her heart.
“When I was in high school and I was really smoking, Purple Haze was the thing. We were rolling up in dollar Dutches. Getting bud in that era was: Call your homeboy, call the local dealer, and get a dime bag or a dub or something like that [laughs]. That’s what we used to do!”
5. Find your lane and network, network, network
In 2017, Barnes met someone who told her: “You could work for me.” That conversation led to her first dispensary job.
“I moved to California around 2016. And I knew what I wanted to do: Grow weed. One of my homegirls got me one of the medical cards because she used to work downtown. It was a little paper that said I could grow cannabis. Back then, that was like your license, you could grow up to 99 plants of weed. So I did that, and I was using that license to start bigger conversations. Like, ‘Listen, we could grow up to 99 plants.’”
Barnes used the license as a networking tool. It started conversations and opened doors that would have otherwise been closed.
6. Learn on the job
Barnes recalls that at that time, people in the store “were really going crazy for Green Crack. The experience was her first stepping stone into the legal game.”
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7. A license is key
Getting licensed is the first step for any entrepreneur hoping to go from illicit to legitimate, Barnes advises aspiring business owner. Barnes has three major grow and distributor licenses that position her to compete with the cannabis big leagues. MEF is currently available in Backpack Boyz’ Cana Harbor dispensaries, and is coming soon to Cookies stores. She is also in the QTBIPOC-owned and curated shop, Green Qween, and Trees of Echo Park.
8. Great partners are hard to find
Shortly after moving to California, Barnes found the plug of all plugs, who became a de facto cannabis growing mentor. Her new connection started blessing her with pounds of green, which Sakara then sold to local dispensaries.
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9. Dust yourself off and try again
After learning that she didn’t love getting her hands dirty as a cultivator, Barnes bounced back to what came more naturally to her: moving units. Instead of trying to become a master grower like her partner, she filled a more pressing need, which was getting the product to stores in what was still uncharted territory.
“She would just give me product that she grew on her farm. And I would go to the dispensaries, I would call a bunch of people on WeedMaps, and I’d sell her product.”
It was a match made in heaven, and Barnes’ first big financial break.
10. Invest in innovation
Simply spending and saving will never lead to financial prosperity. Investing is the only way to grow. Sakara applied this principle early, wasting no time in taking the next steps in her professional development.
11. Educate yourself
Of all the kernels of wisdom that Barnes shared with us, this is the gem she treasures the most: “Stay educated,” she told Leafly over the phone this week. “Stay on top of your local and state politics and be involved.”
In a highly regulated industry, Barnes suggests that entrepreneurs educate themselves and read up on laws. Staying aware of one’s surroundings and reaching out to local leaders is key.
12. Showing up makes all the difference
“Go to the town hall meetings, because sometimes there’s some people there. You’ll be the only one in the room and you can make a change by just attending those meetings.”
13. Seek mentorship
Even as you figure stuff out, there’s always more to learn. And instead of taking advice from friends or family, you can scout out role models who you admire and hope to learn from. For Barnes, that person was Kathy Smith.
“Kathy Smith was one of the first Black women to get a pre-ICO license. That’s before California went recreational. It was unheard of. She was helping a lot of people apply for licenses and connecting them with social equity partners.”
Smith helped Barnes connect with local women who qualified for licenses and helped her secure a building for her first business.
14. Claim your place
Imposter syndrome can be tough to shake. But simply accepting yourself is the first step. If you’re ever unsure of your place in this rapidly-changing industry, take a deep breath and remind yourself of all that you overcame to get here.
15. Pick your battles
With the industry growing rapidly, Barnes is focused on positioning her business for long-term prosperity. So while her day-to-day choices for Mother Exotic Flower are in her full control from seed to sale, much of her job is about serving clients and partners who count on her Four Twenty LLC to source and deliver products on their terms.
16. White labeling is lit
“White labeling really goes back to my branding and my marketing days. I love that aspect of business. It’s giving people the opportunity to be in the cannabis business without having to be involved in the growing process, the curing process, the legalities of everything. We’re just allowing people to source flower whether it’s high-end or not. You might just want a classic Blue Dream or something. We can source these things for you. Then package it up with your brand and get you into stores. So that allows people to really get into the business without having to be so heavily involved on the back end.”
17. A great team will take you places
Barnes’ current partners at Four Twenty LLC include Jerrhonda Holman. According to Barnes, “she was born and raised in Compton and is a self-made multi-millionaire.” Sakara also works with the Garcia brothers, Alan and Andrew, who help her keep up operations. Marketing and branding powerhouse Zenova King is also an essential part of the team.
18. Start from the bottom
Stay involved, but not entitled. Barnes advised.
“Talk to people, as many people as possible. Get in the fields,” she said. “Learn from the bottom of whatever sector of the industry you wanna get in. And stick to it. It’s not gonna be easy. But if this is a passion, it will turn around at some point. I’m very confident in that.”
19. Brace for the blows
The weed industry isn’t all about blowing smoke and catching vibes. Sometimes, you will absorb real hits to your bank account, pride, and ego.
20. Manifest your dreams
Sakara is a big believer in the power of manifestation. Sure, you won’t magically get what you want just by speaking it into existence. But speaking your thoughts into reality with intention is one of the first steps to purpose-filled action. Journaling, brainstorming with friends, and striking up new conversations are all ways to take your destiny into your own hands.
21. Know your history
Barnes routinely posts historical figures and facts on her social media. Whether she is honoring civil rights leaders like Marcus Garvey and Dr. Martin Luther King, or her own family and friends, she makes it a point to never forget where she comes from, so that she always knows where she’s going next.
22. Your next muse could lurking be anywhere
Catching Barnes’ eye is no small feat. Her inspiration can be sparked by artists like fellow New Yorkers Jean Michel-Basquiat, Sean Combs, and Shawn “JAY-Z” Carter, all of whom she honors on her Instagram grid. She is also moved by obscure pieces like Nathan Sawaya’s Lego-mold of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. These slices of life combine with her own melting pot of personal experience to inspire new product offerings and customer experiences for herself and her partners.
23. Share the knowledge
“I am consulting other people on how to get their licenses, and how to maintain their companies. I literally built this company from the bottom, redoing my entire building on my own, learning every aspect of the business. So I wanna be able to help other people do those things with the knowledge I’ve gained.”
24. Plan bigger
Now that she’s secured a California operation, Barnes is already planning to expand to more states, and eventually more countries.
25. Know when to hold on…
Even if she let a chunk of her business go to the highest bidder, one day, Barnes still plans to keep her brain child under her control.
“I’m gonna keep the brand Mother Exotic Flower, because I love doing it. It is our first in-house brand and it’s mine,” she explained.
She plans to be a multi-state (and hopefully multinational) owner for the rest of her life. But cultivation in California is getting too cut-throat for her taste.
“I’m definitely gonna sell that and, and move on to other states with Mother Exotic,” she said.
26. Know when to let go
“As for my cultivation business and license, I’m going to build it up more and sell it. I’m definitely more of a brand marketing girl. So I’m gonna be in the business for a long time, just not this part of it on such a large scale.”
27. Go do it—Now!
Sakara lives by advice that she once grabbed from a fortune cookie: “Some people never have anything except ideas. Go do it.”
Whether she’s moving across the country to pursue a cannabis career, or going all-in for a license with her early profits, Barnes is the living embodiment of a go-getter. In an industry this young and promising, the sky’s the limit for her and those cut from the same cloth.
28. Have an exit plan to look forward to
Even though she plans to stay in legal cannabis for life, Barnes can still picture a day when she slows down her nonstop grind and changes pace.