Former NBA basketball star Al Harrington has been relentlessly working in the community to foster awareness around social equity and provide initiatives for marginalized communities through his cannabis company VIOLA. Since the inception of COVID-19, the cannabis industry has quickly expanded; as vulnerable communities rush to find alternative methods to the disproportionate healthcare system, the cannabis industry has been a source of support. VIOLA launched a recent collaboration with AKOO Clothing, owned by rapper and entrepreneur Tip Harris, on April 20. Proceeds of the capsule’s launch have been donated to the Root and Rebound’s COVID-19 Relief effort, an initiative to give back to the families affected by incarceration and injustice.
VIOLA was created after Al’s grandmother was suffering from a long history of glaucoma and diabetes. During his contract to play for the Denver Nuggets, Al was immersed into a culture that was evolving quickly around him – the culture of cannabis for medicinal use. Before his introduction to the medicinal uses of cannabis the only knowledge Harrington possessed was of the stereotypes of marijuana and the harsh realities that affect Black Americans surrounding the plant. Time unfolded and he learned more about the benefits of cannabis, ultimately using his education to help his beloved grandmother. Upon her healing he became inspired to help others with similar medical issues and expand his reach into the Black community.
“Our product is high quality and we make product that we can stand behind. I always say that if it’s good enough for my grandmother to use, it’s good for anyone to use. We take pride In what we’re producing.”
Today, VIOLA, named after his grandmother, has evolved into a lifestyle brand that serves a wide demographic spectrum. According to Harrington, VIOLA’s goal is to serve everyone and educate the masses on the benefits that cannabis holds. Their three pillars of motivation – diversity, inclusion, and ownership – are the foundation for cultivating a lifestyle brand that educates on the benefits of cannabis, promotes ownership by encouraging young people of color to get involved, and upholds an intention of diversity by hiring Black women into executive roles.
Earlier this year, VIOLA extended itself by launching VIOLA Cares, a social equity initiative that focuses on assisting formerly incarcerated individuals with the re-entry process. The company partnered with Root and Rebound, an Oakland-based organization whose mission is to restore power and resources to the families and communities most harmed by mass incarceration, to create a first-of-its-kind toolkit for those re-entering society after a cannabis conviction. Harrington’s goals with VIOLA Cares is to give back to the community by providing job-placement support, record expungement, and living assistance.
“I’m a firm believer of not reinventing the wheel. If you could find people or companies who match up to your ethos and things you feel are important, it’s better to join them than beat them. We were able to do a great partnership with them to focus on re-entry.”
Re-entry for those affected by the justice system is not only a high barrier, but an institutionalized wall. Drug charges on records inhibit impacted people from acquiring jobs, business loans, or even acceptance to housing. VIOLA Cares’ ultimate goal is to turn the struggles of marginalized families affected by the justice system into an opportunity; by exposing re-entrants to opportunities in the cannabis industry, VIOLA Cares is able to place them where they can thrive.
“I look at the way this industry is blowing up, there is not enough representation- people who look like me- in the room. We’ve been getting locked up for the last 90 years and now it’s a booming industry. We’re still locked up. People still have drug charges on their records where they can’t get a decent job because of the war on drugs. We wanted to create VC to give back and take money to help people to get back into society.”
VIOLA Cares’ social equity program also helps people get licensing to begin their cannabis business. Just recently, VC took 38 applicants through a preapproval process in Los Angeles; however, California law is that before you own and operate a cannabis business, you are required to have land — an actual building to put your dispensary or cultivation or delivery company in. For those re-entering society, this is a systemic challenge. By partnering with VIOLA Cares, applicants are able to provide a source of backing for their business that will assist with accounting, stocking the shelves, and back-end operational work that will help to align them for success. Harrington’s social equity initiative has already spent $500,000 in the process and strives to mold the next millionaires in the industry. They are currently waiting to hear back from California’s decision making.
When asked where Mr. Harrington sees VIOLA and VIOLA Cares in five years, he sees his company as one of the premiere brands in the country creating thousands of jobs for people of color, spearheading as a platform for millionaires through ownership principles, and educating the Black community about the benefits of cannabis and the opportunities within the booming cannabis industry. The drive Al had to help heal his grandmother is now becoming a safe haven for families and communities alike.